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The best virtual visits to Paris

Gilded hallway of the Opera National in Paris, golden columns and plasterwork lit by chandeliers

For the best virtual visits to Paris, look no further than Google Arts and Culture says Melissa Barndon.

Dedicated to bringing, well, arts and culture, to everyone, it means there are many sites and museums all over the world, more than 2000, that you can visit without stepping out your front door. So head to France to discover glittering châteaux, gorgeous museums and gracious gardens as well as marvellous monuments from the Eiffel Tower to the Pont du Gard and landscapes as diverse as the lavender fields of Provence to the streets of Lyon.

And for Paris lovers – here are five virtual visits you shouldn’t miss…

The best virtual visits to Paris

Chateau de Versailles

View of the palace of Versailles through golden gates across a grand cobbled courtyard

View this most magnificent of all châteaux from your home. Immerse yourself in the 17th century and take a 360 degree tour through the sparkling Hall of Mirrors. And then meander outside the palace for a stroll through the arched colonnades in the garden and the bronze fountains.

If you want to see past the glitz and the glamour and learn something about the history of Versailles, online exhibits range from “Fashion at Versailles: For Him” to “Louis XIV: the Construction of a Political Image”. There’s even a quiz! Which royal would you be? And the Sun King, creator of this sumptuous palace, invites you to spend some time in his sumptuous bedroom…

The wonders of the palace of Versailles are not limited to its walls. It was built during a time of great scientific discoveries and inventions. If you look closely you will see astronomy, world globes, and cherubs wielding scientific instruments in all the hidden corners of the palace. Did you also know that Louis XVI loved maps so much he had a separate room built onto his apartments with a specially made desk – purely for map drawing?

Hundreds of paintings, from portraits of Marie-Antoinette with her children, to the coronation of Napoleon, line the silk covered walls. And when painting changed to photography, what better subject than Versailles? The troops in formation at the Place d’Armes in 1870. The state receptions for Queen Victoria and John F. Kennedy. Even the fallen trees after a vicious storm in 1990.

So put on your best frock, pour yourself a glass of champagne, and explore this beautiful palace without ever leaving your couch (except for more champagne, of course).

Visit Versailles: the palace is yours

French Senate

Palace of Luxembourg in the Luxembourg Gardens, Paris

If you’ve been to Paris, you’ve almost certainly seen the Palais du Luxembourg, that elegant building which takes pride of place in the Jardin of the same name. But unless you’re a French senator, you’ll find it almost impossible to take a peek inside.

Originally built by Marie de Medici in the 17th century, the palace was a prison and court of justice during the French Revolution. It became a military hospital in the Prussian invasion of Paris and a home for the commander of the Luftwaffe in World War II. And finally the permanent seat of the Senate of the Fifth Republic from 1958. It was here that Victor Hugo defended freedom and the Republic…

For an impressive overview, begin your virtual tour with the exhibit titled ‘Palais du Luxembourg, 400 years of history’, which will take you to every corner of this magnificent building. The gilded walls dating back to the Renaissance are juxtaposed against the modern conference rooms with their tv screens and comfy chairs. Watch for the sweeping view of the library with its cupola painting by Eugène Delacroix and its shelves filled with ancient leather worn texts.

You don’t need an invitation

The Salle des Conférences is the most opulent room in the palace. At 57 metres long, it was originally the Throne Gallery built for Napoleon III in 1852. Take the tour ‘Palais du Luxembourg, siège du Sénat’ and lose yourself in this golden gallery. Can you spot Napoleon’s throne? Seat yourself comfortably in the dark red velvet chairs and look up, where a veritable treasure trove of murals await. It’s a feeling not unlike being in the Sistine Chapel.

The separate Petit Luxembourg is the residence of the President of the Senate. Peep inside the working office and wander along the marble terrace.

The Luxembourg gardens are as beautiful as the Palace, and you can take a leisurely stroll past the circular basin or sit and watch the sailboats.

The French Senate is only open to the public on the third weekend in September for European Heritage Days. Or you can take a guided tour with the permission of a Senator (highly unlikely). So, take the opportunity to walk through its doors now.

Visit the French Senate, Palais Luxembourg

Monnaie de Paris

Monnaie de Paris, a grand building and museum of the history of money in Paris

Show me the money! Or, we can head on over to where it’s made, the Monnaie de Paris, or Paris Mint. With one of the longest facades along the Seine river, this elegant neo-classical edifice houses the world’s oldest money producing institution. For over 1,150 years, the Monnaie de Paris has been making coins. First on Île de la Cité, then various sites in Paris including the Louvre Palace for a century or so, before moving to  the Quai de Conti in 1775.

