Sunday, June 10, 2012
Off the Beaten Track
The Trocadero, which sits directly across the Seine from the Tour Eiffel, was rebuilt in 1937 for the International Exposition held in that year. Originally built for 1878 Exposition, the building was not entirely rebuilt, but instead stripped and reclad in perfect 1930s style in an attempt to save some money at a time even rockier financially than our own. The center of the old building was demolished to open up the great plaza facing the Tour, and the two wings, now massive and with huge windows, housed museums.
They still do, and the Palais de Chaillot, on the left when looking toward the river, is home to one of the most under-visited treasures of Paris, the Cité de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine.
The upper floors house a trove of architectural models and drawings, as well as a full-scale example of a Unité de Habitation, one of Corbusier's 'ideal' housing units, as built in Marseilles in the late 1940s.
But for most visitors the thrill will be seeing, up close and personal, plaster casts of many of the greatest facades in France, the result of a massive program to save the crumbling architectural heritage of France and allow it to be seen at eye level, all in one place. Instead of traveling all over France to peer through binoculars at the incredibly detailed carvings of medieval stonemasons, all you need to do is drop in at Trocadero. Do it.
And now for something completely different. Once a year the French Premier (no, not the President) opens the gardens of his official residence, the Hôtel Matignon, to visitors. We happened to notice this event listed in a throwaway publication we found on the mètro and hot-footed it over to take a look.
What looked like a discouragingly long line took only about 10 minutes to clear and we were inside, behind the high wall that gives you no idea of what verdant spaces lie behind it.
The residence itself wasn't open to visit, but we had been in it years ago during one of the annual openings of public buildings that take place during the Journées du Patrimoine in September. That line took considerably longer to clear, but it was cool to see it.
This time we were shepherded around the immense lawn, which we were told no one walks on, and got to look at the trees planted by each of the Premiers Ministres of the last 30 or so years.
I had hoped we could wander on our own, but no such luck; groups of several dozen people at a time were herded along the paths, watched carefully by a full complement of gendarmes. Nonetheless, it was fun to see the little gravestones of departed premier pets, and the lovely trees.
Unlike the White House, the Hôtel Matignon sits among other buildings housing non-official folk, and it was a bit odd to see the balconies of neighbors overlooking this lovely garden and no doubt getting as much pleasure from it as the minister himself, without the bother of having to do all that nasty political work.