Today is our only full day in Paris. Boris and I have both been to Paris before and I was determined to see something new. Although I have seen the exterior before, I have never been inside the Paris Opera House, Palais Garnier. Boris was not very excited about the visit, but he arranged tickets for us for the 11 am English Language Tour anyway. Our hotel is equal distance between two Metro stops and one of them was a direct line to the Opera. You walk up the stairs out of the Metro station and come out facing the front facade of the Opera House. We gave ourselves more time today and arrived timely for the tour, accessed from one of the side entrances.
Besides the staff and performers’ entrance, Palais Garnier was designed with three entrances so as not to mix the classes of patrons. Most patrons entered from the front steps; there are numerous doors and the interior has more decoration than the other two entrances. Of course, you were exposed to the elements. The second entrance, smaller and simpler, was on the side for the higher ranking patrons. This entrance allowed for a carriage to pull up directly to the door. The third entrance was for Napoleon III who started the construction of this Opera House after an attempt at his life at another opera house. This entrance has almost no decoration as Napoleon III had died in exile by the time Palais Garnier was completed and funds (for any project associated with the empire) had been severely restricted by that time. Construction lasted from 1861 to 1875.
The first stop on our tour was the 1,979-seat auditorium. During the later part of the summer when it is hot and people leave the city (as it is now), there are no performances here. With the opening of the larger Opera Bastille in 1989, Opera National de Paris does most of their performances in that venue. While some operas are still staged at Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House that inspired The Phantom of the Opera, is now used primarily for ballet.
Our guide used the time while we were seated in the auditorium to give us some history about the construction of the opera house and its features. Palais Garnier was designed primarily with “being seen” in mind. It was much less about the view from your particular seat. The best seat by today’s standard would be on the first row of the second tier, but at the time of its opening Napoleon’s box above the stage was the choice seat. For one there to enjoy the performance, it is also the worst seat in the opera house. In many older theaters this location, the box overlooking the stage, is now only used for performance lighting.
The guide addressed the story of the Phantom of the Opera based originally on a serial by Gaston Leroux. The story, published in serial form from September 1909 to January 1910, was further popularized by the 1925 Lon Chaney film and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1986 musical of the same name. The story fictionalized actual events to weave the tale we know today. There is no underground lake beneath the opera house, but there is a water storage container used to stabilize the facility. (Garnier actually pumped water out of this swampy site chosen for the opera house for eight months before construction could begin. As a result, wells in the area ran dry for two years.)
Unlike in Phantom of the Opera, the chandelier did not fall during one of the performances. It is designed to be raised and lowered, originally to light the fixture and to clean it. However, one of the chandelier counterweights did fall and kill a patron who was seated on an upper level. The guest had received a free ticket to the opera performance. Today the chandelier is highlighted by a colorful ceiling painting by Marc Chagall.
Marc Chagall was quite old at the time the ceiling was updated in 1964. He actually did a smaller version which was then copied to canvases to be mounted on the ceiling. After he had completed the painting, Chagall was told it was too wide so the painted canvases were cut. At installation it was determined that the painting was too narrow by exactly the amount it had been cut. As a result, a frame had to be added to the Chagall masterpiece. It does stand out as being of a different style than the rest of facilities’ decoration. In the museum is a copy of the original painting which is still under Chagall’s work.
Our next “stop” was to walk the three routes by which the patrons enter the opera house. The classes never mixed. They had different staircases and different lounge areas. It was also significant which night you attended. There were different nights for wives (Mondays) than for mistresses (Fridays).
We made our way up the grand staircase. The guide pointed out a chip in the stairs where a dancer had landed after roller skating on the roof and falling through to the stairs many stories below. From the next layer of balconies you looked down to the staircase. This was the real focus of attending an opera performance and what Garnier kept in mind when designing the opera house. People came to see and see seen in this grand entryway. By its very design, the entry space was a theater itself, with the opera patrons as the performers.
The ceiling and decoration of these upper hallways, where men and women looked to see the other patrons entering below, was just as beautiful. From this level we also accessed the library, museum entrance, and the unadorned entrance that was to serve Napoleon III’s box.
Our next stop was the Grand Foyer. This drawing room was originally only for men. Woman had to stay in their seats/boxes which was a real challenge because performances could last up to seven hours. Then came the occasion when a woman of visiting royalty entered the Grand Foyer to admire the furnishings; no one felt comfortable approaching her about being in the room. After that, woman began enjoying the opulence of this incredible foyer that was inspired by the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.
It is from the Grand Foyer that you access the outside balcony with incredible views of the city in the design planned by Napoleon III. Even the ceiling of this outside structure was frescoed.
We went on to see many additional smaller spaces and the lovely circular dining room, its frescoed panels indicating the menu of fruits, breads, tea, etc. The most expensive item on the menu in the time of no refrigeration was the ice cream. This was one of the last rooms of the Opera House to be completed.
