Roman Sites in Provence

Photo set on Flickr

At its peak, the Roman Empire stretched across 2.75 million km² over much of Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. One of the greatest empires in history, its ruins now can still be found all over Europe and the Arab world. Provence in particular has one of the highest concentration of Roman sites outside of Italy. For anyone who isn’t a buff on Roman history, should you divert your limited travel time away from Provence’s many impressive attractions, assuming you have already been to Rome and Pompeii (a.k.a. the best)?

I had been on both sides of the coin. On my first visit I saw Pont du Gard then headed west to the Luberon, deciding the rest of the Roman sites in Arles, Orange and Nîmes to be too similar to the ones I saw in Italy. “Twelve years later, now with an obsession on World heritage Sites, I spent a day on visited the three towns I bypassed on my first trip.

Arles

Arles Amphitheatre

For most cities, a 2,000 year-old Roman amphitheater is a gift from history that will manage to draw tourists from across the globe for eternity. Arles merely treats this amphitheater, along with other Roman sites, as a sideshow. See, most tourists associate Arles as the temporary home of Vincent van Gogh where the artist enjoyed the most productive phase in his short and volatile career.

Compares to the many other highly-polished Provençal towns, Arles seems to be in a perpetual state of dilapidation, and any oversized expectation of an artistic haven that once managed to inspire a troubled genius will be quickly dashed. Already a backwater back in Van Gogh’s time, it was precisely Arles’ ruggedness in contrast to Paris’ glamour that attracted the artist to settle there. But like most impressionist masters, Van Gogh’s brilliance laid in his depiction of subjects of everyday life. When you follow his footsteps in Arles, what you will find are real but mundane version of a café, a courtyard, a bridge, and a flight of stairs.

At least the Arles Amphitheater is relatively well-preserved. With a capacity over 20,000, it is still in use for bullfighting and summer concerts. But its enormous stature is constrained by the tiny square it finds itself in – surrounded at all sides by residential buildings, the setting is similar to the Pantheon in Rome.

Orange

Théâtre antique d’Orange

Built in the 1st century AD, at a time when southern France was established as a colony of retired soldiers, the Théâtre antique d’Orange (Ancient Theatre of Orange) was a perfect example of the Roman policymakers’ attempt to distract its citizens from engaging in politics by providing them free entertainment.

From the outside, the theater looks like an imposing fortress, dominated by a 37-meter high wall which Louis XIV declared as “the finest wall in my kingdom“. This towering wall was not just for show; its size allowed for proper sound projection and served as a decorated background of the stage. The theater could hold 10,000 spectators and had a retractable canvas canopy to protect the audience from the elements.

Its size stood out, but what made the theater a versatile platform for various types of shows was the ingenuity of its stage design. A system of cables, winches and counterweights allowed the actors and working scenery to be hidden from the audience using a curtain, along with trapdoors that enabled the crew to suddenly appear or vanish from the stage. With clever designs like these, the thought of people spending entire days at the theater watching mimes and improvisers becomes much more comprehensible.

I didn’t regret visiting Orange, but the theater was also not a must for anyone who isn’t into collecting WHS.

Nîmes

Maison Carrée

Before we get to Nîmes’ Roman sites, let’s clear some facts about its host city first. Located in Languedoc-Roussillon and the capital of the Gard department, Nîmes is 33 km and 45 km from Arles and Avignon, respectively. After visiting little towns like Arles and Orange, Nîmes, with its 140,000 citizens, feels downright like a metropolis.

Arena of Nîmes

Nîmes also has the most impressive sites out of the three, even though the Arena of Nîmes and the Roman temple Maison Carrée are not inscribed as WHS (they are on the tentative list). Of all the Roman arenas/amphitheaters I have seen, I would rank them as Rome>Nîmes>Verona>Arles>Pompeii. Nîmes’ was by far the most intact among them and was the only one that could almost measure up to the Coliseum. Maison Carrée was also unlike anything I have seen elsewhere.

Nîmes is the only must-see among the three towns, and it makes a good day trip together with Pont du Gard from Avignon.

What Avignon Reveals about Provence

Photo set on Flickr

Connected to Paris by the TGV, chances are Avignon will be your first stop in Provence. Many people pick up their rental cars outside of the TGV station and head straight to the Luberon region, never bother to check out this ancient city. That’s a mistake – even as little time as half a day in Avignon can reveal much about Provence at large.

