Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Gilded Glory of Palais Garnier and Other Stories

In glorious sunshine we moved from one iconic symbol of Paris to another. After our visit to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur we returned to Château Rouge metro station, took a train to Gare l’Est and linked up with the pink line for a train to l’Opera station in the 9th arrondissement for our last destination in Paris during this 10 day visit to France. Not planned that way at all it seemed we left something special for last. From the clean lines of the Sacré-Cœur we entered the most opulent, gilded, over-the-top, extravagance that Paris had on offer, the Academie Nationale De Musique, or simply The Palais Garnier, Paris’s old opera house, used today only for ballet. (Operas are today performed at the new opera house, The Opéra Bastille.)

There was nothing subtle about the Palais Garnier. A gluttony for various shades of brown, grey and red marble, a love for gold and large artwork that perfectly compliments the beautiful architectural lines and curves from classical antiquity origin, make this Parisian landmark in the Beaux-Arts style a must see for anyone that loves beautiful buildings.     

The Palais Garnier façade  
We have been to this area of Paris often, took some photos of the opera house’s exterior, but strangely never made it inside. There was always something else on the list to go and see until that sunny Saturday afternoon.

It is not worth my words to write about the beauty of the Palais Garnier. The opera house’s detailed and extravagant interior is something to behold and feast on to be appreciated. It is best that I allow the pictures to tell that side of the story. But there are many other stories about the opera house that lends a bit of mystery to the building and rightly so because it is such a show piece and it faced near fatal obstacles and controversies during its planning and construction.

The Assassination Attempt

After being elected by the French people as the first President of the Second Republic, and after a failed effort to change the constitution so he could continue to be President for another term, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte seized autocratic power through a coup d’état in December 1851. A year later he was declared Emperor Napoleon III of the Second Empire. And what often happened to autocratic rulers in the past his popularity waned after a few years and he made more enemies than friends.  
On 14 January 1858 Emperor Napoleon and his wife Eugenie were on their way to the opera on Rue Le Peletier, when Felice Orsini, an Italian, and his Carbonari revolutionary friends, threw 3 bombs at the French Emperor’s carriage and killed 8 people and injured 142. The story goes that the very next day he, the Emperor, decided to build a new state funded opera house that was safer to get to and closer to the Tuileries Palace.  After they found a site in the 9th arrondissement and plans were drawn up, a series of personnel changes at city and government level slowed the start of issuing a contract to an architect.  There is the story that Empress Eugénie wanted Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, one of her favorites, to be the architect.  At the same time another architect, Charles Rohault de Fleury, already completed his plans for the opera house as requested by the Prefect of the Seine and one Paris’s great builders under Napoleon III, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. However in November 1860 when Count Alexandre Colonna-Walewski was appointed minister of state (he got his position because his wife was one of Napoleon III’s many mistresses) he was very aware of the delicate politics of Paris, all the strings being pulled in the background and the conniving antics at the Emperor’s court. So in order not to step on any sensitive toes and cunningly sidestepping the final decision making he announced that the architect will be selected based on a design competition, which was eventually won by a relative unknown architect, Charles Garnier.  Construction on the new opera house started in 1861.

A high water table that was discovered during foundation work delayed construction and required a change to the blueprints, and it led to the rumor that a large underground lake was found under Paris. It was totally untrue, but the journalist Gaston Leroux used the rumor and the opera house as a background and cleverly turned it into the novel, The Phantom of the Opera.  

 Ascending the Grand Staircase

Entrance into the auditorium, guarded by two Greek inspired nymphs. Extensive Greek mythology inspiration can be seen throughout the building.  

The Franco-Prussian War

In September 1870 all work stopped when Paris was under siege during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and the half-built opera house was used as a hospital and a food warehouse, the little food that did make it into Paris. Due to the food shortages Charles Garnier’s health  suffered and he left the city for the country side. The opera house was half built and no one knew whether it would ever be completed.

 The ceiling above the Grand Staircase
 Details of the four panels of the Grand Staircase's ceiling

The Prussian Army’s siege of Paris ended in January 1871 and soon after that, in May 1871, the war ended with disastrous consequences for France. It signaled the end of France’s Second Empire and allowed for the creation of the German Empire on France's northern borders. France also lost the regions bordering Germany, Alsace and Lorraine, and had to pay a hefty war indemnity. It was also the last time that any form of monarchy would ever rule France.  It was the end of an era.

Paris in chaos.
With the brief takeover of Paris by the Paris Commune, a self-styled socialist group that didn’t recognized the French government, 2 months of general chaos and mayhem ended in senseless destruction in what became known as "The Bloody Week" beginning 21 May 1871. The fighting between the Commune and the French Army, trying to take Paris back, came to a head when the Commune burned down, first the Tuileries Palace next to the Louvre and then the Hôtel De Ville, Paris’s city hall. They killed the archbishop of Paris and it is estimated that up to 10,000 people were killed in Paris during that time.

The new government of the Third French Republic was hesitant to provide funds for the completion of the opera house, no one wanted to touch anything associated with the Second Empire, but when the Salle Le Peletier, Paris’s old opera house, on Rue le Peletier burned down on 28 October 1873 the story of the Palais Garnier came full circle. The very same Salle Le Peletier, 15 years earlier, was the scene of the assassination attempt on Napoleon III’s life, and it led to the decision to build the Palais Garnier. Paris was now without an opera house. The government soon after provided funding and immediately requested Charles Garnier to complete the building.

