The Eiffel Tower

Numerous buildings and monuments around the globe are named after kings, generals, and tycoons, yet it is uncommon to find iconic landmarks honoring the architects or engineers who actually brought them to life. The colossal tower that welcomed guests to the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889 was initially intended as a temporary structure. Perhaps this is why it was exempt from adopting the name of a national emblem or grand ideal, and instead pays tribute to the brilliance of Gustave Eiffel.

To grasp the effect of the Eiffel Tower on a Parisian in 1889, it is essential to examine the timeline of the record-setting structures that preceded it. The Great Pyramid of Giza set an early benchmark, standing over 140 meters tall. Later on, several medieval cathedrals managed to surpass it. By 1888, the highest man-made structure was the 169-meter Washington Monument – an enormous stone obelisk. Although impressive, it would have been easily understood by a time-traveling ancient Egyptian. It took 4,400 years for the pinnacle of architectural accomplishment to be slightly elevated when Gustave Eiffel introduced an entirely new era with a tower exceeding 300 meters in height, constructed not of stone like its forerunners but of wrought iron.

“Gustave Eiffel was proficient in harnessing the most cutting-edge technology of his time,” says Stéphane Dieu, the caretaker of the tower’s legacy. “Firstly, the foundations of the tower’s four pillars needed to be established in the wet soil near the river. Above all, it was his devotion and passion for science that directed him – evident in the frieze encircling the first floor, displaying the names of 72 French scientists.”

The financial success of a 300-meter observation tower could only be realized due to the invention of the elevator. Four sets of slanting lifts ascend the tower’s splayed legs to the intermediate levels, navigating through a network of beams that intersect in crosses and star-shaped patterns. The second ascent is vertical, directly up the core of the structure. As the cabin soars higher, the tower’s four corners gradually enclose it. Right before the iron appears to be depleted, the elevator halts and opens its doors.

Addressing technical challenges was merely a fraction of Eiffel’s endeavors. Early in the construction phase, around 50 of the era’s most prominent French artists and writers co-signed a letter to the press, denouncing the “dark and colossal factory chimney” that would overshadow Paris’s magnificent monuments with its “savage bulk.” Eiffel responded with an extensive counterargument: “Why should something that is praiseworthy in Egypt become unsightly and absurd in Paris?” he inquired. Two years later, the tower welcomed nearly two million visitors during the exhibition.

Eiffel’s crowning accomplishment was initially scheduled for dismantling by 1909. However, it was preserved at his insistence that it could function as a platform for scientific experiments and later as a radio transmitter. Eiffel-designed bridges and buildings can be found from Hungary to Bolivia. He even devised the internal framework for the Statue of Liberty. Were it not for Eiffel’s unwavering determination, the tower bearing his name might be known today only through a handful of faded postcards.


A mere thirty-minute journey west from central Paris on the local train, the town and suburb of Versailles has developed around a palace that serves as perhaps the most extraordinary example of micromanagement the world has ever witnessed. In 1661, the youthful Louis XIV embarked on a substantial expansion of his father’s former hunting lodge to exalt his reign and safeguard his throne against two problematic factions – Parisians and ambitious nobles who could potentially establish private power bases in the provinces.

French monarchs had long been accustomed to moving between various rural châteaux and residences in the capital, which were uncomfortably exposed to disorderly Parisian crowds. In 1651, a mob even stormed into the 12-year-old king’s sleeping quarters. From 1682, Louis permanently relocated to Versailles and obliged most of his court to reside where he could monitor them within his ever-expanding palace.

Upon entering the state apartments, once the immediate effect of the colored marble and gold has subsided, a recurring theme becomes apparent – a sunburst with a face at the center, reiterated in the design. In Louis XIV’s propaganda, he was the Sun King, and solar metaphors were abundant. The original building plan for Versailles followed a kind of yin and yang, with the king’s apartments and the Salon of War in one wing, and the queen’s quarters and the Salon of Peace in the other. However, Louis ultimately moved his bedchamber to the very heart of the palace, facing the rising sun.

Every morning at eight, he would be awakened in his draped bed, overlooked by a gilded figure symbolizing France herself. Over the following two hours, up to a hundred courtiers would gather in his room to participate in the ‘lever’ (‘rising’) ritual, where presenting a shirt or glove to the king as he dressed was a social and political honor meticulously calculated, like all Versailles etiquette, down to the finest detail.