A deep history

If your image of Provence consists of only picturesque villages and lavender fields, remember the region’s Mediterrean location means it is steeped in history. Look no further than Avignon, which is settled since the Neolithic period and predated Paris by more than 3,000 years. Because of its strategic importance, Avignon (and Provence in general) had been successively invaded by the Phocaeans, Romans, Burgundians, Franks, Moors and Holy Romans before being occupied for good by France during the reign of Louis VIII.

Avignon might had changed hands more than a Kardashian, but from 1309-77 it was the center of Christendom, serving as home to seven puppets of the French monarchs French popes. The largest building in town, the Palais des Papes (Papal Palace), serves as a reminder of Avignon’s golden era.

Convenient to visit

France’s efficient high-speed railway system makes traveling around the country a blast. You can get to most major French cities by TGV in just a few hours from Paris, and Avignon, as the transport hub of Provence, is no exception.

The TGV ride from Paris’ Gare de Lyon to Avignon takes only 2h40m. Feeling like heading south right after your plane lands in Paris? There is direct train to Avignon from Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal 2 too.

Think about that – it takes less time to cover the 700 km between Paris and Avignon than a typical Hobbit movie. There are many reasons why France has consistently received the most visitors among all countries, and one of the underrated aspect is the French government’s willingness to invest in infrastructure to ease the traveling time within this not-too-small country. Here are train journeys of similar distance in other western European countries:

London – Edinburgh: 670 km/ 4.5h

Rome – Milan: 580 km/ 6h40m

Madrid – Barcelona: 620 km/ 3h

Berlin – Frankfurt: 550 km/ 4h15m

Besides the massive infrastructure drive in Spain that has created countless white elephants and decimated numerous Spanish banks and government treasuries, none of the other big powers like UK and Italy come close to the TGV’s efficiency.

The crowd can get suffocating 

After encountering busloads of British retirees at the Palais des Papes, you will be forgiven in believing you have somehow been teleported to a retirement home in England. It is not just the Brits you will encounter; people from all across the globe can’t get enough of Provence, especially during the summer when the lavender is blooming and the weather is at its best. The narrow country roads are cloaked full of cars. Restaurants, no matter the quality, are packed. Accommodation almost rivals the price of Paris’. Most retail space is taken up by sorry-looking shops selling generic postcards and lavender-related junks.

This is not about to sink into another “mass tourism has killed another beloved destination” type of rant – it is possible to escape the crowd in Avignon and Provence. Two rules that work anywhere: Use your time efficiently and venture off the beaten path slightly.

Try to wake up right around dawn and take in the Palais des Papes when it is completely empty. When the crowd starts to show up, have a long breakfast. Take a nap then have lunch in the area near the university. You will be surprised how few people venture to this part of town even though it is only a 15-minute walk from the palace. At sunset head to the other bank of the Rhone river and enjoy a undisturbed picnic and a panorama view of the old town. Everyone else? They can continue to get into each other’s way.

Wine fit for a pope

Everyone knows about Bordeaux and Burgundy, but does Rhone Valley ring a bell? Known mostly for its Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache, Mourvedre and Viognier, Rhone wine is often dismissed as the place where bland table wine is produced. Yes, much of the south does fit this bias, but the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape near Avignon is an exception.

That’s an understatement. Châteauneuf-du-Pape is actually one of the most prestigious wine appellations in France. Read that name again. It translates to  “The Pope’s new castle”, as it was during the years of the Avignon Papacy when this once primitive farmland was transformed into vineyards that could satisfy the taste of popes’.

If you can spare the cash, give this wine a try. Drinking it at the Palace Square under a cloudless night is a better introduction to the former glory of Avignon and Provence than anything else money can buy.

The Beaten Path Guide to Provençal Villages

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Long before Florida became a magnet for retiree there was Provence, where two millennia ago Julius Caesar set up three colonies for the veterans of his legions. Since then this southern region of France has welcomed popes, artists, retired Brits (thanks to Peter Mayle) and increasingly, Chinese tourists. And why not? With its reliably sunny weather (when the Mistral isn’t blowing), hearty cuisine, an abundant supply of wine, and a slow-paced lifestyle, it is easy to dream about having a good life in Provence.

Which is somewhat ironic when this love for the Provençal way of life has completely transformed the region. A huge influx of tourist and retirement money has pushed up the property prices in this once poor region. If you time your visit during the lavender season, chances are you will be sharing everything, from the road to dining options to accommodation with tens of thousands of others. The quaint villages foreigners couldn’t help but fall head over heels for? They have mostly been turned into vacation or retirement homes, where the prices are so outrageous even bankers and brokers are relocating to areas with less sunshine such as the Lot Valley.