The Grand Foyer of the Palais Garnier, inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Another interesting story is the one during inauguration night, when Queen Isabella of Spain, broke tradition in her anticipation of admiring the Grand Foyer and entered it with her full female entourage. Prior to this night only men were allowed in opera house’s foyers where they would smoke their cigars, probably arranged for introductions to new mistresses, and did their wheeling and dealing in the business and politics of the day. Since then women were allowed in foyers.

The Great Builders

Sadly, Napoleon III, the man who started it all, never saw the completed opera house. On 1 September 1870 the Prussians captured Napoleon III when he surrendered at the Battle at Sedan. Napoleon III was later released and exiled to Chislehurst, England where he died on 9 January 1873. The Palais Garnier was inaugurated two years later on 5 January 1875.

The magnificent Grand Foyer ceiling.
Napoleon III may have lost the Franco-Prussian War and exiled to England by his own countrymen, but he was a great builder and his greatest legacy is the historic Paris that millions of tourists see today. Commissioned by the emperor and directed by his Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, between 1853 and 1870 Paris was enlarged from 12 to the present day 20 arrondissements and it was transformed from a slum to a city with broad, and in some cases tree-lined boulevards, which linked the most important centers of the city.
I took a break from the gilded monument and gave my overexposed senses a rest, and walked out on the balcony overlooking Avenue de l'Opéra, one of the new streets created by Haussmann in 1863. The street is a classic example of the "Look of Paris". 

The “Restoration” of Paris meant to open up and aired the city. The narrow dark medieval streets and alleys and the buildings alongside them were demolished. Paris was a permanent construction zone. The strict building codes and circumscribed façade designs implemented along these new boulevards resulted in the “Look of Paris”: Buildings were not allowed to be higher than a certain number of stories with cream colored walls and typical French style roofs with dark greyish-blue tiles.

While enjoying a cigarette on the balcony musicians gathered and entertained the many folks who sat on the steps of the grand theatre.  

They were also responsible for widening the square in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, restoring the cathedral’s steeple that was destroyed during the French Revolution, and in my view, probably their greatest feat, saving and restoring La Conciergerie, parts of this old Palace-turned-prison dates back to the 10th century, and the extraordinary stained-glass masterpiece, Sainte-Chapelle. But there will also be many that would argue that the Palais Garnier was their crème de la crème achievement.

The exterior of the Palais Garnier is just as richly decorated as inside 

This is what we missed.
Disappointingly, we could not enter the auditorium because a rehearsal for the evening's ballet was in progress. The ceiling was given a modern touch during restoration in 1963 by the Russian-Jewish artists Marc Chagall. He needed 440 pounds of paint to complete the ceiling.
Picture courtesy of idesignarch.com.


Our time and trip, starting in Paris, sweeping through Burgundy and southern Ile-de-France, and finally back to Paris, was at an end and it was our most relaxing, most enjoyable and insightful European vacation to date. I think our do-and-enjoy-what-is in-front-of-you-and-don't-stick-to-a-strict-itinerary attitude rubbed off on our general mood. Hence my reluctance to return home so soon. This time I felt I really left a little of me in France and I took a lot of France home with me.

Midnight visit to the Louvre Museum

A solitary early morning walk through the near empty rues of Saint-Germain and the 6th arrondissement, the breathtaking Impressionists on the 5th floor of the D’Orsay, seeing the Louvre at night, viewing Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, a relaxing Sunday afternoon in the Jardin Luxembourg, discovering Saint-Étienne-du-Mont behind the Panthéon and finally the Palais Garnier were the highlights, which offset the average food we had in Paris.

Late afternoon on a country road in Vougeot
Burgundy was refined, delicate, rough, beautiful and stony old. The old city center of Dijon was a marvel that nearly stood still in time. But the friendliness of Burgundians and the superb food and wine were the highlight of Burgundy to me.  The escargots with parsley and butter, the old world Boeuf Bourguignon, some exquisite quiches, and not to mention the wonderful cheeses of the area, all consumed with grand and premier crus from Nuits-Saint Georges, Côtes de Beaune and Volnay-Santenots were gastronomical experiences not soon to forget.

Waiting for sunset in Chartres

The Gothic masterpiece and richly statued Notre-Dame de Chartres, the historic Palace of Fontainebleau and staying in the 18th century Chateau D’Esclimont provoked my senses to create memorable memories.
After our first visit to France I wrote this in a previous post:
“ If I had to summarize France into a single point of remembrance then it is the sheer audacity, and I use this word with great respect, of the French people, especially in Paris, to build such extravagantly beautiful and detailed decorated buildings. The monstrous and imposing but beautiful Arc de Triomphe or the richly gilded and artistically decorated Opera House is classic examples of this love of the French for all things beautiful and attractive.”
I said it then and it is still true.

Adieu! Viva la France!

On the square in front of the Palais Garnier it is very difficult to get an alfresco table at the Café de la Paix at 6 in the evening. I was determined to spend some time on our last night in Paris doing some people watching at this great crossroads of Paris by copying some French, who doesn't always seem to believe in standing in lines. I jumped the line, well not really a line, more a case of bundling up and I simply reacted faster than the others there waiting and walked straight to a table being vacated, not waiting for it to be cleared and clean, in a quiet alcove and secured it for us. If there were any disgruntled murmurs I didn't hear any. Tea for M and for me, my favorite beer Kronenbourg 1664. And for the next hour or so... 

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