Sites to see while in Paris, Part 1: the Palace of Versailles, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower

Ron Current
Having an Espresso at the original bistro on butte Montmartre

There are hundreds, no thousands, of sites to see and visit while in Paris France; and it would take multiple trips just to scratch the surface on what this city of light has to offer. In this post I’ll cover three of Paris’s most popular and well known sites: the Palace of Versailles, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame and the Eiffel Tower. As with all of my postings, I’ll also present some of the fascinating histories of each of these three locations.

This goes along with two of my previous posts: Claude Monet’s Gardens and House at Giverny and Three Stories of Heroes of Normandy. These are all of my reflections and experiences during my visit to Paris in 2018.

Eiffel’s Tower

The Eiffel Tower at Night
Originally the tower was lit by candles, but today its set aglow by projected lighting from inside the tower. Also, starting a 7 p.m., the tower sparkles every hour on the hour.
Photo by author

So identified is the Eiffel Tower with the City of Paris, that you can’t think of one without thinking of the other. But interestingly, that iconic structure may never have been built.

Eiffel’s tower under construction in 1888.
Photo from Wikipedia

The story of Gustave Eiffel’s Tower goes back to France’s preparation to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. To highlight this event to the world, they organized an “Exposition Universelle,” or world’s fair, to be held in Paris from May 6th to October 31st in 1889.

The organizers of the exposition wanted a grand structure to be the entryway into the fair’s grounds. A committee was named to consider the many proposals that were submitted. After much debate, the committee narrowed it down to two ideas: a giant Guillotine and Gustave Eiffel’s Tower. We should be so glad that the committee chose to go with Eiffel’s tower, rather than the other.

Eiffel’s perfect supportive grid work.
Photo by author

Although it was Gustave Eiffel’s company that did the engineering and construction, the tower’s design was actually a collaboration. It was Maurice Koechlin and Emile Nouguier (two of Eiffel’s senior engineers), along with Stephen Sauvestre (the head of the company’s architectural department) that developed the final design. These gentlemen also stated that part of their inspiration came from New York City’s Latting Observatory.

But not everyone was open to Eiffel’s tower, with groups of vocal protesters signing petitions against its construction. In answer to these protestors Gustave Eiffel used the Pyramids in Egypt:

“My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?”

The Parc du Champ de Mars (Mars Field) seen from the tower’s second level.
Photo by author

After the tower was finished most of the protestors had a change of mind, but not all. It’s said that Parisian, Guy de Maupassant ate lunch at the towers restaurant every day, because it was the only place in Paris that he didn’t have to look at it.

Construction on the Eiffel Tower began in 1887, and completed in 1889. Reaching a height of 1,063 feet, it became the tallest structure in Paris. In addition, the Eiffel Tower would hold the record as the tallest man-made structure in the world until the Chrysler Building in New York City opened forty-one years later.

The Paris skyline from the tower’s second level. The Basilica of Montmartre, also known as Sacre-Coeur can be seen in background center.
Photo by author

When you visit the Eiffel Tower I highly recommend taking an organized tour; you get to skip the extremely long lines. Being one of the most popular places to visit in the world, the tower has operated at its maximum capacity of 7 million visitors since 2003. Also most tours will get you to the second level platform (at a height of 376 feet). From there you can clearly see the Paris skyline for miles around. Also from the second level you can, for an additional fee, take an elevator to its top platform at 906 feet.

The 540 ft Eiffel Tower replica at the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas Nevada. Although only a little less than half as tall as the original, this Eiffel Tower is still the eighth tallest observation structure in the United States,
Photo by author

Besides his Tower, Gustave Eiffel also did the engineering and construction of the framework inside the Statue of Liberty.

If you can’t get to Paris, there are four replicas of the Eiffel Tower you can see in the United States: the Paris Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas (at 540 feet), the Kings Island and Kings Dominion Amusement Parks (at 332 feet each), and in Paris Texas (at 66 feet).

The Palace of Versailles

The courtyard with the recently re-gilded gold trim.
Photo by author

For centuries the Village of Versailles had been a favorite hunting spot for the French royalty. King Louis XIII had developed such a love for the quietness of this little village, that in 1623 he built a modest two story hunting lodge there. By 1631 he had bought up most of the surrounding lands, and expanded the simple hunting lodge into a large chateau.

An engraving of King Louis XIII simple lodge, the Chateau de Versailles.
Art from Wikipedia

One of the most visited sites in Paris is the fabulous, gold gilded, Palace of Versailles. The palace gets its name from the French village, Versailles, where it’s located. Today, it’s but a short twelve mile drive from central Paris, but in the 1600s it was far out in the country from the city.