You can easily spend a week in the area, but if you are like us and have neither the time nor desire to rent a villa and do the retiree routine of visiting a market at a different village everyday, here are the must-see villages on a tight schedule. Trust me, after a few villages most of them start to become indistinguishable from each other – you should prioritize on visiting the cream of the crop. Yes, the four I picked are well known and touristy and are on everybody’s itinerary, but they are listed as one of “The most beautiful villages of France” for a reason. Likewise, avoid these places like plague if you want to venture off the beaten path.

With apologies to Apt, Bonnieux, Lacoste, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Ménerbes, Sault, St Remy and Uzès, let’s begin:

Les Baux-de-Provence

Located majestically atop a rocky outcrop in the Alpilles between Avignon and Arles, Les Baux was God’s gift to humanity to be a military stronghold. But even the mightiest fortress was not indestructible, and the village was sacked on the order of the French king Louis XI in 1483. Les Baux enjoyed a second boom when a red mineral was discovered nearby; it was named bauxite by the geologist Pierre Berthier after the former stronghold.

Today the village relies entirely on tourism. Once home to 4,000 people, only 0.5% still remain. Tourism is the only thing that keeps Les Baux from falling into complete desertion. Les Baux’s dramatic setting justifiably makes it one of the most popular destinations in Provence, but don’t come expecting anything more than a beautiful facade. An hour is sufficient enough to cover the entire village including the chateau. Allow another half hour for Carrières de Lumières, a popular light and sound show of classic paintings inside an abandoned quarry (€ 10.5), which we passed up on because we would rather be outdoor.

The best way to enjoy Les Baux is from a distance where you can marvel the village in its entirety. My recommended spot to take a panorama shot of Les Baux is at an overlook a few minutes’ drive north from the Carrières de Lumières on the D27.

Roussillon

Many gorgeous villages deserve your time around Avignon, but the mountainous region of Luberon in the middle of Provence is where you should be if you want to get the most out of your limited travel time. Specifically, head to the “Golden Triangle” in between the three mountain ranges Little Luberon, Big Luberon and Oriental Luberon where some of the prettiest villages in the region are located.

Roussillon’s claim to fame is the large deposits of red ochre pigments found in the clay around the village. Ochre was mined extensively to be used in the textile industry from the 18th century until the 1930s, and the practice is now banned to preserve the village. Today tourism has replaced mining as the main source of income.

Roussillon can easily occupy an entire morning, especially if you arrive on a market day on Thursdays. Perhaps because of its colorful surroundings, Roussillon has attracted a large community of artists and painters, filling the village with galleries instead of run-of-the-mill souvenir shops.

The main parking lot is the easiest place to take a panorama shot of Roussillon.

Gordes

Slightly north of Roussillon is Gordes, located at the top of the Golden Triangle and a 10-minute drive from the Sénanque Abbey. Settled since Roman times, most of the current buildings were rebuilt after World War II when much of the village was destroyed following a brief period of resistance against German occupation. Like other villages in the area Gordes mostly relies on tourism nowadays. As one of the larger villages in the region, it is easy to get away from the crowd while wandering along its winding streets.

A few hours in the afternoon is sufficient. The best spot to take a panorama is at an outlook on D15 approaching the village from the west. Prepare some food in advance and have a picnic at this spot to take in the view instead of paying for overpriced meals in the village.

Lourmarin


Of the dozen villages I have visited, Lourmarin is by far my favorite (or it could be Uzès, but we were in too much of a rush to do it justice). It manages to combine remarkable beauty with a sense of approachability that’s absent in many of its counterparts.

Located at the foot of the Luberon Massif at the southern edge of the Golden Triangle, Lourmarin was settled a millennium ago even without the defensive bonus of being on a hilltop. Without the dramatic setting of sitting on the edge of a slope, Lourmarin won’t immediately grab your attention like when first arriving Roussillon or Gordes. How Lourmarin differentiates is by radiating a homey feeling that you can’t help but fall in love with. That might be one of the reasons Peter Mayle decided to call Lourmarin home for awhile before selling his estate for a whopping €6 million and moved 10 km northeast to an even smaller village called Vaugines.

Even if you don’t share my feelings about Lourmarin, a tangible advantage of staying in this village is the fact it is not a hilltop village, meaning even if you are arriving late at night you don’t have to navigate the mountain roads in the dark. Evening scroll is also easier on flat ground.

