Today is Victory Day, which celebrates Nazi Germany’s 1945 surrender to the Allied Forces. It’s a public holiday in France, although more shops and museums tend to be open than on other national days. In keeping with the day’s theme of joyous liberation, you can spend a spontaneous day out and about, going wherever your feet and fancy take you. But if you’d prefer to connect with the more historic and reflective spirit of the day, try the following …
The Musée de l’Armée
An army museum might not be top of your usual Parisian to-do list but this institution offers a fascinating look at how war has evolved over the centuries. Housed within Les Invalides, once a hospital and dormitory for France’s wounded veterans, the museum is not as morose as you might expect. There are floral-embossed armoury and gem-encrusted swords from the times of Lancelot, and fancy uniforms from the era of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who commissioned Les Invalides, and loved his glitzy glamour — as can be seen in the golden Baroque dome in the midst of this sprawling estate.
Under Louis XIV, the army uniform came to be about national pride as much as panache, with snazzy embellishments like sparkling braiding and epaulettes (frills and finery you can still see swaggering down the Champs-Élysées every Bastille Day during the famous parade).
Once you’ve finished perusing the collections (don’t miss the Marne taxi of World War I), make sure to venture into the church through its southern doors, into what was once the royal chapel.
Beneath the cupola (as head-spinningly ornate inside as out) lies Emperor Napoléon’s neo-Classical red quartzite tomb. That a former royal chapel is now a pantheon for hero soldiers tells you much about France’s pride in its military history.
Hôtel National des Invalides: 129, Rue de Grenelle 75007
Arc de Triomphe
One of the quiet achievers of Parisian monuments, the Arc de Triomphe is subtle in its power and presence. It’s not until you walk up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées to the Place de l’Étoile that you realise how monumental it actually is; measuring in at an impressive 50 metres, it is in fact the tallest triumphal arch in the world. But it’s more a reflective than celebratory monument. As you approach (find the stairwell at the corner of the Champs-Élysées that will take you underground and across), you’ll see that the arch is the site of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and Flame of Remembrance, which lends a certain sense of sobriety. Emperor Napoléon, who commissioned the Arc de Triomphe, wanted the edifice to celebrate the French army; it now equally serves as a reminder of the realities of war.
The arch is closed for the morning of May 8th, due to various ceremonies — the President traditionally lays a wreath to honour the Unknown Solider. But in the afternoon you’ll be able to buy an entry ticket — that is, if you have the energy to tackle a climb of over 300 spiralling steps! It’s worth it though, for the breathtaking 360-degree panorama of Paris. And the enjoyment of watching the swirling motor action below, on the Place de l’Étoile, surely one of the world’s busiest, and craziest, traffic zones!
Arc de Triomphe: Place Charles de Gaulle 75008