Travels for Engineers to Paris
By David H. Allen
Over the course of the preceding half century, I’ve traveled to Paris more than three dozen times. As I am an engineer and I am fluent in French, I have taught quite a few study abroad programs in Paris, and I have made substantial efforts to discover interesting stops for engineers in The City of Light. In this blog I will provide a short introduction to the most interesting sites I have discovered in Paris, my favorite city on Earth.
Historic Sites for Engineers
A few years ago, one of my study abroad students volunteered to me that he and some of his friends had visited Paris over the weekend during our stay in Europe. I asked him how he had liked it, and he responded that it was awful – they simply didn’t like it because they couldn’t understand the language, and there was nothing to do! I must say - this was terribly upsetting to me. Admittedly, Paris can be a challenge, but I entreat you – do NOT give up on Paris if at first you find it daunting. If you stick with it, you will find so much to see and do there that you will surely have a wonderful time.
I remember standing in line to get tickets to a concert in Sainte-Chappelle one day, whereupon I struck up a conversation with an elderly English couple. We chatted a bit, and to my surprise, they admitted to me that it was their very first visit to Paris! When I inquired why, the responded something like, “Oh, you know, we’ve always been told that Paris pales by comparison to London.” With one eyebrow raised in surprise, I asked, “And do you find that to be true?” At which they replied, “Actually, Paris is quite a lovely city. In fact, we are already planning our next visit.” Better late than never!
And now, a bit of history – Paris is actually a very old city, dating all the way back to Roman times, when it was called Lutetia, and it was the capital of the Roman Province of Gaul. Paris has a quite colorful history, and one of the best places to get a snapshot of her history is the Basilica of Sainte Geneviève (her original burial site), also called the Panthéon. This massive building constructed under the reign of Louis XV in the eighteenth century has come to be one of the iconic symbols of France, with paintings lining the walls that depict many historical events in French history, dating all the way back to the time of St. Denis, the first Christian Bishop of Paris (who was beheaded by the Romans). This is a great spot to begin your visit to Paris and learn a bit of history, and as an added treat, you will find the crypts of many of France’s greatest heroes in the basement of the basilica (including such luminaries as Madame and Pierre Curie, Voltaire and Jacques Rousseau). And for the technically minded, Léon Foucault demonstrated his famous pendulum within the cupola in 1851. There is usually a copy on display therein today.
Once you have completed your visit to the Panthéon, it is time to begin your sojourn in earnest. Here then is a listing of my favorite historic sites for engineers in Paris (in no particular order): The Paris Metro; The Arc de Triomph, the Eiffel Tower, the Place de la Concorde; the Louvre; The Musée des Artes et Metiérs; Notre Dame Cathedrale; the Musée D’Orsay; Parc des Expositions; the Cathedrale of St. Denis; the Museum of Natural History; the Latin Quarter; the Hotel des Invalides; the Parc de Sceaux; the Musée Bourget; the Musée du Rodin; Les Halles Underground; Disneyland Paris; Montmartre; le Tour Montparnasse; the Paris Opera; the Pont Neuf; Sacré-Coeur; the Musée de Cluny; the Grand Palais; the bateaux mouches; and the Tuileries. I will elucidate on a few of these below, but I can’t resist adding – the above sites are just the tip of the iceberg: there is more to see in Paris than any other city I’ve ever been to. As many times as I’ve been there (as well as lived there), I’ve still more fabulous offerings on my to-do list.
The Paris Metro
The London Tube notwithstanding, the Paris Metro is my favorite mass transit system on Earth. This massive network includes not only the metro, but also the RER (regional train system), and the national train system, all of which are neatly interconnected. This sort of system is only financially affordable in a densely populated area, and Paris is the perfect place for it. Just so you will know, the Paris skyline is limited to buildings no taller than eight stories (except for the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Montparnasse, both of which predated the height restriction), so that, unlike New York City, the skyline of Paris proper is relatively evenly distributed.
The Paris metro is what makes transit easy within the city, which boasts no less than three million people in a quite compact area. So the next time you are in Paris, avoid all forms of transit other than the Metro and the RER, and you will find it easy and inexpensive to get around. And if you find it daunting, buy a multi-day tourist pass at one of the underground kiosks.
