Worth Raising A Glass, I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid

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The Louvre is the world’s largest museum.  It is housed in an old fortress that became a palace and converted to a museum.  Buildings connect in a U-shape with a courtyard, Cour Napoleon, in the center.

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As the number of visitors grew, it became clear that the Louvre needed renovations to accommodate all the visitors.  In 1983, the Louvre developed and President François Mitterrand supported a renovation plan known as the Grand Louvre.  Among other things, it called for a new design for the main entrance that would be climate controlled, and provide space for a ticket office, security checkpoint, visitors center (for things like audio guides, toilets, sitting areas, information centers, cafes and shops).

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When Chinese-American architect I. M. Pei‘s modern glass pyramid structure in the courtyard was unveiled, most critics gave negative reviews.  They deemed it an unwelcome intrusion of modernism into  traditional architecture.  Still, it provided 650,000 additional square feet of much-needed support spaces for the Louvre.

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Inaugurated in 1988 and opened in 1993, his design of The Louvre pyramid, met the need and then some.   It appears strikingly modern and sophisticated against the baroque façade.  It guides  visitors’ movements between the three immense wings (Richelieu, the Sully, and the Denon) of the museum.  As a Louvre visitor, I find this as  genius as any part of the design.  The Louvre is immense and it is easy to get lost.  By following the signs to the exit, you can get to a guide who will point you in the right direction for your adventure in the next wing.  Plus, the glass provides wonderful light to the underground lobby.

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The complex inter-linked steel structure sheathed in clear, reflective glass.  This transparency allows an unobstructed view through it permitting vision across the pyramid to the palace on the opposite side. This allows it to float lightly in the space.

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While its style differs drastically from the original palace buildings, its transparency and simplicity allows it to sit among them without taking anything away from them.  It just becomes another interesting focal point.

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It didn’t take long for Pyramid to become integral part of Paris’ center and another one of its iconic buildings (Eiffel Tower, Pompidou Center, Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle, Les Invalides, Sacre Couer).  In the New York Times,  Paul Goldberg wrote: “…the design provoked international controversy and accusations that an American architect was destroying the very heart of Paris…the news from Paris is that the Louvre is still there, although it is now a dramatically different museum. The pyramid does not so much alter the Louvre as hover gently beside it, coexisting as if it came from another dimension.”

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The movie ‘Da Vinci Code‘, which had scenes set inside the Louvre included several minutes of dramatic video shots of the Pyramid. It’s also appeared in The Dreamers,  Prêt-à-PorterThe Rape of Europa and Fire, Plague, War and Treason.

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One of the cool things I noticed about it is that the pyramid is inverted below ground into the interior space below.  It comes to a point, immediately below that point is a sculpture, a pyramid.  Their apexes are only centimeters apart.  I’m not sure these pictures do it justice, but trust me when I tell you that it looks sweet.

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If all this isn’t enough, check it out lit up at night.  Definitely worthy of the City of Lights.

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Louvre (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Oh La La, La Tour Eiffel!

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I try to report on culture and lesser known tourist spots, but some of the big ones are impossible to avoid.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but I would be remiss if I did not include a post on the Eiffel Tower in my Paris posts.  It’s one of the world’s most famous structures; it’s become iconic, a symbol of Paris.  Today, Paris’s skyline is unimaginable without its iron lattice structure and spire.

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The Eiffel Tower (Tour Eiffel) is 1000 feet (320 meters) high and was the tallest man-made structure in the world for 40 years.  Named after Alexandre Gustave Eiffel who (along with a team of engineers) designed it.  Built for the 1889 Worlds Fair (which coincidentally was the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution), it was intended to be a temporary structure.  It was so popular (ahem, profitable) that it remained even after the fair.  Elevator ticket sales in recouped almost the entire cost of the structure in just one year. Its popularity was not a given.

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Ironically, pre-construction, critics called Eiffel’s design an eyesore and predicted cost overruns.  What’s more, Eiffel completed the project on time and it quickly became a tourist attraction.  Gustave got the last laugh, he received the Legion of Honor, the highest decoration in France for creating what became a national symbol of France.

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The Eiffel Tower is repainted every seven years with 50 tons of the dark brown paint.  It’s made from 18,000 pieces of iron that create an elegant art nouveau webbed-metal design.   Eiffel recognized the impact wind forces on tall structures. As a result, he made the surface variation minimal with an open lattice of light trusses through which the wind can blow.  That’s why you don’t see any ornamentation on the building.

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It’s not just a sculpture, you can visit the tower’s interior (be ready for crowds and a wait, prebooking tickets may help).    You can get onto the three platforms by elevators and stairs.  From the top one, there are views of up to 37 miles (60 km). Since there’s wheelchair access to only the 1st and 2nd levels, we didn’t go up.  If I’d planned better, we would have gotten a reservation at the second level Le Jules Verne restaurant and snuck up with him to the higher Bar à Champagne.
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By the way, if you’re climbing the seemingly countless stairs to the first platform, look out for the names of 72 French scientists and other luminaries just beneath the first platform.

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Break Dancers In Paris Have Mad Skills

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I was intrigued when we’d seen break dancers in Nice.  Of course, I had to stop and take some pictures we saw some talented guys in Paris.  Of all the street performers we saw in Paris, they were my favorite.  They were amazing.

