Paris; A Photographic Tour of the Main Sites along the Seine
NOTRE DAME, THE LOUVRE, ARC DE TRIOMPHE, LES INVALIDES, THE EIFFEL TOWER AND OTHER SITES ALONG THE RIVER SEINE
This is a photographic record in 3 pages of a 3 day vacation in Paris, focusing on the main tourist sites, and the challenges and possibilities for photographers. This is Page 1.
In September 2011 I spent three days in the city of Paris, capital of France and regarded by many as the most romantic city on Earth. It was, as I say, only three days, so for me it became something of a whistle-stop tour, cramming as much as possible into the time available, with my eye pressed too often to the viewfinder of my camera, when perhaps I should have been taking in the whole city panorama, and cementing memories of Paris in my mind. (But then, taking photographs is my hobby, so that's what I do).
These pages are not an in-depth guide to the city (not possible after such a brief personal experience). They are a record of the major buildings of this great city; the attractions which are on everyone's must-see list for a first-time visit. And the pages include accompanying notes on a few of the challenges involved in photographing these sites as seen from the point of view of an amateur with limited technical skills, but hopefully some compositional ability. The aim is to encourage everyone to try a fresh approach to their photography when on vacation, and to make the most of their holiday time in creating a lasting memory of the experience.
This page looks at sites to be seen within one kilometre of the great River Seine.
- All photos on this page were taken by the author between 5th and 7th Sept 2011
Page 1: Sites to be seen in the centre of Paris, within one kilometre of the River Seine - Notre Dame, the Louvre, Place de la Concorde, the Grand Palais and Petit Palais, the Arc De Triomphe, Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, Palais du Luxembourg and others
THE SEINE AND ILE DE CITE
The Seine is the historic lifeblood of the city of Paris, and the majority of Paris's most famous landmarks are to be found within a very short distance of its banks. If we are going to tour the major sites of Paris which lie along the Seine, then a good starting point is Ile de la Cité, one of two islands sat in the middle of the river, right in the very heart of Paris. But this is not merely where our tour begins, it is where Paris itself began. In 52 BC, Julius Caesar seized control of a small village called Lutetia which was built on this island in the Seine, and here he established a garrison. Gradually the settlement was built upon and became the centre of a much wider community and ultimately the seat of French kings for many hundreds of years. Although the power has now moved away from the Ile de la Cité, the site remains very much the centre of Paris, and home to the Palais de Justice (former home of the French kings), Sainte-Chapelle (Louis IX's chapel) and above all, the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
The bridges over the Seine could really be a photographic subject in their own right. Most famous is Pont-Neuf - one of several bridges which connect the Ile de la Cité and its sister island Ile St-Louis to the river-banks. Le Pont des Arts, depicted opposite, is a little further west. This bridge is the site of a new romantic 'tradition' in the City of Romance where lovers lock padlocks adorned with their names and ribbons to the bridge and throw away the keys into the Seine.
And speaking of which, a slow night-time cruise along the Seine has long been regarded as one of the most romantically sentimental things to do in the city (I didn't do that - no time in my 3 days, and no one to be romantic with). But if you can't do the night-time cruise, then a daytime cruise is a must, to enable you to get a rather different perspective on the Parisian architecture, and to get a little breather away from the traffic and the crowds on the streets.
Although much of Paris lies to the east of the Ile de la Cité, the majority of the most celebrated sites and monuments are to the west - down river - and many of these can easily be seen from the river. So on this page these will be described in sequence as we sail (or walk) down river from the islands.
THE CATHEDRAL OF NOTRE DAME
The great Gothic Cathedral of Notre Dame dominates the Ile de la Cité. It was built between 1160 and 1345 AD, though with some additions including the steeple, in the 19th century. The most famous and photogenic aspect of the building must be the imposing west face which features two great towers standing 69m (226 ft) high. The famous bell of Notre Dame is housed in the south (right) tower. Other significant features of the west face include one of the cathedral's many rose windows, a frieze of 28 statues of Biblical figures called the Gallery of Kings, and the three great arched doorways or portals.
During the French revolution Notre-Dame suffered along with the rest of Paris, and many of the sculptures, as well as the interior furnishings were damaged or removed. The Gallery of Kings in particular was vandalised - revolutionaries thought the figures were not Biblical, but the hated aristocracy of France. Extensive restoration however took place in the 19th century to return the cathedral to its former glory.
For the whole building, Notre Dame is best photographed from the river, or from the left (south) bank. On the island, one is a little too close to fully embrace the entire building. Several more photos of the cathedral - and specifically details of the West Face, and images of the stained glass windows of Notre Dame - will be shown on Page 3 of this tour.