The Eiffel Tower
The Eiffel Tower (Fig. 1) should be on anyone’s must-see list, but it is especially important for engineers. This was indeed the second modern structure built on Earth (after the Brooklyn Bridge), and it wasn’t even intended to be permanent! The mastermind of Gustav Eiffel and his engineers, it is perhaps the single most identifiable structure on our planet. And because the Paris skyline has been limited in height, your trip to the top will be crowned with a panoramic scene unlike anywhere else on Earth (See my blog on France.). So start planning now to make your pilgrimage to the top, because – believe me when I say this - it will be one of the most entrancing of your entire life!
The Place de la Concorde
Midway between the Louvre and the Arc de Triomph you will find the Place de la Concorde (place of concord), which is perhaps a misnomer, particularly since it is the location where many persons were guillotined during the French Revolution (including King Louis the Sixteenth and Marie Antoinette). Nonetheless, it is worthy of a visit, for my viewpoint most importantly because there is an Egyptian Obelisk (Fig. 2) located at the center of the roundabout, that was donated by Egypt to France after the revolution. Egyptian obelisks are priceless treasures (See my blog on Egypt.), and this one is particularly interesting because it was for more than three thousand years one of a pair of obelisks located at the entrance to the Temple of Luxor in Egypt. Furthermore, how it was transported from Egypt to France is a story in itself, with a depiction of the methodology shown at the base of the obelisk.
The Louvre (Fig. 3) may just be the single most significant art museum in the entire world. A list of artistic treasure therein would fill several pages of this blog, so I won’t even try. Instead, I will mention just a few items that the technically minded will find interesting. To preface this list, I should first mention that the glass pyramid was built in the 1980’s after I had visited the Louvre on several occasions. And during the excavations to construct this massive feature within the courtyard of the Louvre, engineers unearthed both the old Medieval fortress and the massive fortifications. The fortress is located in the basement of the museum, and is not to be missed. The massive fortifications are actually located outside the Louvre museum, more or less beneath the Arc du Carousel (another interesting landmark in its own right – Fig. 4), and these should be visited as well. And while you are at it, look nearby for the inverted glass pyramid (Fig. 5) featured in the final scene of the movie The Da Vinci Code, based on Dan Brown’s massive best seller.
Within the museum proper, I am a fan of the Winged Savior, the enormous statue discovered on the Greek isle of Samothrace. Another favorite of mine is the Venus de Milo, and nearby you will find a copy of the Caryotids, from the Greek Acropolis (See my blog on Greece.).
Of course, the museum is chock full of famous (and priceless!) paintings, with the most famous of all being The Mona Lisa. But beware, you will most likely need to stand in a long line to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece, and unless you have done your homework ahead of time, you will have no way of knowing why this is the most famous painting in history. Another painting that you will find just down the hallway from the Mona Lisa is Giotto’s painting of San Francesco receiving the stigmata.
Dare I say this – you could spend an entire day in the Louvre and never come close to seeing everything therein. I therefore suggest that you avail yourself of one of the guide maps available in the entry foyer before entering the museum. And, as I have been to the museum more than fifteen times myself, I can say with assurance that no matter how long you spend there, you will come away with a desperate need to return before too long.
The Musée des Artes et Metiérs
This quiet and unassuming museum is actually one of my very favorite museums in the world. It contains many inventions from the time period when the English and the French scientific communities competed for the right to claim precedence of modern science. Fortunately for us today, this competition bore enormous fruit, and the French were in my view equal partners in this venture (although the English would disagree vehemently!). Particularly in the areas of chemistry and mechanics (my chosen field) the French were second to none, and this museum contains many of the inventions that attest to this assertion. For example, you will find the platinum bar (Fig. 6) setting the meter as the measure of length (one ten-millionth of the distance from the Earth’s equator to the North Pole), and the gram (one cubic centimeter of water at the freezing point). You will also find an original calculator invented by Blaise Pascal, perhaps the first advanced computer on Earth, and several ground-breaking experiments for determining the makeup of chemicals. I am also taken with the room on electromagnetism, although the British (Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell) ultimately solved this problem.