Despite the formality of the court, security was unexpectedly lax. Almost anyone could enter the palace, provided they met a few basic dress standards, and even then, gentlemen could rent the necessary dress sword at the entrance if they didn’t possess one. “There are nations where the majesty of kings consists, in large part, in never letting themselves be seen,” Louis XIV once remarked. “But that is not the genius of our French nation.” The inquisitive crowd from all corners of the globe who traverse the Hall of Mirrors six days a week are unknowingly reenacting a spectacle conceived by the Sun King.

In its presentation and ritual, Versailles was tailored to suit its creator. However, Louis XV and Louis XVI, who succeeded him, were more private individuals, as was the wife of the latter, Marie Antoinette of Austria. Even a Habsburg princess like her found Versailles’ etiquette stifling and sought refuge whenever possible in her own small palace – the Petit Trianon, situated at the far end of the gardens. Though she never uttered “Let them eat cake,” the faux village she constructed on the grounds was a source of considerable mockery at the time.

Versailles’ reign concluded on October 6, 1789, when a furious crowd overpowered the palace guard, forcing the royal family to return to Paris and ultimately sending them to the guillotine in 1793. The first and final piece of grandeur in Versailles is the equestrian statue of Louis XIV at the entrance. Here, the king sits, his back to the château he willed into existence and which his successors could never entirely claim as their own, and his arm pointing down the grand avenue that leads back to Paris.

The Catacombs

The City of Light harbors a shadowy counterpart. While the Paris above ground, bathed in sunlight and rain, houses approximately two million inhabitants at its core, another six million Parisians dwell in their subterranean metropolis, 20 meters below street level – or at least, their remains do.

The Paris catacombs were a swift remedy to a growing issue. By the late 18th century, medieval graveyards could no longer accommodate the city’s expansion. Old graves were excavated, and bones were tossed into loft-like ossuaries to make space for additional burials. However, locals complained that the foul odors emanating from these sites would spoil milk and soup within hours. In one infamous incident, the walls of a bone-storage facility crumbled under the pressure, unleashing a gruesome torrent into neighboring homes. Amidst the Age of Enlightenment, a solution was necessary.

Fortuitously, beneath the Montparnasse hill to the city’s south, Paris already had a labyrinth of tunnels, dating back to Roman times, which had been used to extract high-quality limestone for structures such as Notre-Dame. From 1786 onwards, the central city cemeteries were gradually emptied, with their contents transported to the mineshafts in nightly processions of hearses accompanied by chanting priests. The final transfer to the catacombs occurred in 1860, by which time sprawling suburban graveyards like Père Lachaise had alleviated the city’s burial demands.

The catacombs are accessed via a spiral staircase, followed by an extensive network of tunnels preceding the bones. Many of these tunnels still have a black line painted on the ceiling to aid 19th-century quarry workers in navigating the dimly lit passages, while water drips from the ceiling in certain areas. The catacombs proper commence with a doorway bearing the inscription: “Arrête! C’est içi l’empire de la mort” (“Stop! Here is the empire of death”). This marks the first of numerous uplifting phrases intended, according to quarries’ supervisor Louis-Étienne Héricart de Thury, to “break the sinister and dark monotony” of the catacombs and provoke philosophical contemplation among the living.

“Consider that in the morning you may not endure until evening, and that in the evening you may not survive until morning,” reads one inscription. “God is not the author of death,” another proclaims. The banks of bones lining the passageways are marked with signs indicating the original burial sites and reinterment dates. As one traverses these meticulously arranged necropolises, the experience occasionally evokes the sensation of wandering through a crypt-like wine cellar. Yet even here, the human desire for ornamentation manifests itself in intricate arrangements of skulls and femurs.

Initially, bones were haphazardly discarded in an 18th-century rationalist attempt to safely conceal these unsavory relics. However, when burials resumed following the disruption caused by the French Revolution, Romanticism had emerged as the prevailing spirit of the age, and the catacombs were transformed into a space where visitors could indulge in a refined sense of melancholy. Today’s visitors resurface through an inconspicuous door onto an unassuming Parisian side street, perhaps exercising greater caution when crossing the road en route to the Métro station.

