Paris of the Axe Historique and the Hammam

Paris perspectives, Paris then and now; history laid out in a straight geographic line … and yet another kind of Paris indulgence.

On a visit to Paris in 2009, Senator Yves Dauge, Sénateur d’Indre-et-Loire, extended an invitation to visit the Upper House of the French Senate in the Palais du Luxembourg. It was a fascinating couple of hours, the tracing of the past into the now in this resplendent, sumptuous aggregation of architecture and art; originally a royal palace commissioned by Marie de Médicis; a princely residence, then a prison during the French Revolution and today a national monument and home to the French Senate. (Virtual Tour)


Senator Dauge spoke eloquently of Paris.

A city introduced by a native, a resident, is far removed from a city understood through tourist meanderings; it is a city unraveled, a city interpreted, a city in context. And to put it in further context, Senator Dauge headed the bold 15 billion franc Grand Travaux programme of historic preservation and urban development during Francois Mitterrand’s first term of office – which resulted in the bo-bo (bourgeois bohemian) ism of many parts of the city, apart from the completion of contemporary monuments in and around Paris …  Mitterand’s vision of extravagant designs, soaring structures, big city architecture … much like the Dubai, Shanghai, Beijing and other global cities of the past decade.

The Paris of Senator Dauge’s passion is one that has made the transition from the city as an industrial force in the economy to the city as a cultural artifact for a well-to-do middle and upper-middle class (Paul Goldberger, Architecture Critic, New Yorker Magazine).

To appreciate Paris, said Senator Dauge, you have to understand the Seine. Go to La Grande Arche at the westernmost end of the Axe Historique, go to the top and regardez vous the Seine. Along the river is Paris, the history of Paris, stretching out before you.

If it is a clear day, offered Sénateur Dauge, you are in much luck, oui.

We did, and it was a very clear morning.

The Axe Historique 

Much like Shanghai’s Huangpu river, which simultaneously offers the grandeur of the colonial Bund on the one side and the neo-realistic space age splendor of Pudong on the other, the Seine loops and winds between the old and the new, the then and the now; the Axe Historique or Voie Triomphale (triumphal way) a straight line of 9 kilometres, through the centre of Paris, east to west.

A subtle shift of perspective, and a cityscape seen from the west, from an elevation, is truly magnificent. The Voie Triomphale is a story between two arches (as it turns out), the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the east and the La Grande Arche in the west; and exquisitely positioned in a straight line, in between, the obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, the Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe leading to the Grande Arche de la Defense. 

At the easternmost end is the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in the Place du Carrousel, commissioned by Napoleon in 1805 and modeled after the Arc of Septimius Severus in Rome.

Then, the courtyard of the Louvre, a Parisian institution from the late 12th century: first a fortress to protect the city from Anglo-Norman threats, then a magnificent palace completed by Henri IV, then a new(er) royal residence commissioned by Catherine de Medicis, then a part of another royal residence when it was linked by a long passage to the Tuileries, through the French Revolution to the Museum Central des Arts in 1793 to the Grand Louvre of today.

The Tuileries, completed in the 1600’s, home to Louis XVI and his family during the French Revolution, then to Napoleon; and famous for its sixty-three acre garden.

Further west, the Place de la Concorde, the largest public square in Paris (at 86,400 metres), located at the end of the Champs-Elysées with its magnificent Obélisque du Luxor, a 3,300 year old obelisk of pink granite. During the French Revolution, be-headings took place here and the square was so awash with blood that it is said that the oxen yoked to the carts, brought in to remove the corpses were so unnerved by the stench that they refused to enter.

Still further west, the Champs-Elysées, built in the 17th century, lined with horse chestnuts, la plus belle avenue du monde – the most beautiful avenue in the world – and the most expensive strip of real estate in Europe.

The Arc de Triomphe, completed in 1836 in the Place de L’Etoile to honour those who fought for France during the Napoleonic wars.

And at the end of the ninth kilometer, traveling west, the stylized La Grande Arche, a monument to humanity and humanitarian ideals rather than military victories. The Metro efficiently deposits us at the base of this almost perfect cube, built exactly a century after the Eiffel Tower (1989 versus 1889), and at 300,000 tons, is thirty times the mass of the Eiffel Tower. The sheer magnitude and effrontery of the construction is overwhelming – in an area where foundations were impossible to dig; it is supported on twelve piers, integrated into a transport network; its platforms and walls held together by enormous frames.

361 feet high, wide and deep, it can accommodate the Champs-Elysées in breadth and the Notre Dame in height.  Marble and glass panels cover its surface, panoramic lifts pass through nuage or cloud, on its way to the Rooftop of Paris (a hectare in size) which hosts a theatre, a restaurant and a bookshop and periodic exhibitions, as well as a gallery showcasing scale models and plans of the structure’s architecture.

For a quick escapade into time-travel, into the past, this is not to be missed.

 The Hammam

Paris in autumn is walking; walking ad infinitum, sidewalk cafes and wine, woolen scarves, boots and a bustling cold wind and then, there is the hammam, an Arabian night storyline of marble and mosaic and stained glass, arches and rays of sunlight from high windows, rooms leading into rooms leading into rooms, filled with steam and vapor and women given completely over to self indulgence.

At the Mosquée de Paris, this is a ‘public’ bath (open to men and women on different days), anyone can pay and enter and experience. There are marble platforms with running water where women soap each others backs or lie chatting, beds where women are being massaged by unsmiling matrons intent on their task; another room and more matrons scrubbing more women, prone on tables, hot showers, marble, mosaic and a fountain of porphyry; a sauna – a circular blue pool of water surrounded by marble platforms at various levels.

Smoky, steamy and misty; so many vignettes. You lie on the marble, you are heated by the stone, your pores are opened by the steam, you slip into the ice cold water of the pool for a few seconds, you go back to lying on the hot marble, you repeat the sequence as many times as you wish.

   

Then you repair to marble platforms in another room and rinse off and relax and lie on towels on beds and drink hot, sweet mint tea; communal bathing this, with the serenity of complete disinterest and the sense of being a part of a ‘village’. 

In another time and place, there might have been pashas and dates and pomegranates; chiffon fluttering and purple grapes savored one by one, from the fingers of lissome maids.

Ah, Paris.


Details on what and where.

Information about the Grande Arche and other monuments was obtained from various online references, including http://www.igougo.com/print.aspx?ReviewID=1166287, and as always, thanks to Wikipedia for filling in the gaps. The picture of the Axe Historique is from frenchmoments.com.

Photographs by Anita Thomas

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