Meeting Napoleon

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May 28th 2009
Published: July 7th 2009
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We had a leisurely start to our last day in Paris. We were to check out of the hotel by midday so decided not to leave too early for should we tire of sightseeing we would not be able to return to the hotel before having to travel homeward. We probably spent more time in our hotel today than we have the entire trip. We got up late and wandered down for breakfast. For once we had time to enjoy our meal, although the extra time meant I was able to eat twice as many croissants as usual which isn't necessarily a good thing!!
Back in our room we lazed about, flicked through our photos on the digital camera, watched a film in French, cleaned up and packed and polished off as much of our extra food from the fridge as we could.
Eventually we checked out, left our bags at reception and set off for the Hotel des Invalides where I thought we could easily spend an hour or two until it was time to leave for the Eurostar. I was wrong. Two hours was nowhere near enough time to explore les Invalides properly and we regretted not leaving earlier.
We got off the metro and walked towards the complex, trying to decipher our now rather battered map and hoping the rain held off at least until we got under cover. We walked past a row of embassies and finally arrived at the Hotel des Invalides, an impressive complex of buildings with the gilded dome of 'Église du Dôme' rising above the walls of the outer buildings.
Les Invalides was founded by Louis XIV, the Sun King, in 1670 near what was then called the Grenelle Plain. Built as the first national hospital and a retirement home for soldiers wounded in action, it was funded by a five year levy on the salaries of soldiers currently serving in the army at that time. The first stones were laid in 1671, for what was to become a complex providing quarters for 4,000. Construction followed plans drawn up by Libéral Bruant, and was completed in 1676. By the time the enlarged project was completed in 1676, the river front measured 196 metres and the complex had fifteen courtyards, the largest being the cour d'honneur ("court of honour") for military parades.
It was felt that the veterans required a chapel. Jules Hardouin Mansart assisted the aged Bruant, and the chapel was finished in 1679 to Bruant's designs after the elder architect's death. The chapel is known as Eglise Saint-Louis des Invalides. Shortly after the veterans' chapel was completed, Louis XIV had Mansart construct a separate private royal chapel, often referred to as the Église du Dôme from its most striking feature, a baroque dome inspired by St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. Construction of the dome began in 1706. Designed by Jules Hardouin-Mansart and completed by de Cotte after Mansart died in 1708.
We explored the exterior quickly while it was still dry. We took photos by the impressively large cannons positioned along the outer walls facing the modern road. We walked through the courtyard which contains 18 cannons, including eight taken from Vienna, which Napoleo ordered to be fired on great occasions, including the birth of his son in 1811. The cannons sounded again for the 1918 Armistice and the funeral of Marshal Foch in 1929. Beyond the courtyard we found the chapel, decorated with flags taken by French armies in battles. It was incredibly peaceful inside and the glass panel between the chapel and the Église du Dôme beyond allowed light through as well as a glimpse of the gilded interior of the other church.
Back in the courtyard we looked at the various cannons, tanks and arms displayed under the arches.
Many of the arms used by the mob when it attacked the Bastille on 14 July 1789 were taken from Les Invalide on the morning of that day. Despite resistence by the posted sentries, they were overwhelmed by the mob which finally entered the underground rifle storehouse. Roughly 28,000 arms were taken.
We decided to go into the armoury but needed first to get tickets. Locating the ticket office on the opposite side of the buildings we were disappointed to discover the ticket would gain us entry to all the museums and the royal chapel housing Napoleon's crypt... enough for a whole day trip not the hour or so we had left. Debating whether or not to fork out the money for such a short visit we then found that European citizen's under 26 could get free entry! Since only one of us now had to pay we decided to split the cost and at half price, we weren't going to complain how little time we actually had left. We visited the Église du Dôme first, and even got a free audio tour inside. I found the interior breathtakingly beautiful, with the exquisite ceiling paintings and elaborate gilded altar piece. We walked around the upper level where many