La Madeleine, Opera and Place Vendome

WALKING TO THE MAJOR SIGHTS OF THE First & Ninth District of Paris

This Walk around Paris’s central districts is another excuse to visit the Place de la Concorde that sits between the Tuileries Gardens and the Champs Elysee. It’s a great starting point to visit some of the beautiful places on the right bank of the Seine, not far from the Ile de la Cite and the Louvre. The image on the right is from an historical map produced in 1846. It is from a panorama that is 5metres long and is a valuable primary source document of what central Paris looked like at the time. In the image, the Luxor Obelisk can be seen, having been erected only 10 years before this image was created. The image shows one of the famous boulevards of this area, Rue Royale, heading directly to the first site of our tour, L’Eglise de la Madeleine. Before this church was built at the end of the Boulevard, there was a previous church here that had connections with the reign of terror that made its centre in the Place de la Concorde. After their execution, the bodies of Louis VI and his wife Marie Antoinette were interred here for 20 years from 1793 before reburial elsewhere.

La Madeleine

It is not surprising that this prime site at the end of the Rue Royale attracted many ideas for a monumental church building. Before Napoleon’s time, two churches were started and were half completed before the next French government decided to try another idea. It was Napoleon himself who decided on the design which was almost constructed before he too passed into history. Eventually the building was completed and dedicated as a church in 1842. The design was modelled on an ancient temple that the Romans had built in the city of Arles around 3 BCE, dedicated to the grandsons of Augustus Caesar. (Check for details). Seven years after completion it was to host the funeral of the great composer Chopin.

Like the other grand buildings of Paris, La Madeleine was targeted by the revolutionary Paris Commune in 1871. The church itself wasn’t damaged but the Parish priest of the church was arrested and finally executed alongside the Archbishop of Paris before government troops retook the city. As can be seen from the images of the Church’s dome and the high altar below, the building is not only an architectural masterpiece, it houses many beautiful art works that are a pleasure to inspect today

The map to the left above sets out the direction of this walk around the first and ninth arrondissements. After inspecting La Madeleine and its plaza, the visitor then has a choice to make. If you are interested in visiting the grand church of Saint Augustin de Paris (built between 1860-1868) you would turn left up the Boulevard Malesherbes. It was built as part of the architect Hausamann’s transformation of this area of Paris in the mid 19th century. If you are time poor, I would suggest turning right up Boulevard des Capucines and walking up to visit the amazing Palais Garnier, the home of the Paris Opera.


The Paris Opera House was one of the focal points of Hausman’s transformation of this district in the 1860s. It was built at the request of Emperor Napoleon III and became recognised as a ‘palais’ because of its excessive opulence, a style that was named after Napoleon III. It was called Palais Garnier after its architect, Charles Garnier.

It was built between 1861 and 1875 and has been generally recognised as the most famous opera house in the world with many opera houses in other countries modelled on this building. For those who are fans of the novel and the associated musicals, this building is the setting for ‘Phantom of the Opera’. Whilst being considered the most famous of Opera Houses, it was also the most expensive ever built and is considered a masterpiece by some and “a lying art” and “décor of the grave” by other critics.

I am probably amongst those who are fond of a lot of sculpture decorating buildings and I also don’t mind a bit of gold leaf highlighting the key features. However even I will admit that the hiring of 14 painters and 73 sculptors is a little excessive in completing the façade of this Opera House. The fact that an image like the one below is necessary with 25 labels to specifically name 25 sculptures seems to be making a point about excessive opulence.

Courtesy: Wikipedia

Being in the travel trade, we were lucky enough to get a complementary room in a hotel just over the road from Palais Garnier for a few nights in 2016 and I have to admit to spending a lot of time admiring its façade. The two photos on the left below of the golden figures of ‘Harmony’ and ‘Poetry’ from the roofline of the opera house are thanks to this great viewing position. The image on the right represents ‘Lyrical Drama’.

If the façade of Palais Garnier is complex, it is only a preparation for the internals of the building as can be seen in just two examples below. The image on the right is of the auditorium and on the left is the grand staircase. Above the auditorium is a chandelier weighing seven tons, costing originally around 30000 gold francs. It was taking a risk having a 7 ton object swinging above an audience of high fashioned citizens and unfortunately the worst fears came true in 1896 when the chandelier came free and fell from the ceiling into the auditorium killing a concierge. Of course, from tragedy comes great art as the incident inspired one of the famous scenes in the novel , Phantom of the Opera.


As the earlier map of this walk shows, it is a very straight walk down from the Palais Garnier to Place Vendome. This beautiful piazza was begun in 1698 and was always meant to be a place for the celebration of French military victories. A statue of Louis Quatorze was erected here but this was destroyed in the French Revolution. Napoleon thought that the Place’s dedication to celebrating French victories was a good idea so he directed that the current column be built, modelled after the famous Trajan’s Column in Rome. It was made from the bronze of canons captured from the armies of Europe that Napoleon defeated at the Battle of Austerlitz.

The life of the column and the statue of Napoleon on top of it was not a comfortable one throughout the 19th century. In 1816 after the battle of Waterloo and Napoleon was gaoled on his Mediterranean island, a mob tied a cable around Napoleon’s statue but failed to move it. With the Bourbon Kings of France restored to their throne between 1814-30, Napoleon’s statue was successfully removed and the bronze used to create a statue of Henry IV (1589-1610) which is still standing today on the Pont Neuf Bridge. The life cycle of Napoleon’s statue continued with a new one being restored to the top of the Place de Vendome column by Louis Philppe I, the last of the Bourbon Kings.

Like so many other historical sites of Paris, the 1871 Commune didn’t like the statue of Napoleon on the top of the Vendome column. It was pointed out that a column and statue dedicated to war was not a good look for a square that started a street dedicated to peace. (Rue de la Paix). The image above right shows the happy Communards posing beside the toppled statue. The whole column this time was taken down but the but the bronze plates that it consisted of were preserved and used in the restoration of the column in 1874.

Today the Place Vendome is famous for its fashion houses and deluxe hotels. We had a very enjoyable stroll around the Place at the end of a long day walking the boulevards of 1st & 9th Districts of Paris. By the end of our walk the locals were coming out to play and we encountered a group of young Parisian men heading out for a buck’s party. We were lucky that the colourfully attired groom decided to give us a hug and a kiss on his way to a long night out!

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