Lourmarin’s setting doesn’t offer a panorama shot. The best location to photograph the entire village is a grass field a block south of the Chateau de Lourmarin on D943.

The Lavender Route

Photo set on Flickr

Lavender is big business in Southern France. From the Drôme River to the north all the way to Grasse near the Mediterranean, large swath of land is dedicated to growing the source of everyone’s favorite essential oil. Before the purple flowers are ground into oil, for several short weeks from late June to early August these lavender fields also serve as one of France’s biggest tourist draw.

You can easily spend days to cover the area, but visitors like myself who have limited time should stick to the route between Sénanque Abbey and Valensole. The itinerary works best if you are based in one of the villages in Luberon or Aix-en-Provence, although if you don’t mind a longer drive you can begin from Avignon. Lourmarin was my choice and the route took around four hours to cover.

Sénanque Abbey
Lourmarin – Sénanque Abbey 35 km (50 min)

Sénanque Abbey

Not sure if you even like lavender? Begin the day at the most iconic lavender patch at Sénanque Abbey and decide for yourself. If you can’t have enough of the purple flower, continue along the route, or escape to the nearby Gordes if you don’t see what’s the fuss is all about. The best thing about the lavender route is you can detour to other points of interest after any stop.

Try to arrive early before the tour buses. We actually visited Sénanque Abbey in late afternoon on another day while doing our Luberon hilltop village whirlwind tour; the struggle just to find a parking spot reminded me of Sunday at a Costco. So do what we didn’t and make this your first stop of day.

After you have taken the mandatory postcard photos, should you shell out the €7.5 to see the interior of the 12th century Cistercian monastery? I felt a certain sense of spirituality and seriousness prevailing in the air when I visited, perhaps because the monastery is still very much in use. But for this route I would recommend skipping it – the tour is in French and takes an hour. Do it only when you are visiting on another day like us.

Sault
Sénanque Abbey – Sault 40 km (50 min)

Sault Wednesday market

If you are into market, try to do this route on a Wednesday when Sault, the supposed “Lavender Capital”, holds its weekly market. Not a big deal if you miss it – check out this list to find those that fit your itinerary. The bigger ones are those in Aix-en-Provence, Apt and L’ Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.

Don’t fret about the market – lavender is the reason you are here. Driving north along D943 it is easy to see how Sault got its moniker. The purple flowers are in full bloom for tens of kilometers until a hill abruptly rises up from the plateau with a pretty village sitting at the top.

Sault

Here you can gain a better appreciation for the cultivation of lavender in Provence. The scale is massive. So massive it makes its counterparts in Hokkaido and Seqium seem like child’s play. This is not a gimmick to attract tourist; for centuries these plants are planted on the same plot of land and have supported the livelihood of generations of growers.

Baron
Sault – Banon 35 km (30 min)

Lavender field along D950

Prepare to stop often heading east to Banon. Just when you think you are growing tired of the purple stuff, this scenic stretch of D950 throws a different look at you. Sénanque Abbey has the momentous background and Sault the bird’s-eye view, but it is here along this nondescript country road where you can find rows of neatly planted lavender that resemble a L’Occitane advertisement poster.

Banon

Famous for its namesake unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese, Banon is an ideal place to break up the long drive to Valensole for a temporary diversion from lavender.

Valensole
Banon – Valensole 55 km (1 hr)

Valensole

You might be wondering, “I have already seen miles upon miles of lavender, what’s the point of driving all this way for the same thing?”

All those stuff written above – they are just appetizers – none of them can hold a candle to Valensole. Despite Sault’s claim, it is at Valensole where the highest concentration of lavender farms are located in Provence. Every direction you look are fields of lavender that stretch to the horizon. My only tip is not to waste any time on the town itself – it is one of the less attractive hilltop villages in the area.

If you have only a few hours, ignore all the previous stops and come straight to Valensole. You won’t regret it.

 

Five Days, Five Themes in Provence

June 30 – July 4, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

A mere three weeks after our herculean trip to Tibet, I found myself flying again, this time to Paris for a conference. With a few days of free time afterward and my wife joining me from Hong Kong, we decided to head south to Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Count us lucky – our arrival coincided with the region’s lavender season, which runs from late June to early August.

Trying to see as much of Provence and Côte d’Azur as possible in a mere five days – we knew going in it was a foolish proposition. But between lavender fields, Roman ruins, hilltop villages and seaside resorts, there were too many interesting draws that demanded our time. We tried to allocate a theme for each day, which again underlines the great variety of sights this popular region offers.

