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Engineers Traveling in France - Part 2: Sites for Engineers in France

I promised that I would mention some engineering oddities, and here are a few. I’m going to work my way roughly from north to south so I’ll start with Paris, my favorite city in all the world (Fig. 1). Paris is divided into successfully numbered arrondissements (districts). These wind around in a growing clockwise spiral from the Champs Elysees (1st Quarter) on the Right Bank of the Seine River, which runs through the city center from East to West. Several of these districts should be visited, including: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th (Marais), 5th (Latin Quarter), 6th (St. Germain), 14th (Montparnasse) and 18th (Montmartre). Indeed, there is so much to see within Paris proper that I cannot cover it all in this blog. Accordingly, I promise to provide a blog on this fabulous city in the very near future.

Fig. 1 View of Paris from the Eiffel Tower

Having said that, here is a brief overview of the city. To me, Paris is the crossroads of ancient, medieval, and modern civilization. For an ancient site, try the Cluny Baths just off the Boulevard St. Michel. For medieval, I recommend checking out the ruins of the old castle in the basement of the Louvre. This area was “rediscovered” when the glass Louvre pyramid was built within the courtyard of the Louvre in the early 1980’s. For a modern site, nothing tops the Eiffel Tower (Fig. 2). This was the second truly modern structure built on Earth (see my textbook How Mechanics Shaped the Modern World), shortly after the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Be prepared for long lines, including security, but trust me on this – you will not be disappointed!

Fig. 2 The Eiffel Tower

On Mt. St. Michel, you must visit the inside of the cathedral at the pinnacle of the island. But for a truly incredible stay, spend the night on the island at the Mere Poulard or Terraces Poulard hotels. These must be booked months in advance, but they are worth the effort. And if you get to stay the night, make sure to go out on the battlement walls and watch the tide roll in – it is absolutely sensational!

Chamonix is the charming town at the base of Mont Blanc (Fig. 3), Europe’s tallest mountain. There are ski lifts that can be ridden to many interesting locations above the valley, including the one to Brevent. My favorite is the gondola that takes you up to Aiguille-du-Midi (Fig. 4), and from there one can go all the way to Italy. But for something truly extraordinary, take the Montenvers train

Fig. 3 Mont Blanc behind me

Fig. 4 Aiguille-du-Midi

from the center of town up the mountainside to the Mer de Glace (glacier), whereupon you can hike down to the glacier and go inside (Fig. 5)! This train was a truly amazing engineering feat when it was built in 1908.

Rouen is one of my very favorite small towns in France. Located on the Seine River, it is filled with treasures spanning more than a thousand years in history. My favorites include the old city, with its narrow streets dotted with medieval post-and-lintel structures. But for something truly bizarre, visit the reputed site of Joan of Arc’s immolation in the town center.

In Arles there is a special treat – a host of Roman ruins dating from the first century BCE. These include an amphitheater and a coliseum that is still used today. But for

Fig. 5 Entrance to the Mer de Glace

something truly incredible, visit the archeological museum, wherein there is the recently discovered and only authenticated bust of Julius Caesar (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6 Bust of Julius Caesar in Arles

In Avignon, make sure to visit the Palais des Papes, where the Popes lived from 1309-76. But for something truly amazing, walk out on the Pont Saint-Bénézet (Fig. 7), which was the first great bridge built in western Europe. It collapsed several times, and was finally abandoned in the 17th century.

In St. Malo, walk the streets of the old town, and on a good day, visit the beach at high tide for some amazing waterworks.

In Arromanches-les Bains, you simply must visit the theatre-in-the-round, where there is a moving tribute to the D-Day invasion. Also walk along the beach and observe the remainders of the Mulberry harbor.

In Amboise, visit the house of Leonardo da Vinci (Fig. 8). Leonardo was Italian, but the French King Francois le Premier convinced him to move to Amboise, where Leonardo spent the last three years of his life. You can also see Leonardo’s tomb on the site of Francois’ castle, on the left bank of the Loire River.

Fig. 7 The Pont St. Benezet

Fig. 8 Leonardo da Vinci's house in Amboise

In Lyon, the Roman Museum is not to be missed, and directly adjacent to it you will find an enormous ancient Roman amphitheater where they still hold concerts today.

Deep within the Dordogne, Montignac is the site of the famous ancient cave of Lascaux. A group of French youngsters discovered the site, with its famous cave paintings, shortly before World War II. Nowadays, the original cave is off limits to tourists, but you can visit both Lascaux II and IV, both of which are reproductions of the famous cave. The town of Montignac is also quite interesting and worth an overnight stay. A few miles out of town, one can visit the fascinating and deep cave named Padirac.

Fig. 9 The Pont du Gard

The French countryside is dotted with amazing things to see. For example, there is the Pont du Gard (Fig. 9), an amazing Roman aqueduct built in the first century AD. But for a truly amazing site, visit Alesia, site of the penultimate battle of Caesar’s Gallic Wars (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10 Modern Reconstruction of the Battle of Alesia

There is one other French town that I simply cannot avoid mentioning, although it would be a misstatement to call it one of my favorites, and that is the town of Oradour-sur-Glane. Shortly after D-Day, June 6, 1994, a group of German soldiers drove into this town and murdered the entire population. The French people have essentially turned the entire city into a monument, one that is a must-see for anyone traveling to central France. I can guarantee that you will shed a tear.

I hope these tidbits are of use to you in your trip planning for your once-in-a-lifetime visit to France, one of my favorite places on Earth. In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of the cities mentioned above. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (

Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.

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