Last week I wrote a post about my neighborhood and my apartment. This week, I’m going to whisk you to the opposite side of Paris, to examine the lives of people who are, in many ways, quite opposite of me. The 16th and 8th arrondissements of Paris, which form the western wall of the city, contain the upscale shopping street of the Champs Elysee, the Arc de Triomph, and Trocadero (with a perfect view of the Eiffel Tower). With it’s ornate 18th century buildings and grand boulevards, these are the neighborhoods that strike the fantasies of Paris admirers worldwide.
These streets have been the home of French high society for generations, and the splendor of the homes there attest to this. I first stumbled upon the neighborhood on my first and only bike ride in Paris, and it was like rolling in to another world. As I glided down the quiet, tree-lined Boulevard Pereire (itself named after prominent 19th century bankers), I honestly wondered if I had somehow accidentally crossed the periphique and had biked out of Paris altogether. Unfortunately I didn’t stop to smell the proverbial roses on that first trip out, but I always vowed to go back and explore. I finally made it back out there, under the pressure of my Parisian adventure coming to an end, and vowing to see 10 new things in my last 10 days. The starting place for my adventure was Parc Monceau. It was originally designed in the 18th century by the Duke of Chartres as a playground of sorts for the rich and famous to come and enjoy themselves. Complete with an Italianate grotto, pyramids, temples, windmills, and even a small farmhouse, it was a perfect place to come and let your imagination take hold. Today, what remains of that luxurious escape is a pyramid and the grotto, complete with a friendly patrol of ducks. The Parc is also interesting for being the landing site of the first parachute jump from a balloon, performed by a fellow named André-Jacques Garnerin in 1797. At the time, ballooning had become a type of entertainment (much the same as taming tigers at the circus or balancing on a tightrope over the grand canyon or those daredevil pilots walking on the wings of airplanes), and during the 19th century, balloonists would travel around and put on spectacles in the air. In some cases, it was a family affair, and Garnerin’s wife was also a famous balloonist, as was his niece, Eliza. Her friendly rival was another woman named Sophia Blanchard (who herself took over the family ballooning business when her husband fell out of his basket after suffering a heart attack). The Garnerins and Mrs. Blanchard competed with each other, each becoming more and more daring in response to the others’ latest feat. The competition finally came to an end when, sadly, Mrs. Blanchard died after setting off fireworks from her balloon.
As home to the rich and famous, the parc is bordered by stately mansions, many of which are now museums. Among my favorites in the area is the Musée Cernuschi, which houses the late Henri Cernuschi’s impressive collection of Asian art in what used to be his home. It’s not a big museum, but it is very interesting, informative, and well-displayed. There are also, within short walking distance, the Musée Jacquemart-André, the Musee Clemenceau and the Musee Nissim De Camondo. All are very, very worth visiting, and, frankly, I prefer them to many of the more famous museums. They are house museums, restored or maintained in the styles of their former owners, and attest to the richness and luxury enjoyed by 20th century Parisian upper classes. They also, especially in the case of the Musee Jacquemart-Andre, contain very noteworthy art collections, which includes artists spanning the entire European continent, from Mantegna to Rembrandt, Jacque-Louis David to Botticelli to Thomas Gainsborough.
If you decide to venture out and wander aimlessly around the neighborhood (as I tend to do), you may find yourself facing some very interesting architecture, such as this very-misplaced Chinese Pagoda wedged in among the usual mansions on Rue de Courcelles. After a little research, I found out it was built by a Mr. Ching Tsai Loo, who was a prominent dealer in asian art and antiques around the turn of the century. He specially constructed this building to use as his gallery, and no doubt ran a good business from there. Nowadays, the building can be rented out and used for special occasions. A quick google search reveals that the interior is just as impressively decorated as the exterior.
Hailing from yet another corner of the globe, I found this Russian cathedral just blocks from the Arc de Triomph. I was immediately struck by the mosaic and wanted to go inside, but the crowd of people out front made me wary that perhaps something was going on inside. The church has been in use since 1861 and has played host to many important occasions and interesting parishioners, from Pablo Picasso (who got married here) to Ivan Turgenev and Wassily Kandisnky (both of whose funerals were held here). Across the street are several heavily decorated little russian restaurants, and I am still kicking myself for not stopping in for Vareniki.
If anything, the 8th Arrondisement speaks both to the wealth and splendor of the Parisian aristocracy, but also to its incredible diversity. While it’s tempting, as a tourist, to stick to the big well-known attractions along the river, I would urge you to also take a couple hours to venture out and discover some of these hidden gems a little further off the beaten path. You will not regret it.