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Paris

March 22, 2006

Paris

For romantics, Paris is the city of love and night-time strolls along the Seine. The more rational associate the city with chaotic driving conditions and what the locals describe as ‘‘métro, boulot, dodo'’ (‘‘und...

For romantics, Paris is the city of love and night-time strolls along the Seine. The more rational associate the city with chaotic driving conditions and what the locals describe as ‘‘métro, boulot, dodo'’ (‘‘underground, work, sleep’’). But everyone knows that Parisien savoir-vivre is the French way of enjoying life.

The capital of major fashion, avant-garde designs and groundbreaking trends in haute cuisine is a tapestry of unique sights. After all, the Parisians have always dared to make architectural changes without losing their sense of tradition. One classic example of this is the rebuilding of the ‘‘voie royale’’ (‘‘king's way’’), which sweeps from the Louvre – a former royal palace today furnished with a futuristic glass pyramid – up the Champs-Élysées, past the Arc de Triomphe to the splendid Grand Arche in the business district of La Défense.

Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, the Île de Saint-Louis and the Marais have all retained their old-fashioned charm and quaint little restaurants. And yet they gladly open their doors to the tongue-in-cheek trends of the shops and clubs that have spread across Oberkampf and Bastille. Meanwhile, classic department stores like the Galeries Lafayette reinvent their own style almost every day.

Champs-Élysées

No other city in the world can boast an avenue as magnificent as the mile-long Champs-Élysées – at least that's what the French claim. The boulevard, laid out according to plans by Le Nôtre, the landscape architect famous for his designs for Versailles, runs in a straight line from the Tuileries Gardens, through the former marshlands and up the slope to the Arc de Triomphe at Place Charles-de-Gaulle/Étoile. The platform on top of the arch affords a magnificent view along the extension of the ‘‘voie royale’’ to La Défense to the west and towards the Louvre in the other direction.

Architectural highlights along the Champs-Élysées include the Grand Palais and Petit Palais museums, built for the 1900 World Exhibition, and the French president's official residence: the Élysée Palace. These are complemented by a series of impressive administrative buildings constructed in the Belle Époque style of the early 20th century, the era in which the Champs-Élysées became a fashionable place, where everyone went to see and be seen. Nowadays, the area is dominated by commonplace boutiques, chain restaurants, ice cream parlors, cinemas, and the offices of international airlines and banks.

Eiffel Tower

The 984-foot steel tower (1,052 feet including the TV masts) was designed by the engineer Gustave Eiffel and built for the 1889 World's Fair in the space of just 16 months. The construction was accompanied by repeated angry protests against what some called the ‘‘column of bolted iron’’. The structure marked the entrance to the Exposition and was supposed to be demolished when the fair ended. But by the time it was completed, the initial rejection had turned into enthusiasm.

The tower weighs 7,778 tons and comprises 12,000 individual steel components. Some 40 tons of paint are needed to give it a complete facelift. 1,792 steps lead to the top of the tower. The second floor platform can be reached via four staircases and two elevators, but the third level is only accessible by elevator. A film shown on the first floor documents the construction of the Eiffel Tower.

Galeries Lafayette

The Galeries Lafayette is certainly the city's most magnificent Art Nouveau department store. The most striking architectural element of the store is the wonderful stained glass dome towering 230 feet over the center of the building and accentuated by the multi-story galleries below, with their sumptuous, wrought-iron flower motifs.

The range of wares on display in this veritable shopper's paradise can loosely be described as ‘‘exclusive to trendy’’. If you're looking for information about the latest creations of the world's greatest fashion designers, tasteful or fashionable accessories, exquisite and unique famous-label products, exclusive gifts that cost that little bit extra, or stylish trifles for your own home sweet home, you're sure to find them here. Incidentally, the Galeries Lafayette perfumery department is always the first to receive the newest aromatic creations of the world's most famous luxury brands. If you need to rest your weary feet, there's no better place to do this than in the restaurant under the sun-drenched sparkling glass dome. And if you happen to be in Paris around Christmas, don't miss Galleries Lafayette's superb festive decorations.

Louvre

The world's most famous museum is housed in what used to be a royal palace. The French court resided in the Palais du Louvre from the 14th to the late 17th centuries, after which the buildings were used to accommodate the royal art collection and a number of art academies. In 1793, after the French Revolution, the Louvre was proclaimed a public museum. Today, it has approximately 650,000 square feet of exhibition space, making it the largest museum in the world. The entrance hall is situated under the glass pyramid in the Cour Napoléon. Visitors are advised to pick up a brochure showing the location of the different sections, which can be found at the information desk. Museum shops and self-service restaurants can also be found in the entrance area.

The Louvre possesses outstanding collections of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities, early Christian art, European paintings spanning seven centuries, and sculptures from the Renaissance through the Impressionist movement. Other must-sees include examples of Islamic art as well as the French crown jewels. The most famous exhibits include the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s 'Slave’, and the 'Mona Lisa’ by Leonardo da Vinci.

Montmartre

The shimmering white basilica of Sacré-Cœur stands atop the butte of Montmartre, where it can be seen from far away. Until the late 19th century, the city's highest hill was occupied by a couple of derelict monasteries, a few vineyards and some windmills. Then the district's cheap housing was discovered by Impressionist painters like Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Claude Monet, followed by Vincent van Gogh and even later by a still penniless Pablo Picasso.