The official royal residence at that time was the Louvre Palace in central Paris. Louis’s son, and future King Louis XIV, hardly ever visited his father’s chateau in the country. If fact it wasn’t until he was twelve years old that he first visited; preferring to spend his time in Paris. However, after he became king he also developed a love for the place. It was under Louis XIV’s direction that the chateau became the palace we see today.

This model of the Palace at the Palace of Versailles shows the extensive expansions made by King Louis XIV. Not all of the buildings have been restored as yet.
Photo by author

From 1661-1678, King Louis XIV would add two new wings for the servants and a kitchen. Then he added three more wings and gardens around the original chateau building. But he wasn’t done yet, in 1683 he began another series of expansions and remodeling’s, that would include its famous Hall of Mirrors.

Besides the additions to the palace, Louis also created massive gardens on the estate. These gardens were laid out with geometric flower beds, canals and fountains. It was the many fountains on the grounds that caused the most problems, but had an interesting solution. At that time Versailles had very little water, and hardly any water pressure. To make the fountains work as the king walked through his gardens, a signal system would alert operators at each of the fountains. As he approached they’d turn one on, and after he passed they’d turn it off.

The awe of all the paintings, statues and gold on display throughout the palace.
Photo by author

As time went on, Louis and his court would spend more and more time at Versailles, rather than in Paris. In 1682, the King proclaimed the Palace of Versailles as his official residence, and the seat of the French government. Versailles would remain the center of the government until the French Revolution of 1830.

The Palace was mostly completed by the time of Louis XIV death in 1715; it covers 721,182 square feet, with its famous façade at 1,319 feet in length. The Palace has: 700 rooms, 2,000 windows, 1,250 fireplaces, and 67 staircases, but no bathrooms. We were told that the windows were used when nature called, and that you had better watch out when walking under them.

Some of the most historic world events took place within this Palace: the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American Revolution; the signing of the Franco-Prussian War armistice in 1871, that created the German Empire; and the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, which ended World War I, but would be the catalyst that set into motion WWII.

Every room is a museum on to itself.
Photo by author

World War I was the most devastating, and the deadliest, conflict that the world had ever seen up until then, the first truly global war. Over 70 million military personnel were called up to fight in this war, and when it had ended an estimated 31,130,500 soldiers, on all sides, had been killed, wounded, or missing. In addition 7,700,000 civilians had also lost their lives due to the war. The countryside of France and Belgium was left as a toxic wasteland where the fighting had taken place. It was no wonder that the Allied winners in this war would take out their revenge upon the countries of the Central Powers, especially Germany.

One of the many fountains and the man made lake on the grounds of the palace.
Photo by author

To get their “payback,” the Allied countries included “reparations” in the treaty against Germany and the other nations of the Central Powers. Some of those reparations were: stripping Germany of 25,000 square miles of its territory, along with the 7 million German citizens that lived there, as well as taking all their colonies around the world; reducing its military strength; and requiring Germany to pay 20 billion gold marks (roughly $5 billion) in gold, commodities, ships, and other securities to the Allied nations to cover their cost of the war.

The famous Hall of Mirrors. It was in this hallway where many world changing treaties were signed.
Photo by author

Although most of the reparations were not collected, it still left Germany in one of the worst depressions it had ever experience. But most of all it had demoralized and dishonored the proud German people, from which a movement of nationalism grew. This nationalism movement would be tapped into by Adolf Hitler, and used to his own advantage.

Keeping this information in mind, when you tour the Palace of Versailles and enter the small anti-room off of the Hall of Mirrors, please look for the small and unassuming desk sitting against the far wall. This piece of furniture will not be pointed out by the tour guide, but it was at that desk on June 28, 1919, that the Treaty of Versailles was signed.

It was on this desk that the Treaty of Versailles was signed. The treaty ended WWI, but set into motion what would be WWII.
Photo by author

In 2017, over 7,000,000 tourists toured the Palace of Versailles and its gardens, making it the second most visited site in Paris behind the Louvre.

The Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris

The magnificent Notre-Dame de Paris
Photo by author

One of the “must see” sights for me in Paris was the Cathedral of Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame had been on my “bucket list” since I was a kid, so it was with much anticipation that I watch through the buses windows for that first glimpse of those famous bell towers. I’m very thankful that we decided to make our trip in 2018, rather than waiting a year.