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The hill of the Trocadéro (officially named Place du Trocadéro et du 11 Novembre, although it is usually simply called the Place du Trocadéro) is the hill of Chaillot, a former village.  Today, it is home to the site of the Palais de Chaillot, and in Paris’ 16th arrondissement.  We went to the Trocedero for a great view of the Eiffel Tower from the other side of the Seine River and for some people watching, but I think I ended up taking more pictures of the b-boys than of Paris.

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The Trocedero has several museums including: the Musée National de la Marine (Naval Museum), the Musée de l’Homme (Ethnology Museum), the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (City of Architecture and Heritage), including the Musée National des Monuments Français (The Museum of French Monuments), and the Théâtre National de Chaillot (National Theater).  I’ve commented a bit on the large number of French monuments and can only imagine how much that museum could cover.

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Navigating Paris Museums in a Wheelchair

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My dad came to visit.  He traveled all the way to Europe and was bound and determined to see things.  Unfortunately, dad’s knee is bone on bone.  He can walk, but needs knee surgery soon and can’t spend much time on his feet or move too quickly.  The only way to get him around museums was renting a folding wheelchair (chaise roulette).  Museums often have ones you can borrow for free.    It was lightweight and made it possible for him to see a lot.  The highlight of being in a wheelchair was a front row seat to the Mona Lisa at Paris’ Louvre Museum.

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Unfortunately, the Louvre museum was once a palace and is not as handicapped friendly as we’d hoped.  Wheelchair ramps were sorely lacking.  It was pretty obvious that it is hard to retrofit museums with elevators/lifts at convenient spots.  The Musée d’Orsay (a bit of a nightmare) and the Hôtel National des Invalides Army Museum weren’t easy to navigate either.  Fortunately, they had some pretty cool stuff to make any the frustration well worth it.

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Check out all the in the stairs in these pictures.  While the retrofit of an old train station is pretty cool and well done, all the stairs make some corners virtually inaccessible.

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Even when they had a wheelchair lift, we had to go in search of personnel to operate the lift.  This often took 20 minutes or so.  While all of this was a bit of an inconvenience, it (more or less) worked and my dad was blown away by what he saw.  So were we.

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On another note, it made us appreciate the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and how accessible things are in the US.

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The Paris Subway Iconic Signs

DSC_0639_2The Paris Métro‘s art nouveau entrances and art deco candelabras are iconic.  They are almost as readily recognizable as the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe or the Louvre.  The smell of the subway is almost equally iconic, but fortunately not as easily expressed via the internet.  

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A French friend explained to us that for something to be popular in France, it must be beautiful, even if it means sacrificing function.  A lot of Paris’ beauty and charm lies in the elegance of everyday life.  These subway signs are a perfect manifestation of this.

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These “edicule” entrances were designed by the architect, Hector Guimard in 1899.  Some conservative Parisians considered them too fanciful.  Some saw the wrought-iron stems clutching glowing reddish balls, pistils and stamens of flowers, as suggestive. Eventually, acceptance grew.  Nevertheless, they didn’t have the appreciation they enjoy today.  Many of the signs were torn down over the years, in the name of modernization.  Eventually, Paris recognized their beauty, value and symbolic power. In the late 70’s the remaining ones were declared historic landmarks.  At the end of the century, they restored the remaining art nouveau Metro entrances.

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Cool huh?  We aren’t the only ones who think so.  The New York Modern Art Museum bought the old wrought-iron railings from a Metro entrance.  They are on display as a pioneering, beautiful example of art nouveau.

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Tourists Mob Paris, Here’s How To Manage

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I think we saw more tourists in Paris than actual Parisians.  Here are some hints for navigating a tourists Paris.

  • Since we were an odd number, rather than renting a couple of hotel rooms, we rented a tiny apartment.  It was easy to book online and saved us a ton of dough.
  • Get the museum pass at the tourist office.  We bought ours at the train station’s tourist office upon arrival.  I only had one person in front of me in line and barely had to wait.  It allowed us to skip the long lines at every attraction… and saved us a bunch of money

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  • Get to the Louvre early.  Very, Very early.  Bus tours will start arriving.  If you encounter them, you will be swept away in a sea of people madly clicking their cameras.  Get there early to see the big sights before they finish breakfast and on the bus.
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  • While you are at the Louvre (and other museums), take advantage of the great views from museum cafes.  We had an unforgettable coffee with this view.  Priceless.DSC_0742_2
  • French food is pretty good.  Nevertheless like all cultures, a bit of it seems suspect to the outside. While I will eat frog’s legs and snails.  I can’t stand the terrines, the molded meat and gelatin. Even knowing that it may result in eating something suspect, I like to eat at restaurants where the menu isn’t in English (or like some super touristy places in Italian, German, Russian and Chinese as well).  Do yourself a favor and avoid the loud Americans that will be at the next table over, get off the beaten path and try to find a place without an English menu.  Not only will it be more affordable, but you’ll have a more authentic experience.  If you don’t you could end up like a friend who paid $52 for a hamburger in Italy.  We paid about that for an entire meal that was one of the best of our lives.

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  • If you happen to bein Paris during sale time (known as Les Soldes), you’re lucky.   Markdowns occur at designated times twice a year.  Shop away!