The compact Place du Tertre has long become a magnet for tourists, although it is now a temple to the gods of kitsch and commerce. But wander into the small streets around the square and you may find reminders here and there of days gone by. The architectural highlight of Montmartre is the oriental-looking basilica of Sacré-Cœur, built in 1873 as a memorial to the crushing of the uprising by the Paris Commune. From the steps of the church you have a magnificent view over the rooftops of Paris.

Musée d’Orsay

Like the Eiffel Tower, this building is also a Belle Époque remnant of the World Exhibition of 1900. After the former railway station had lain empty for years, it took the combined efforts of three French presidents to reawaken its from its slumber and, despite the huge costs involved, convert it into a museum for artwork produced between 1848 and 1914. The museum was opened to the public in 1986. Statues symbolizing the major cities of southwestern France on the balustrades of the roof terrace and two huge clocks serve as reminders of the building's original purpose. The museum has two restaurants: the Café des Hauteurs and the luxury Palais d'Orsay.

On display are works of French realists like Courbet, Symbolists like Puvis de Chavannes and Moreau, Impressionist masters like Monet, Renoir, Sisley and Cézanne, and sculptures by Rodin and Claudel. The Musée d'Orsay sees itself as a link between the classical collections in the Louvre and the post-modern exhibitions staged at the Pompidou Center.

Notre Dame

France’s most famous Gothic cathedral was built between the 12th and 14th centuries. The foundation stone was laid in 1163 on the spot previously occupied by an ancient Roman and early Christian temple. Notre Dame has witnessed many important events in the political life of France. The trial of Joan of Arc was opened there, royal marriages were held there, and Napoleon crowned himself Emperor of all France in the cathedral.

Notre Dame was threatened with destruction during the Revolution and was then used as a wine store, before Napoleon restored its religious function. This pinnacle of French Gothic art has five aisles and two 225-foot towers. The main façade, with its three richly decorated portals, is very impressive, while stained-glass windows bathe the interior in a mystical light. The best preserved of these is the rose window in the north transept, which depicts the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus surrounded by figures from the Old Testament.

Latin Quarter

The ‘‘Latin Quarter’’ on the left bank of the Seine is the oldest part of Paris apart from the Ile de la Cité. The foundation stone for the first university was laid there back in the 12th century. Until the French Revolution of 1789, Latin was not only the language in which all lectures were delivered. It was also the language of choice for conversations between professors and students. To this day, the country's intellectual crème-de-la-crème is schooled at the renowned French institutions between the Boulevard St.-Michel and the Jardin des Plantes. The area contrasts starkly with the Right Bank on the opposite side of the river, with its banks and luxury shops. Here, in the kingdom of the mind, you will find the Sorbonne, elite colleges and five academies, all huddled together in close proximity under the dome of the Institut de France. The district also houses many of the most famous publishing houses. The area around the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés still profits from the myths woven around the intellectual greats. It is a place to meet, not only in one of the many cafés, but also in the numerous bookshops and galleries.

The main thoroughfares of the district, one of the amusement areas of Paris, are the boulevards of St. Michel and St. Germain, with their countless cafés and boutiques in the shadow of Sorbonne University and the white dome of the Pantheon, built to honor great Frenchmen of days gone by.

Pompidou Center

The Center National d'Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, to give it its full name, is the most popular tourist attraction in Paris, even ahead of the Eiffel Tower. The most striking aspects of the high-tech building designed by architects Richard Rodgers and Renzo Piano are the blue, green, red and white service pipes on the outer façade and the glass tubes housing the escalators running up and down the structure's walls.

When this ‘‘art mecca’’ first opened in 1997, critics around the world could find nothing but derision to describe the building, which bears a distinct resemblance to a factory. And yet visitors flock to see the unique collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, which contains the works of Matisse, Picasso, Bonnard, Bacon and Andy Warhol. The Pompidou Center also has a reference library with 1,300 seats, a language lab, an industrial design center, a repertory cinema and a theater. The square in front of the main entrance is a popular meeting place, and enlivened by street artists. Those in need of a break can relax in one of the cafés around the adjacent Igor Stravinsky fountain, whose brightly-colored moving figures were created by Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely.

Disneyland Paris

Like the American prototype, Disneyland Paris is divided into theme parks. Mickey Mouse greets visitors in ‘‘Main Street USA’’, a replica of a typical small-town American street, while Sleeping Beauty welcomes you to ‘‘Fantasyland’’. ‘‘Adventureland’’ offers a chance to follow Indiana Jones on his jungle adventures, and ‘‘Frontierland’’ gives you a taste of the romantic side of the Wild West. Star Wars addicts get a unique opportunity to take the helm of a starship in ‘‘Discoveryland’’.

Hours: Mid-July to late August: 9 am-11 pm. Rest of the year: Mon-Fri 10 am-8 pm, Sat & Sun 9 am-8 pm

Oberkampf

The youngest fashionable area of Paris has the unmistakeable charm of a former working-class district. As hip as some of the clubs may present themselves, with colossal light shows, spectacular performances and star DJs, many of the establishments have consciously integrated the former industrial designs into their interiors. Tourists have come to appreciate this too, and eagerly mingle with the Parisian clubbers. On Rue Oberkampf and neighboring streets, life is more easy-going, and the night regularly turns to day. Indeed many discos and smoke-filled cafés are still completely packed at 3 am.

During the day, you can meet for a café au lait or try something exotic from Ethiopia. And you can still find those small pop-art shops living in peaceful co-existence with the nightclubs. It's this blend that brings together people from diverse cultures in Oberkampf.

© Berlitz Publishing/Apa Publications GmbH & Co KG, Singapore Branch, Singapore

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