Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Paris, France

Known as both the City of Light and the City of Love, Paris is one of the most romantic cities in the world. Paris at Christmas, decked out in its holiday finery, makes it even more beautiful than usual.

Arc de Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe stands at the top of the Champs-Élysées and honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and the Napoleonic Wars, with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surfaces.

Underneath its vault lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I. Interred here on Armistice Day 1920, it has the first eternal flame lit in Western and Eastern Europe since the Vestal Virgins' fire was extinguished in the year 394. It burns in memory of the dead who were never identified, now from both World Wars. A ceremony is held there every November 11th on the anniversary of the armistice signed between France and Germany in 1918.

Climb the 284 stairs to the top for panoramic views of Paris and the Place de l'Étoile, or Square of the Star, where 12 straight avenues lead directly to the Arc. The square is surrounded by two streets forming a circle around it: the rue de Presbourg and the rue de Tilsitt which have been so named since 1864, after diplomatic successes of Napoleon I which led to the signing of the Treaty of Presbourg in 1805 and the Treaties of Tilsit in 1807.

Avenue des Champs-Élysées
The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is known in France as La plus belle avenue du monde (the most beautiful avenue in the world). Champs-Élysées runs for 2 kilometers from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde. The chestnut box trees are strung with blue lights and the Grande Roue de Paris (wandering ferris wheel) lights up the Place de la Concorde and the Obelisk of Luxor. Paris' largest Christmas market stretches along the Champs-Élysées with the many wooden stalls selling vin chaud (hot mulled wine), roast chestnuts and other traditional Parisian holiday treats.

Musée du Louvre
The museum is housed in the Palais du Louvre, which began as a fortress built in the late 12th century under Philip II. Remnants of the fortress are still visible. The building was extended many times to form the present Louvre Palace.

In 1983, French President François Mitterrand proposed the Grand Louvre plan to renovate the building and relocate the Finance Ministry, allowing displays throughout the building. Architect I. M. Pei was awarded the project and proposed a glass pyramid to stand over a new entrance in the main court, the Cour Napoléon. The pyramid and its underground lobby were inaugurated on October 15, 1988.

La Pyramide Inversée can be admired from the Carrousel du Louvre and serves as a skylight for the underground entrance to the museum. Directly below the tip of the downwards-pointing glass pyramid, a small stone pyramid is stationed on the floor, as if mirroring the larger structure above: The tips of the two pyramids almost touch.

Notre Dame de Paris
Notre Dame de Paris is widely considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture in France and in Europe. It stands majestically on the Ile d la Cité with Pope Alexander III laying the first stone in 1163.

The legendary gargoyles actually serve as drain pipes and have carried rain from the roof of the famous Cathedral of Notre Dame for more than six hundred years. Through the years they allowed rainwater to fall free of the cathedral, thus preventing damage to the masonry. Some believing in superstition claim that the grotesque figures frighten away evil spirits along with serving its practical duty.

During Christmas, Notre Dame hosts Paris' Christmas tree on its forecourt, which is more than twenty feet high and is covered with lights and embellished with beautiful decorations.

Trocadero Christmas Village
The Trocadero Christmas Village opposite the Eiffel Tower offers Parisians and tourists alike the opportunity to soak up a little Christmas spirit. Visit the 120 chalets for a wide selection of gifts, treats and decorations for the holiday season.

Not to be missed is the outdoor ice skating rink. Nothing is more romantic than skating hand-in-hand at dusk as the Eiffel Tower twinkles near by! Warm up afterward with some vin chaud while admiring the Eiffel Tower hourly light show.

Bateaux Parisiens Seine River Cruise
Bateaux Parisiens cruises along the Seine River with the illuminated buildings and bridges of Paris passing by all the way from the Eiffel Tower to the Ile d la Cité. The cruise begins with the song 'I love Paris in the summer' playing. To learn History along the way, plug in your audio-guide and the host will also provide lesser-known stories: famous lovers met in this town house…dancing the tango along the banks of the Seine...

Eiffel Tower
Originally built to impress spectators at the 1889 World's Fair, the Eiffel Tower was meant to be a temporary addition to the Paris skyline. Still in working order, the double-decker elevators and mechanisms from 1900 were automated in 1986.

Three levels of the tower can be visited. The first level, at 187 feet, has a post office, restaurant, shops, cinema and cafe. The second level is at 376 feet. On a clear day from the third level, 905 feet above the ground, its possible to see for 45 miles!

The Tower has been re-painted 18 times since its initial construction, an average of once every seven years. It has changed color several times, passing from red-brown to yellow-ochre, then to chestnut brown and finally to the bronze of today, slightly shaded off towards the top to ensure that the color is perceived to be the same all the way up as it stands against the Paris sky. Sixty tons of paint are necessary to cover the Tower's surface, as well as 50 kilometers of security cords, 5 acres of protection netting, 1500 brushes, 5000 sanding disks, 1500 sets of work clothes…and more than a year for a team of 25 painters to paint the Tower from top to bottom. 

If it's literally freezing with a wind chill, like on our visit, warm up in the cafe with a hot chocolate and watch the latest team of painters paint the Tower from top to bottom.

Galeries Lafayette
The Galeries Lafayette is a 10-story department store. The store's unique Belle Epoque architecture, which features a dramatic colored glass dome and an ornate Art Nouveau staircase offering dizzying perspectives, contributed to the department store being named a Paris city heritage site.

Don't miss the Galeries Lafayette for holiday lights and windows that arguably rival those of New York department stores. Classic American musicals are being celebrated in the windows of Galeries Lafayette for Christmas 2010. Blonde haired dolls wearing Santa suits, gold clogs, and red tams are the Radio City Rockettes, teddy bears in bathing suits with snorkels and fins dancing away to the tunes of Mamma Mia, and a mannequin with a snow white Afro sitting on a huge shiny red Christmas ornament belting out Life is a Cabaret Ol' Chum are some of the highlights of the singing windows. The theme is called Show Chaud Noel. Inside, the famous 20 meter tree under the glass dome is gorgeous as ever this year with gold, turquoise, violet and pink balls.

Galette des Rois
The galette des Rois (King cake) is found in Paris at Christmas time. Its most notable feature is the hidden fève (prize), usually a porcelain figurine, in the cake. Whoever finds the fève in their slice of cake gets to wear a paper crown and be King (or Queen) for the day.  I can imagine that in the U.S. a hard, pointy figurine baked into a cake would be considered a safety risk, but that’s not at all the case here in France, with lines of galette-hungry customers snaking out of every bakery that you pass. Tim found one of these porcelain collectibles in his cake and was king for the day! Of course, we only learned of the tradition after he thought a piece of the mixer had fallen into his cake. Definitely a memorable experience!

To see all our pictures of Paris, visit

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