Not far down river from Notre-Dame is the most extensive of all buildings in central Paris. This is the Louvre, for many centuries the home of the French court, but now the site of perhaps the most famous art gallery in the world, the Musée du Louvre. Originally built as a fortress in 1200, the building became home to French king Charles V In the mid 16th century, and the Louvre took on the design of a true king’s palace as the fortress was demolished. Louis XIV eventually moved court to Versailles, but the Louvre then took on a new life as a museum. This first opened in 1793, and the collection of works rapidly expanded over the next decade with the acquisitions of Napoleon Bonaparte during his battles throughout Europe. Works on display number more than 35,000 including paintings, sculptures, antique objects, furnishings and tapestries. Most famously the museum houses the ancient sculpture of the Venus de Milo, and of course, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
Amidst much publicity and not a little controversy, the latest architectural addition to the Louvre was the Pyramid constructed in 1989 in the Cour Napoléon (Napoleon's court). Some find the Pyramid a beautiful modern design, some regard it's angular metal frame and plain glass panels rather jarring, when set against the traditional architecture of the Louvre. Personally, I like the Pyramid, but perhaps not so much in this setting.
PLACE DE LA CONCORDE
A few hundred metres west from the Louvre is Place de la Concorde - a site of great notoriety. it was here that so many executions took place during the time of the French revolution. It is estimated 1300 people died under the guillotine at Place de la Concorde including King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, as well as Robespierre.
The site is marked today by a 3200 year old obelisk from the Temple of Luxor, a gift from the Viceroy of Egypt in 1829. It is not really the easiest of monuments to photograph, surrounded as it is by a sea of traffic during the daytime. Nor are the surroundings particularly attractive - a vast expanse of concrete and a massive roundabout, albeit adorned with fountains and statues. But at night the obelisk is lit up, and this perhaps is the time to see it at its best.
THE CHAMPS ELYSEES, THE GRAND PALAIS AND THE PETIT PALAIS
Place de la Concorde marks the start of the road touted by the French as the most beautiful avenue in the world. The Champs Elysées stretches from the Obelisk in a northwesterly direction taking us away from the Seine and towards the Arc de Triomphe. But if we briefly detour south to the Seine we find a couple of buildings known as the the Grand PalaIs and the Petit Palais.
The Grand Palais is an attractive domed building which was built to house a major exhibition in 1900, and still serves as an exhibition centre today, as does the Petit Palais, which faces it from the other side of Avenue Churchill. Both buildings are well worth a look, because they are among the most attractive buildings in Paris.
THE ARC DE TRIOMPHE
The most famous building of its kind in the world was initially conceived by Napoleon as a tribute to himself and to the armies of his empire. Work began on the arch in 1806, but it was not completed until 1836, due to various interruptions, not least the death of Napoleon himself. Since then the Arc has been the focal point of many ceremonies including the annual Bastille Parade. Underneath the Arc lies the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Arc is most associated with, and should be approached via, the Champs Elysées. In fact of course, the Arc stands on a roundabout which is the confluence of not just the Champs Elysées, but roads converging form eight different directions, and all bear nice leafy trees near the junction with the roundabout. Attractive, yes, but that poses major problems for photography of the Arc, as it’s virtually impossible to get an angle which takes in the whole of the building without the view being obscured by the trees. The solution may be to get close with a wide angle lens, or else to stand in the middle of one of those busy roads away from the tree-lined edges (photography can be a hazardous hobby).
Returning from the Arc de Triomphe and crossing the Pont Alexander III Bridge to the south side (left bank) of the Seine for the first time, we come to the pleasant green Esplanade des Invalides which leads to the Hôtel des Invalides. This impressive, extensive building was first built under Louis XIV in the 1670s as a sanctuary for old and injured soldiers - quite an altruistic idea for the times. Today, the building is home to two museums including the national war museum, as well as two churches, and the most distinctive feature of the architecture is the golden domed roof of one of these, known as the 'Église du Dôme des Invalides' dedicated to Saint Louis and designed in 1680. Beneath the dome lies the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Les Invalides will hold interest for many visitors because of the varied functions and exhibits to be found here, and for the photographer, a brief visit after sunset is recommended, as the domed church is one of Paris's best illuminated buildings at night.
THE EIFFEL TOWER
And so now to the most famous pile of wrought iron in the world. A dismissive comment - but only in jest, because in my opinion the Eiffel Tower is possibly the most beautiful building in the world. I appreciate it’s a point of view which is strongly contested by some. Many will dislike the angular struts and beams of metal, and regard it as little more than a glorified electricity pylon, a metal monstrosity bound together with more than two million rivets. Indeed in 1889 when first erected, some described it as 'useless' and 'monstrous'. But for many others, myself included, all aspects of the Eiffel Tower just work perfectly - the shape, the structure, the size and even the rust-brown colour perfectly compliment each other.