The Louvre

The Louvre’s grandest painting on display is The Wedding Feast at Cana, crafted by Paolo Veronese in 1563. Dominating an entire wall in the Salle des États, it would naturally be the center of attention, if not for the small, enigmatic portrait on the opposite wall – the Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as she’s known in France. As a result, the figures in Veronese’s masterpiece often find themselves gazing upon a crowd whose backs are turned towards them.

The world’s most frequented museum houses numerous hidden gems, such as the oldest exhibited work – a 9,000-year-old human figure made of ethereal white plaster from Ain Ghazal in Jordan. The creators of this statue lived closer to our time than to Tutankhamun of Egypt – a faint echo from an unidentified past. Currently on loan to the Louvre, this artwork (Room D, Near Eastern Antiquities) offers a tranquil space for visitors.

Daniel Soulié, author of several books on the Louvre, notes the lesser-visited areas that should not be overlooked, including the Richelieu wing and the second floor, the galleries of French sculpture and objets d’art, and the Northern European schools’ paintings.

The Louvre’s unique character stems from its transformation into a museum rather than a purpose-built structure. Established around 1200 as a fortress to safeguard Paris’ western walls, its foundations remain visible in the museum’s basement. As the city expanded, the fortress lost its defensive role and became a royal palace. The current edifice, which has undergone several alterations, stands on the eastern side of the iconic glass pyramid.

Architect I.M. Pei’s striking, geometric addition to the Louvre faced some opposition when built in 1989 to provide the museum with a grand, unified entrance. However, the pyramid represents just one stage in the Louvre’s eight-century evolution, with the public museum opening in 1793 as a pivotal moment. Napoleon III completed the project of linking the Louvre with the Tuileries, another royal palace, in the 1850s. His vision was to bring together all the key state institutions – imperial residence, government ministries, a library, and a museum.

The museum is also interspersed with historical remnants of royalty. In room 26 of the Egyptian galleries, a headless statue of boy-king Tutankhamun stands under the watchful gaze of portraits of Louis XIII and his queen, Anne of Austria. In the Grande Galerie, French kings practiced “healing” those afflicted with the skin condition scrofula by touching them, demonstrating their divine power. Despite the procession of kings and emperors who have graced its halls, the Louvre has never appeared as magnificent as it does today.

Notre Dame

Notre-Dame Cathedral showcases a distinctive face to the world, with its expressive façade featuring two square towers, a rose window, and intricate stonework that demonstrates the remarkable craftsmanship of medieval masons. At the base, sculptures of saints and sinners encircle three sets of doors, creating a wordless bible.

The cathedral façade, with slight imperfections and asymmetry, appears more authentic and serves as a humble nod to the divine creator of perfection. The entrance queue winds past a bronze marker in the cobblestones, marking ‘point zéro’ – the reference point for all French road distances. Notre-Dame, situated on an island in the Seine, lies within one of the earliest settled areas of Paris during Roman times.

In 1160, Bishop Maurice de Sully deemed the existing Saint-Étienne cathedral insufficient, and construction of a new cathedral began three years later. Taking over a century to complete, the builders incorporated the innovative safety measure of flying buttresses. Initially a sign of architectural uncertainty, these buttresses now seamlessly blend with the cathedral’s medieval design. The interior’s lofty ceilings demonstrate stone’s capacity for both delicacy and strength.

However, much of the seemingly medieval appearance is actually neo-medieval. The French Revolution’s anti-clerical sentiment led to the destruction of most of Notre-Dame’s bells and the vandalization of the 28 royal statues on the main façade. By the time Victor Hugo penned The Hunchback of Notre-Dame in 1831, the cathedral had become a neglected eyesore. Architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc was appointed to restore Notre-Dame to its former glory in the 1840s, but he took creative liberties in the process.

Viollet-le-Duc’s additions include the famous grotesques, or chimeras, which serve as decorative elements rather than waterspouts. A worn spiral staircase leads to the Galerie des Chimères, where a collection of grotesques, including devils, a pelican, and an elephant, perch on a balcony walkway between the west towers. Although not part of the original plan, these elements, along with the missing spires for the twin towers, suggest that a great cathedral is perpetually a work in progress.