of Napoleon's generals and relatives are buried. We made our way to the entrance of the crypt, presided over by two massive statues with the imperial eagle on the marble floor. The tombs of Betrand (1844) and Duroc (1847) are situated opposite the crypt facing each other. We walked down the steps into the crypt where Napoleon's sarcophogus dominates the area and is surrounded by white marble staues and carvings around the walls. Napoleon's body was interred in Les Invalides in 1840. After seven years of negotiation with the British government, Louis-Philippe, King of France, obtained permission to repatriate the Emperor's remains from St. Helena. On 8th October 1840 - 19 years after the death of the Emperor - the coffin was exhumed and opened for two minutes before transport to France aboard the frigate La Belle Poule. Those present claim that the body remained in a state of perfect preservation.
After arriving at Le Havre, it was brought up the Seine and landed at Paris at Courbevoie. On 15th December 1840 a state funeral was held, and despite a winter snowstorm, the hearse proceeded from the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysées, across the Place de la Concorde to the Esplanade and finally to the cupola in St Jerome's Chapel until the tomb - designed by Visconti - was completed. On 3 April 1861 Napoléon I came to his final rest in the crypt under the dome.
A small adjacent room houses a statue of Napoleon and the marking on the floor declares 'Napoleon II Roi de Rome 1811 1832'
Just outside the main room of the crypt we found a side passage which led to a series of wall plaques and the burial place of many more generals and heroes of French wars.
We next visited the Musee d'armee which was fascinating. The museum displays weapons and armour from the 12th to the 18th centuries with many examples of weaponry from across the world. The rooms themselves are beautifully decorated with murals covering the walls. Somehow we managed to miss one of the most famous exhibits - Napoleon's horse, now stuffed and preserved. Of Napolean's many horses, perhaps the most famous was Le Vizir, a gift from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire in 1808 during Napoleon's second exile on the island of Saint Helena. The horse died in 1829, eight years after Napoleon. We didn't do too badly considering we were running very short of time.
Back outside we realised our time was almost through, but decided to make the most of our time in Paris by foregoing lunch in favour of more sightseeing (we could get a sandwich at the station or something).
We walked to the upper level just in time to see the parade ground below filling up with soldiers in uniform with a marching band following behind (the same guys we saw yesterday evening?). We watched for a few minutes and then went into the WWI and II museum. We explored the exhibits, rather hurriedly I'll admit and then fianlly went outside for a quick stroll through the gardens before finding our way back to the metro stop. We had a cheerful last metro ride as there was a busker in our carriage. he stepped on with a full sound system and a microphone and sang away for several stops. We eventually got off at our stop humming Volare and returned to our hotel, collected our bags and took the metro to Gard d'Nord, still amazed that out three day metro pass was still letting us through on the fourth day (not that we're complaining!) We arrived at the train station and went in search of food. I wasn't impressed by the vegetarian offerings - one tiny cold carrot and courgette sandwich for a ludicrous price. I decided to opt out and search for food once we were through customs. We checked our bags through security only to find out Eurostar was already on the platform so decided to go straight there and find our seats. I eventually got food on the train (for an extortionate price of course) but I certainly don't regret spending the extra time at Les Invalides, it really is an amazing place.
We had a smooth journey home and the only thing I wish is that we could have had an extra couple of days in Paris. I would have loved to actually go inside the louvre, I wanted to visit the Sacre-couer, the pantheon, not to mention the numerous other museums and galleries spread across the city. I suppose that means there is plenty left for another visit some other time!

Additional photos below
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7th July 2009

The Honor of Death!
Oh MAN! If _I_ had a crypt that looked that awesome I'd be so happy! And as people stood in awe wondering 'what amazing thing did this person do!?' they would read onto the carved marble floors "Vene, Vini, Vitari" (She came, she saw, she commented).
10th January 2010

Great blogs and photos of Paris. I can't wait to return! Happy travels, Dawn

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