Start your guided tour on top of the museum building. You’ll get a not so common view of the Seine: the tip of the Île de la Cité. Looking much like a pointed nose, this peaceful green space is a haven in which to sit and idly watch the boats pass by. Across the river, on the right bank, the Louvre rises majestically. And in the distance are the two tallest points in Paris – the Eiffel Tower and  Tour Montparnasse.

11 Conti

The Monnaie de Paris building, referred to as 11 Conti, is today made up of a museum of the money-making process, and the original factory which mints medals and coins of precious metals. Production of legal currency was moved to Pessac in the southwest of France in the 1970s. The ‘12 centuries of excellence’ exhibition is a comprehensive overview of the minting of money in France. And ‘The roaming of Monnaie de Paris’ tells you how they came to stop roaming and made their home on the left bank of the Seine.

But there’s more to see than ancient currency. In its hallowed halls, particularly the gorgeous Salon Guillaume Dupré, have been held a number of modern art exhibitions. Plastic trees and metal skull sculptures sit incongruously against painted cupolas and carved balustrades. Artists include Kiki Smith, Thomas Schütte, controversial Paul McCarthy (you really have to see the photograph of his ‘trees’), and a collection of works from the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

I didn’t think that a museum about money would be terribly interesting (unless they were giving some away). But I was wrong!

Visit: Monnaie de Paris

Mobilier National, Manufacture des Gobelins, de Beauvais, de la Savonnerie

Museum Mobilier Nationale in Paris, grand carved stone entrance and domed roof

As you sit on your couch and click through the Google Arts and Culture website, do you find yourself looking around your living room and dreaming of a makeover? Does it need a Louis XIV chaise longue, a dining table for 20, a few medieval tapestries for the floor? If so, the Mobilier National is the place to go. They have been creating and conserving the treasures of France for five centuries. How-ever, unless you live in the Élysée Palace, these valuable pieces aren’t for you. But the website itself is a treasure chest. Open the lid and delve into the wonders of silken fabrics, golden tapestries and exquisite lace.

Formerly based in the Grande Gallery of the Louvre under Louis XIV and now housed in the historic Gobelins tapestry factory, the Mobilier National is responsible for furnishing palaces, presidential residences and embassies. They also for maintain, create and distribute a unique worldwide collection of over 130,000 pieces of furniture and textiles.

And how are these pieces designed and made? Through three important and influential factories: Les Gobelins, Beauvais and La Savonnerie.

Walking through the exhibits is akin to being in Versailles, in the Louvre, in the bedroom of a queen. Marvel at the intricacies of Renaissance tapestries and fabrics and learn how they were fabricated. It’s easy to lose yourself for a few hours learning all about dyeing fabrics, lace-making and wood carving. And if you don’t know what a nuancier is, this is your chance to find out.

Visit: Mobilier National

Opéra National de Paris

Seats at the Opera Garnier Paris, red velvet and golden woodwork

Imagine this. You’re standing on the stage of the Palais Garnier. Before you an adoring crowd is on their feet, clapping wildly at your moving and tragic performance of Swan Lake. Bravo! Bravo! They cry. Now if it was a nightmare you’d look down and see that you’re naked. But on this virtual tour you are free to dream of yourself in a tutu. This opulent building was finished in the late nineteenth century and was the official home of Paris Opera and Paris Ballet until 1989. Now it’s mostly used for ballet performances.

Once you have finished with your standing ovation on the stage, there is much to see. If ever there was a room filled with gold, it is the Grand Foyer. Cast your eyes upwards and follow the history of music and of Paris ornamented with colourful frescoes awash with gold leaf. Apollo receives a lyre from Mercury. Calliope, Clio and their sisters, the nine Greek muses, cast a loving eye from lofty heights. The siege of Paris is enacted in historical glory.

The Phantom of the Opera

Access to this glorious golden chamber is via the Grand Staircase. On its marble pedestals sit entwined Greek goddesses holding candles to light the way. Keep on walking and you come to the prosaic but essential heart of the building – dressing rooms and practice rooms. And then ascend to the roof for a stunning 360 degree view of the Paris skyline.

And what of the rumours that the Phantom of the Opera stalks the Palais Garnier?  It is true that the 1910 novel of the same name was largely inspired by stories that a man with no face lived in the underground ‘lake’, and that the building itself is the setting for the famous opera. Does he haunt there still? Come and see for yourself.

Visit: Opéra national de Paris

Melissa Barndon lives in an old woodshed in the Yvelines department with her French husband and two children. She thinks there is no better place to be than France for its rich and turbulent past. Her blog MadameMellissane.com is about the delights of French history.

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