Here comes the question: If there are so many worthwhile sights competing for your limited amount of time, which are must-sees and which are not? I will share my findings in these following posts.

Day 1 
Avignon 

Everyone will pass by Avignon in one way or another. Should you actually spend any time there?

Day 2
Arles, Nîmes and Orange

Arena of Nîmes

Provence has a wealth of Roman ruins. Obviously Pont du Gard is a must-see. How about the slightly lesser known ones in Arles, Nîmes and Orange? Are those worth the time, especially when you have seen the ones in Italy?

Day 3
Lavender Fields

Valensole

These famous lavender routes span hundreds of kilometers. How to cover it in one day so you won’t suffer from a lavender overdose?

Day 4
Hilltop Villages

Bonnieux

With dozens of villages in the area, I am not going to pretend I know enough to properly rate them. What I can do is share where are the best spots to photograph the ones I had been to.

Day 5
French Riveria 

Le Rocher, Monte Carlo

If you don’t own a yacht and don’t plan to gamble, is a day trip to Monaco for you?

Versailles vs Fontainebleau

If you can only see one chateau as a day trip from Paris, should you visit Versailles or Fontainebleau?

On the face of it the above question seems pointless – almost everyone would choose Versailles, only the most famous chateau of all and the prototype that spawns dozens of imitators across Europe. Yet if you google “Versailles vs Fontainebleau” you will find a surprising amount of support for shunning Versailles in favor of its lesser known counterpart. So which one really deserves your time?

Below is a showdown between the two chateaus across four categories: History, grandeur, crowd and accessibility.

History

The Throne Room, Château de Fontainebleau

Although Versailles has come to symbolize the classic French Renaissance chateau, it actually arrived relatively late to the palace-building frenzy in France. Think of it this way, the chateau that was Louis IV’s inspiration for Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, was built in 1661, seven years before the completion of the first phase of Versailles. And that’s more than a century after the construction of many of the famous chateaus in the Loire Valley such as Chambord and Chenonceau. Fontainebleau was also completed during this period.

History is not merely a matter of length, of course. It is what actually happened within the compound that counts. Versailles has Louis IV – Louis VI, the French Revolution, and the Treaty of Versailles. While Fontainebleau doesn’t have a history-altering moment like the Treaty of Versailles, it did serve as the royal residence of a much wider range of monarchs from Francis I to Napoleon III. The Sun King himself, forever linked to Versailles, had spent more time at Fontainebleau than any other monarch. The meteoric rise and abrupt fall of Napoleon were also intertwined with Fontainebleau; the Little Corporal met with Pope Pius VII at the chateau to prepare for his coronation and a decade later abdicated his throne at the very same place.

Edge: Fontainebleau by a hair

Versailles’ peak is more impressive, but Fontainebleau has a century of head start and some very important moments of its own.

Grandeur

Château de Versailles

Versailles wins this one in a landslide. Now, compares to most other chateaus Fontainebleau is excessively opulent, but Versailles is no ordinary palace. You know what’s really expensive in 17th century France? Mirror. So guess what item did Louis XIV use extensively to decorate his showcase gallery? Mirror, naturally. 357 of them. That’s like finding a room filled with slabs of crystal in today’s equivalent. You like huge garden? Versailles’ is larger than 1,140 soccer fields. Want some marble? Grand Trianon and its pink marble is the place for you.

Edge: Versailles in a landslide

Fontainebleau might be fit for kings and a pope, but Versailles was built for the self-anointed Sun King and his unmatched ego.

Crowd

Château de Fontainebleau

Look at the photo above. That was taken on a Sunday afternoon late June and Fontainebleau was completely empty. On the very same day I promise Versailles would be packed with people. During two previous visits to Versailles on weekdays I had to line up for more than an hour just to get through the security checkpoint. Be sure to buy a museum pass in Paris before you go to Versailles, or else another long queue to purchase ticket will be waiting for you.

Edge: Fontainebleau in an avalanche 

Here’s probably the most stated reason why Fontainebleau is the preferable day trip destination. The crowd at Versailles is some of the worst I have seen anywhere. Try to arrive early and wish for the best.

Accessibility

Both are straightforward to get to.

For Versailles take the RER C5 line to Versailles Rive Gauche station, which is a five-minute walk away from the palace. From Invalides the ride takes about 40 mins. The round trip ticket costs €5.60.

To reach Fontainebleau, take a 40-minute train ride from Gare de Lyon on the east side of Paris. The palace is a ten-minute bus ride away. The €16.80 round trip train ticket already includes the fare for the bus ride.