We ended the tour outside of one of the boxes that was open so you could go in a see the view of the stage. During this time of year when there are no performances going on, if you have a tour ticket you are allowed to stay in the building as long as you like. You can go back and take pictures in the various public spaces and tour the museum. After we finished, we made a stop in the gift shop and picked up a few items. Boris also decided I needed a fancy Parisian umbrella.
After we left the opera house, we went on the hunt for one of Boris’s favorite places in Paris that happens to be near the Opera House. (Perhaps the reason he was willing to purchase the tour tickets?) It took a while, but just about the time the rain started, we found Harry’s New York Bar.
Harry’s has been around since 1911 and in the same family since 1923. It is the birthplace of the Bloody Mary and French 75 (made with champagne and wonderful, so partake if you haven’t tried one before). It was a friend’s birthday and she loves French 75s and introduced me to them, so even though it was the middle of the day we had to have a few.
The bar is popular with the expats, particularly on election night. It was next to empty in the early afternoon, but fills at night. Covering the walls are pennants from US colleges and universities; some of the pennants have clearly been there a while. The bar keep said they get new ones in the mail every day.
Boris decided that we needed a snack. We are celebrating our 20th anniversary tonight (even though it was last October) with a special dinner, so we don’t want to fill up during the day. Boris ordered us each a chili dog, each of them costing 15 euros. Ridiculous, but it made Boris smile, that, or the three French 75s he drank there.
Harry’s is a Bond site, mentioned by the character in From a View to a Kill. Our son Rocky has as one of his life’s goals to visit all of the Bond sites so he will have to come here. George Gershwin composed An American in Paris at the keys in Harry’s. It was a hangout of F. Scott Fitzgerald (my favorite American author), Humphrey Bogart, and Earnest Hemingway. Coco Channel and the Duke of Windsor were also among the patrons.
After we left the bar, we walked back to the metro station. Along the way we got an even better view of the Opera House and its domed ceiling. We are headed to the Bastille metro station near the site of the infamous Bastille. The ruins can be seen from metro line 5. We were on line 8. This metro stop is near our next destination, the Place des Vosges, which Boris said is “the most beautiful spot in Paris”.
The Place des Vosges was known formerly as Palace Royale. Palace Royale was built on the site of Hotel de Tournelles and its gardens. In a tie-in to our visit to Chenonceau yesterday, the royal residence Tournelles tournament grounds is where Henry II was pierced in the eye, the wound he would die from several agonizing days later in 1559. After his death his wife, Catherine de Medicis, had the gothic structure demolished. Palace Royale was built on this site by Henry IV between 1605 and 1612.
At the time it was built what was new about Palace Royale was that the square consisted of buildings all of the same design and constructed of the same materials in the same colors. It served as a model for similar squares in Paris and all over the world. With the revolution came the name change. The name flipped back and forth, but has been Place des Vosges since 1848. Cardinal Richelieu and Victor Hugo are among its celebrated residents.
There were lots of Parisians enjoying the benches and lounging on the grass. Boris decided his hotdog hadn’t been enough so we added a dessert crepe enjoyed at the cafe overlooking the square appropriately named La Place Royal.
Place des Vosges is on the edge of the Marais. Originally the aristocratic area of the city, it was also at one time home to a large Jewish population. Today there are many museums and art galleries; it is also a center for the LGBT community. We wandered back through on our way to the hotel enjoying the historic buildings and wonderful shops. Boris was crimping my style, but I did get to pick up a cute fringed bag and some unique jewelry.
Today is our big splurge at La Tour d’Argent (translates to the Silver Tower in English). The claim by this historic restaurant is that there has been a dining establishment on this site since 1582 when it was frequented by Henry IV. The Restaurant sits near the Seine and has unparalleled views of Notre Dame while dining. It took a great deal of restraint for me to not take pictures as we enjoyed the view and later the sunset. (But I pulled some pictures from the internet so you could see the view and reproduced those below.)
Since Boris was in a suit and I was in a long silk dress and heels, we took a cab. The driver took the most difficult route. Tonight the Louvre is open late so the traffic in the area was even worse than normal. Deciding he could not get to the restaurant easily, after 45 minutes the driver left us off blocks away from the restaurant and pointed us in the direction we needed to go. This was not the romantic walk along the Seine one would have hoped for. We were a little late for our reservation, but all was well once we arrived.
Never in my life have I enjoyed such service. The preparation was incredible. They put together ingredients I would never thought would be compatible, but everything was perfection. It was by far the best meal of my life. Their specialty is the duck, which is what Boris ordered. Wonderful. In addition to the many set courses, I added an course with frog legs and another with sole. The most expensive meal Boris and I ever had was at Harry’s in Venice twenty years ago on our honeymoon; this one topped it, although surprisingly not by much. Happy Anniversary Boris.