The tower was completed in 1889 for the Exposition Universalle. It was the tallest building in the world at 300m (984 ft), and was to remain so for the next 40 years before being superseded by first the Chrysler Building and then the Empire State Building in New York.
But love it or hate it in the daytime, I would suggest that a visit to Eiffel’s Tower at night-time is an absolute must. The whole structure is lit from top to bottom by 20,000 light bulbs, and on the hour every hour, a sprinkling of white lights flicker on and off over five minutes. I defy anyone not to find that show the most beautiful of man-created architectural sights.
Any pretence I might have to claim to be a photographer was lost here! Being a short trip, I chose to travel light, and that meant leaving some camera gear behind; it is a cardinal sin to try to take dramatic dynamic photos of a building like the Eiffel Tower without the aid of a wide angle lens, but that is what I had to do. Getting in close and shooting upwards at the tower creates great images. The tower becomes - literally - towering. Practise what I say, not what I did - take a wide angle lens if you want good images of the Eiffel Tower.
ONE MORE PHOTO FROM THE RIGHT BANK
AND SOME MISCELLANEOUS PHOTOS OF LEFT BANK & ILE DE LA CITE BUILDINGSClick thumbnail to view full-size
Just time here to mention a few other sites mainly on the left bank of the Seine, (and one on the right) for which I either had no time to visit, or too few photos to present.
Musée d'Orsay was originally designed as a railway station in the year 1900, serving the towns and cities of the southwest - a function it fulfilled until 1939. Post war, the station fell into disuse, and was nearly demolished before the decision was taken to transform the redundant building into an art gallery featuring works dating from the mid-nineteenth century. The manner in which the design of the station has been harnessed to show off the artwork to best effect has received many plaudits, and some regard a visit to the museum as a Parisian highlight.
France's most famous college and university building stands in the Latin quarter on the left bank. Nowadays the Sorbonne comprises just a part of the University of Paris, but it is the historic heart of the university dating back to the late 12th century. Maybe the most attractive part of the building, as might be expected, is the chapel built in 1635.
The Panthéon, superficially resembling its truly ancient namesake, the 2000 year old Panthéon of Rome, was built on the orders of Louis XV when he was recovering from illness in 1744 and he dedicated it to St Genevieve, patron saint of Paris. After the end of France's revolution, the Panthéon became a mausoleum which now holds the remains of Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marie Curie and other luminaries.
THE JARDIN AND PALAIS DU LUXEMBOURG
Finally (if you're in need of a little rest and recuperation before heading off to Page 2), close to the Sorbonne and the Panthéon is the Palais and Jardin du Luxembourg. The Palace was built in 1615 for Marie de Medicis, the mother of Louis XIII, and named for a local dignitary, the Duke of Luxembourg. Subsequently the Palace has served varied functions including those of a museum, a prison, one-time home of Napoleon Bonaparte, and even briefly the WW2 residence of Herman Goering during the Nazi occupation. Today the Palace serves a very important role as home to the French Senate.
The gardens are open to the public and are popular for recreation purposes, featuring an ornamental pool, formal gardens, many statues, and tennis courts - a pleasant place to escape from the city buildings for a few hours.
THE STATUE OF LIBERTY
Special mention should be made of one statue, which all Americans will recognise - well, not just Americans actually, but everybody in the world - because it is one of the most iconic images on Earth. The Statue of Liberty stands in the Jardin du Luxembourg. But make no mistake, this is not a copy - the one in New York City is the copy, albeit a vastly more impressive and bigger copy - this one is the original sculpted by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi in 1870, which served as the model for the statue gift to America, presented and dedicated, 16 years later.
The Palais du Luxembourg concludes this little tour of the major attractions to be found within one kilometre of the River Seine in Paris. It is of course by no means complete - some buildings have only been viewed superficially, and indeed each and every one could be the subject of a page to itself. Some buildings which lie further afield, notably the Palace of Versailles and the Church of Sacre-Coure, have not been covered at all, but will be the subject of the next page in this series. Hopefully the photographic advice, limited though it is, may be of some value in helping some visitors to this great city to enjoy taking their pictures more whilst improving on their results. Further advice and information will follow in subsequent pages.
*FOOTNOTE - 'DOME' PHOTO IDENTIFICATION*
Since publishing, the dome in one of the pictures above has been identified. It is the dome of the Tribunal de Commerce, a law court dealing with trading and commercial matters. For the time being I will leave the caption above, as the lesson about taking notes when doing photography of this kind is an important one; travel guide pictures with identifying info are so much more useful than travel guide photos without identifying info.
Many thanks to Derdriu for providing the identification
Page 1: Sites to be seen in the centre of Paris, within one kilometre of the River Seine - Notre Dame, the Louvre, Place de la Concorde, the Grande Palais and Petit Palais, the Arc De Triomphe, Les Invalides, the Eiffel Tower, Palais du Luxembourg and others