Flâneries in Paris: The Opera District

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Flâneries in Paris: The Opera District
This is the 24th in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris. For a wow moment when exiting a metro station, it’s hard to top the sight of the Palais Garnier against a vivid blue sky which greets you as you come to the top of the steps at Opéra. Granted, I had to turn round to see it, but it’s a moment of – pun intended! – pure theater. In order to fully appreciate this very classiest corner of  Paris, I walked about half way down the Avenue de l’Opéra before turning round and coming slowly back up.    The façade of the Opera House is quite something. Groups of golden figures, representing Poésie and Harmonie rise from each side of the roof, and Apollo himself crowns the central dome. Below them is an ever-changing array of marble columns, busts of composers, medallions in red and gold with the initials E and N for the Emperor Napoléon III, plus carvings galore representing music, drama, dance, song. It oozes pleasure and opulence.  Palais Garnier. Photo credit: Alexander Hoernigk / Wikimedia commons Imagine the excitement on January 5th, 1875 when it opened. Here amid Haussmann’s grand boulevards now stood an opulent centerpiece which would blot out the horrors of the recent Prussian defeat and attract world-wide admiration. As a journalist for Le Sifflet wrote at the time, “Foreigners who come to visit this marvel will see that despite all our misfortunes, Paris is and always will be without rival.” Bystanders could watch King Alfonso of Spain and the Lord Mayor of London traveling up the Avenue de l’Opéra in gilded coaches and marvel over what was rumored to be inside: a grand sweeping staircase, marble pillars of every hue, mosaics, statues, candelabra, that 7 ton bronze and crystal chandelier.  The grand staircase of the Palais Garnier. Image credit: Benh LIEU SONG/ Wikipedia Commons Historians sometimes describe this showpiece event as ushering in the Belle Époque and here, around the Opéra, I could still feel a little of its glamor. Some 150 years ago, the wide new pavements of the Grands Boulevards – Boulevard Haussmann, Boulevard des Capucines – began to fill up with café terraces. Little glass-canopied shopping arcades opened up between the main streets. One of the first grands magasins, Printemps, had opened near here in 1865, and a decade later it boasted some of the earliest elevators in Paris. The area had been redesigned for pleasure – shopping, lingering in cafés, a little ballet or opera – and so I decided I would go in search of a little indulgence myself.  Boulevard des Capucines in the beginning of the 20th century. Public domain
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Lead photo credit : View from the roof of Galeries Lafayette Haussmann. Credit: Marian Jones

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.