A side view of Notre-Dame before the 2019 fire.
Photo by author

It was on Monday April 15, 2018, at around 6:16 p.m., as the last mass of the day was just underway when a light on the control console lit up; alerting security that smoke had been detected in the “Forest”. The forest is the massive attic area high above the nave, and so named because it took a whole forest of oak trees to construct it. This ancient wooden framework supported the cathedral’s lead roof. The fire alarm sounded, and worshipers, clergy, and staff members quickly exited the building. The situation was checked out; and at first nothing unusual was found, so the all clear was given.

One of the three beautiful Rose Windows that survived the fire.
Photo by author

The mass had barely recommenced when a second alarm sounded at around 6:30 p.m. This time the investigators found flames in the forest at the base of the spire. By 6:51 p.m. the firetrucks of the Paris Fire Brigade were racing to this historic site.

What bravery and sacrifice was given by both the members of the Paris Fire Brigade and the cathedral’s staff. Hundreds of members of the Fire Brigade risked their lives in fighting through the burning centuries old timbers, and the melting lead roof, in an effort to save Notre-Dame. And also the cathedral’s staff, that while burning embers fell around them, formed a human chain to carry the priceless art and holy relics out to safety.  

Even with all the heroic efforts, at 7:51 p.m., just an hour after the second alarm had sounded, the three-hundred-foot tall spire, engulfed in flames, collapsed and fell through the burning roof to the nave below. In all, it would take a total of fifteen-hours of firefighting to bring the fire to an end. As the new day dawned over Paris, what remained of this great treasure was a roofless and smoldering shell.

The vaulted Nave of the cathedral during afternoon mass.
Photo by author

The fire reportedly started from an electrical short in one of the pieces of equipment being used in a $6.8 million restoration project. But the real downfall of Notre-Dame was the dry, centuries old wood of the “forest,” the lack of proper fire suppression systems, and an attic area that was difficult for the firefighters to work around. So it is with historic structures: do you preserve the historic integrity of the building, or should they be revamped with modern protection systems?

 We can be thankful, that although weakened by the fire, most of the stone structure, its iconic towers, and its three 13th century stain glass rose windows did survive. And because of the quick actions of the cathedral’s staff, most of its ancient and historic relics were saved before the roof collapsed. But still, much of that wonderful building has been lost forever; and although it most likely will be replicated, it still won’t be the same.

This 300 ft spire would collapse and send the burning lead roof crashing into the nave below.
Photo by author

For this post, it would be unkind for me to describe the many aspects of Notre-Dame that I saw during my visit, since much of that is now gone. So let’s instead, rejoice in Notre-Dame’s wonderful history, and remember how this famous cathedral has touched humankind throughout the centuries.

Notre-Dame de Paris, “Our Lady of Paris,” or just Notre-Dame Cathedral, stands as one of the world’s most famous churches, along with St Peter’s Basilica and Westminster Abbey. However, its history wasn’t as rosy as we think; in fact this historical and architectural wonder could have been lost way before the 2019 fire, if it hadn’t been for a Parisian author and his famous book. But before I tell that story, let’s go back to its beginnings.

Notre-Dame is located on the island of Ile de la Cite. This island was also the site of the original settlement that would become Paris. In fact, in the plaza in front of the cathedral you’ll find a marker that denotes the geographic center of Paris.

The marker in the plaza in front of Notre-Dame that designates the center of Paris.
Photo by author

The cathedral was commissioned to be built by Bishop Maurice de Sully, with construction to be set on the foundations of a much older basilica. The cornerstone was laid in 1163, with Pope Alexander III in attendance.

The first phase of construction was its Choir, which holds the altar. This was done first so that services could be held during the rest of its construction. Completion of the Choir would take fourteen years. As the cathedral became larger and grander, new and revolutionary supportive designs were developed: those being the flying buttress and rib vaulted ceilings. Completion of Notre-Dame was in 1260, almost a hundred years after construction had begun.

During the reigns of Kings Louis the XIV and XV, many alterations were made to Notre-Dame so that it would be conforming to the church styles of that time. One of the most drastic was the removal of many of its stained glass windows. But the most destructive era was yet to come.

After the terror of the French Revolution replicas of the beheaded statues of Biblical Kings were installed on the cathedrals front facade.
Photo by author

In 1789, as the French Revolution was raging, the people of France wanted to wipe out everything and anything that they believed embodied royalty and the upper-class, making Notre-Dame, with all its art and statues a perfect target. During that period many of the church’s treasures were either stolen or destroyed.