Edge: Versailles

Although the travel time is about the same, you can leave for Versailles from central Paris while Gare de Lyon is a bit away from the main tourist areas.

My Take

Turns out this showdown between the two chateaus is closer than expected. In fact, the Fontainebleau backers have a solid case. To me, the question boils down to this: Are you willing to see a 70% version of Versailles with none of the crowd?

For most, it would be hard to justify traveling all this distance and missing out on the cream of the crop. I too visited Versailles twice before I finally made it to Fontainebleau. The benchmark set by the former proved impossible to meet even I did enjoy having the latter all to myself. My advice to best enjoy these two is to first visit Fontainebleau, then to Versailles as early as possible on another day. If time only permits visiting one, go with the conventional wisdom and see Versailles. Despite the crowd it is still the most awe-inspiring chateau in Europe.

Three Overlooked Sections of Louvre

 

June 28, 2014

Photo set on Flickr

Like all great museums, nobody can cover the Louvre in one go. In fact, with some 35,000 pieces of art and artifacts from prehistory to modern time on display, very few souls in this world can claim to have seen them all. Most visitors only make a beeline to the first floor of the Denon wing to see the Mona Lisa and other Renaissance masterpieces, onward to the nearby Greek exhibition where the Winged Victory of Samothrace is located then call it a day. That’s totally understandable – not only is the Louvre packed with treasures, it is also the world’s most visited museum with more than 9.7 million visitors in 2012. Sorting through both the massive amount of exhibits and people requires a great deal of stamina.

But for those who have the energy and time, here are three sections of the Louvre that demand a look as much as, if not more than, the Mona Lisa, which is actually not all that interesting.

Ancient Egypt

The Seated Scribe from Saqqara

When you think of the Louvre, you think of the palace, the glass pyramid, its classical sculptures and Renaissance paintings. But do you know it also has the world’s fifth largest collection Ancient Egyptian artifacts?

Located on the lower ground floor of the Denon wing and three floors of Sully, the Louvre’s collection is divided into two routes. The Thematic Circuit presents artifacts that project the daily routine of living along the Nile in Ancient Egypt, including themes like fishing, agriculture, hunting, religion and death.

Want to see how the pharaohs lived? Follow the Pharoah Circuit, chronologically laid out from the Ancient Empire and its stone figures, via the painted figures of the Middle Empire, to the New Empire, with its animal-headed statues of gods and goddesses, hieroglyphic tablets and papyrus scrolls.

The Egyptian collection requires around two hours to cover. Those in a pinch should at least try to see the Seated Scribe, a 4th Dynasty painted limestone sculpture found in Saqqara (Sully, 1st floor) and the Dendera zodiac, a bas-relief from the ceiling of a chapel dedicated to Osiris the god of afterlife, in the Temple of Hathor in Dendera (Sully, ground floor).

Napoléon III Apartments

Napoléon III Apartments

We have all heard of Napoleon, but besides history junkie who knows anything about his nephew Napoleon III? Turned out he had quite a life himself. Initially elected by a popular vote to become the first president of the French Second Republic, he took the throne and named himself emperor when he was banned to run for a second term by the constitution. Just like his uncle, he was forced into exile when he was captured by Otto Von Bismarck following the disastrous Franco-Prussian War.

Although not everyone has heard of his name, Napoleon III’s legacy looms large over every visitor to Paris. When you are admiring at the exceptional layout and appearance of the French capital’s historic center, you are in fact looking at the innovative renovation program commissioned by the emperor and directed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann.

For a more intimate look of the emperor’s life, head to his former apartments at the Louvre on the first floor of the Richelieu wing. Although these apartments, functioned as guest rooms for visiting heads of state, were never Napoleon III’s residence as he lived in the nearby Tuileries Palace, you can see his taste towards the flamboyant similar to Louis IV. These rooms are covered in red cloth and gold paint and light up by giant chandeliers.

If you do not have time for Versailles, the Napoléon III Apartments are as good a replica as any in Paris.

Dutch Painting

Dutch Paintings Gallery

A underrated aspect of the Louvre is its diversity. The Egyptian Museum might have the largest Ancient Egyptian collection of artifacts, Uffizi with the most Renaissance paintings and the most celebrated collection of Dutch art at the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre counters by having a bit of everything.

When you feel the crowd is getting under your skin, head to the second floor of Richelieu. Barely anyone comes here, where you can have a moment of silence and leisurely take in paintings by Bosch, Rembrandt, Van Dyck and Vermeer.