Notre Dame Cathedrale
As everyone knows, a recent fire damaged Notre Dame Cathedral (Fig. 7), one of the most visited Gothic cathedrals in the world. While there are other equally important Gothic cathedrals scattered across France and England that date to the eleventh century, Notre Dame has come to be one of the premier symbols of this era simply because it is on the Isle de la Cité in downtown Paris. So be patient, Notre Dame will be restored to its former glory, and in the meantime, you can still see the massive flying buttresses, an invention that lines each side of the exterior of the cathedral.
And for a treat, don’t miss the archeological dig within the square fronting the cathedral. This underground museum, discovered recently, shows the village that existed during the time of the construction of the cathedral.
Parc des Expositions
The Parc des Expositions, is a museum designed primarily for school children, but I nonetheless find it interesting to visit. I especially enjoy the movies in the large theatre, as well as the reconstruction of the famous plate experiments by Chladni (See my textbook How Mechanics Shaped the Modern World.).
The Cathedral of St. Denis
As I previously mentioned, St. Denis was the first Bishop of Paris, and unfortunately, he lived in a time when the Christians were being mistreated. As a result, he was beheaded on the hill named Montmartre (mountain of the martyrs) in the fourth century. The story goes that he picked up his head and walked three miles north, whereupon he expired in a small cemetery. We fast forward eight hundred years, and the very first Gothic cathedral was built on this spot in northern Paris. And if you visit the cathedral, you can see the tomb of St. Denis (as well as that of Clovis, considered the first king of France), therein. Thus, a tradition arose that the kings of France would be buried in St. Denis (Fig. 8), and today you will their tombs within the cathedral, right up to Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette (Fig. 9). Unfortunately, the royals are not within their tombs, as they were broken open and their remains destroyed by the revolutionaries during the French Revolution. Nonetheless, the Cathedral of St. Denis is a must see for the serious tourist.
The Museum of Natural History
The French Museum of Natural History is one of the great museums of this type in the entire world. Indeed, you could spend an entire day perusing the various parts of the museum. Within the old structure adjacent to the Seine River, you will find numerous archeological finds from previous centuries, and further on, you will see modern finds within the newly completed portion of the museum.
The Hotel des Invalides
The Hotel des Invalides is a military museum, primarily glorifying the Napoleonic Wars. Thus, if you are not militarily inclined, this may not be your type of museum. Having myself served in the U.S. Air Force, I find it to be worth a stop, as this period of history involved significant advances in weapons technology.
If you are interested in Napoleon himself, you will find his massive tomb attached to the rear of the museum. And just down the street is located École Militaire, where Napoleon received his military training.
The Pont Neuf
Despite its misleading name (the new bridge) the Pont Neuf (Fig. 10) is the oldest bridge spanning the Seine in Paris. And on the bridge you will find an enormous statue of Henri IV, the French King who commissioned the bridge (and was unfortunately assassinated in Les Halles in 1610).
On the Isle-de-la-Cité, in an obscure location within the walls of the old Palace, you will find the hidden jewel called Sainte-Chapelle (Fig. 11), and this is one of my favorite stops in Paris. Built in just seven years in the thirteenth century, it was commissioned by King Louis IX at the height of the Crusades to house the Crown of Thorns, reputedly worn by Jesus during his crucifixion. And while this assumption is no longer considered accurate, the chapel remains a glorious reminder of a different age in history.
The Parc de Sceaux
As I spent five summers in the suburb of Sceaux, I simply couldn’t resist including the Parc de Sceaux, including the Chateau de Sceaux (Fig. 12), built in the early nineteenth century for one of Napoleon’s statesmen. This massive park is right on the RER line, a short ride from Paris center, and believe me – it is well worth the journey, as is the adjacent town center of Sceaux.
I hope these tidbits of are of use to you in your trip planning for your once-in-a-lifetime visit to Paris, my favorite city on Earth. In future blogs I will give more detailed reviews of some of my other favorites spots in France. Until then, please feel free to contact me if you have questions (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Note: All photos included in this blog were taken by me.