One such example of the peoples misunderstanding involved the twenty-eight statues of kings from the Bible, which stood on the church’s western façade. Thinking that they were statues of French kings, they beheaded them. Luckily, someone at the time had taken some of those severed stone heads and hid them. In 1977 many of those heads were discovered and are now on display at the Musee de Cluny.

One of the many ancient wood carvings behind the alter area. This one depicts the Last Supper. I don’t know if any of these treasures survived.
Photo by author

Throughout the French Revolution the cathedral was used for a variety of non-religious purposes, including a warehouse. When Napoleon Bonaparte came into power he returned Notre-Dame back to the Church’s control; he even held his coronation as Emperor of France there. Although it was again a functioning church it lay in ruin, both on the inside and out. The cathedral was in such a sad state of disrepair that the Church was unable to raise enough funding to repair and restore the building. So overwhelming was the task that there was talk of tearing it down; and that’s when the before mentioned French novelist entered the scene.

Victor Hugo (who had great pride in Paris, France’s history and its architecture) must have heard of the plans to tear Notre-Dame down. In 1833 he published his novel, “Notre-Dame de Paris;” we know this novel by its English title, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

The story of the hunchback bell ringer Quasimodo, and his love for the beautiful Esmeralda, touched the hearts of the French people. But Hugo’s love story was only a cover for his real purpose. As I stated earlier, Notre-Dame was but a crumbling ruin when his novel was first published; and throughout his tale Hugo went into greater detail of the Cathedral than was needed for his story. What he was really doing was exposing readers to the wonders, the beauty, and the grandeur that was once Notre-Dame. Instilling in his readers that this grand lady was a Paris and French treasure that needed to be saved; and it worked! His novel became an inspiration, and created a popular movement to save Notre-Dame. French King Louis Philippe was so moved by the public’s cry that he began a series of restorations to the cathedral in 1844. Since then there have been continual restoration and preservation projects on her.

Adorning the main entrance are statues of Christ and his twelve disciples. Christ is between the two doors, and on both sides are his disciples. Can you spot Judas?
Photo by author

In 1833, Victor Hugo needed to write a love story as a cover to inspire the populace of his time to save the ruined Notre-Dame. But there’s no need for that today. As the fire raged, and as Parisians sang “Ave Maria,” the world watched, but more importantly they were joined with the French in the shock and despair with the possibility that Notre-Dame de Paris could be lost forever.

Judas in the second one on the right, the one looking away from Christ. He is also clutching the bag with the thirty pieces of silver.
Photo by author

From the very steps of the cathedral, while the fire raged behind him, French President Emmanuel Macron addressed the traumatized city and nation. He described Notre-Dame as France’s: “history, our literature, the epicenter of our life, the cathedral of every French person,” and he promised to rebuild her, “even more beautifully.”

In his address President Macron reminds all of us of history, and historical things:

“The Notre-Dame fire reminds us that our history never ends, never, and that we will always have challenges to overcome, and that what we believe to be indestructible can also reach its limit. All that makes France material and spiritual is alive and for that very reason is fragile, and we must not forget it.”

Notre-Dame de Paris will indeed be rebuilt, as it was rebuilt before; there will be replications made, but those have also been done before. So it is with the greatest structures in the history of the world: the Colosseum, the Parthenon, and the Palace of Knossos on Crete. They’ve all been rebuilt and had replications made in various degrees. But what’s most important, is that when the work is finished future generations will again be able to visit her, and to be awed, as we were, at the grandeur of Notre-Dame.  

There is no doubt that Notre-Dame will rise again from the ashes.
Photo by author

Sources used:

Felix, Antonia. “The Fire of 2019, French President Macron’s Address to the Paris, and We Will Rebuild.” Notre-Dame de Paris: History, Art, and Revival from 1163 to Tomorrow, Sterling Publishing Company, 2019.

“History.” CHATEAU DE VERSAILLES, CHATEAU DE VERSAILLES, en.m.chateauversailles.fr/discover/history. Accessed 10 Nov. 2019.

“Notre-Dame de Paris.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 7 Dec. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Notre-Dame_de_Paris.

“Palace of Versailles.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 8 Dec. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palace_of_Versailles.

“Treaty of Versailles.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 8 Dec. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treaty_of_Versailles.

“World War I reparations.” Wikipedia , Wikipedia, 9 Dec. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wki/World_War_I_reparations.

“World War I.” Wikipedia, Wikipedia, 9 Dec. 2019, en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_War_I.

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