THE TROCADERO – PANORAMIC VIEWS, BEAUTIFUL GARDENS, FOUR MAJOR CULTURAL INSTITUTIONS, AND A SUPRISING SECRET
Situated on the opposite side of the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, the Trocadéro is well and truly on the must-visit list for offering the best view of the most recognisable monument in Paris. It is also home to beautiful gardens, ornamental ponds and fountains that stretch down to the river, as well as the richness of the Palais de Chaillot, the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine, and the Musée de la Marine—although this is currently closed for massive renovations during 2022. As we discussed in the last blog, the chic and very upmarket village of Passy and its tiny cemetery, the final resting place of numerous artists and other notables, lies just behind the Trocadéro. However, there is one fascinating secret about the Trocadéro that only came to light a few years ago, which I’ll look at in this story.
The Trocadéro occupies the site of the Palais de Chaillot built in 1878 which was demolished in 1937 to make way for the current Palais, and the colline (hill) that it sits on was once a village. The site was named in honour of the Battle of Trocadéro, in which the fortified Isla del Trocadero, in southern Spain, was captured on 31 August 1823 by French forces led by the Duc d’Angoulême, son of the future King of France, Charles X. France had intervened at the request of King Ferdinand VII of Spain, whose rule was challenged by a liberal rebellion. After the battle, the autocratic Spanish Bourbon Ferdinand VII was restored to the Spanish throne, although he died a year later. Nowadays, the site is officially named Place du Trocadéro et du 11 Novembre (for the WW1 armistice), although it’s usually simply referred to as Place du Trocadéro.
At the time that Baron Haussmann was already implementing drastic changes to Paris on the orders of Napoleon III, the colline de Chaillot was first allocated as a site for the 1867 World’s Fair. By the time of the 1878 World’s Fair, the Palais du Trocadéro had been constructed, intended as a venue where meetings of international organisations could be held during the Fair.
The building itself comprised the largest concert hall ever built in Paris with 4,600 seats, and contained the first large organ installed in a French concert hall. There were two wings and two towers either side of the main space, all built in what was said to be a mish-mash of “exotic” architectural styles and historical references: a western interpretation of “Hispano-Moorish” with some faux Byzantine elements. Apparently, the building proved very unpopular—people simply hated it—but its huge cost delayed its replacement for nearly 50 years.
Below this massive building were abandoned underground quarries, and a large aquarium was built to contain examples of fish from French rivers. This was renovated in 1937, but closed again for more renovations from 1985 until May 2006. The large space between the Palais and the river Seine was laid out with gardens and a number of fountains.
The gardens of the old Palais contained two large animal statues of a rhinoceros and an elephant, which were removed and stored during the demolition of the old Palais du Trocadéro and were eventually installed next to the entrance of the Musée d’Orsay in 1986.
The engineer Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, who was in charge of the design for the gardens, had already created parks and gardens such as the Parc Monceau and the Bois de Boulogne.
As well, Napoleon III wanted the gardens of the Trocadéro to be a symbol of harmony and peace, just like the English gardens that he admired. Trees such as oak, beech and chestnut were planted, and there is even a small artificial river flowing through the gardens, in the shade of these old trees.
The present Jardins du Trocadéro cover an area of almost 10 hectares at the foot of the terrace of the Palais de Chaillot, extending down to the River Seine, exactly in line with the Eiffel Tower on the opposite bank. Adapted from the gardens designed by Alphand, today’s gardens were created for the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in 1937 and designed by the architect Roger-Henri Expert.
The gardens from the Napoleon III era have many different sculptures to admire, the two best-known are in stone–one is called ‘L’Homme’ while the other is called ‘La Femme’. These are located just below the first level of stairs from the Palais de Chaillot. There are also two fabulous animal bronze statues called ‘Taureau et Daim’ (Bull and Deer), and the other is called ‘Chevaux et Chien’ (Horses and Dog).
Another sculpture, the ‘Monument aux Combattants Polonais pour la Defense et la Liberation de la France’ was only put in place in 1978 in order to commemorate the Poles who fought for France in WW2, and it also acknowledges the sculptor Antoine Bourdelle, who was involved with Polish issues.
The centrepiece of the gardens is the Fontaine de Varsovie (Warsaw Fountain), the largest fountain in Paris. The fountain consists of a long basin which acts like a water mirror, with 12 fountains creating columns of water that shoot 12m high. There are 24 smaller fountains and 10 water arches. At one end, facing the river, are 20 powerful water cannons, able to project jets of water 50m. Above the long basin are 2 smaller basins, linked with the lower basin by cascades flanked by 32 sprays of water that shoot 4m high in the air. These fountains are the only ones left from the 1937 Exposition still existing that still function as they did originally. In 2011 the fountain’s complete system was renovated and a modern pumping system installed.
For the Exposition Internationale of 1937, the old Palais du Trocadéro was partly demolished and partly rebuilt, and now the Palais de Chaillot sits atop the hill. This new building was designed in “moderne” style by architects Louis-Hippolyte Boileau, Jacques Carlu and Léon Azéma. Like the old Palais, the new Art Deco building has two wings shaped to form a wide arc that frame a vast terrace.
During the 1937 exposition, the pavilions of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were facing each other on opposite sides of the Jardins du Trocadéro. It’s interesting to speculate who was responsible for allotting the two pavilions to these locations!
Facing the heroically posed Russian workingman and peasant woman brandishing hammer and sickle, atop the Nazi pavilion, designed by Albert Speer, the German eagle, its talons clutching a wreath encircling a huge swastika, disdainfully turned its head and fanned out its wings.
There is a famous photo of Adolf Hitler, flanked by his architect Albert Speer and favourite sculptor Arno Breker, standing on the Esplanade with the Eiffel Tower in the background, which is about as close as Hitler got to the Tower. He was very keen to ride to the top, no doubt to gloat as he took in the panorama of Paris spread out beneath him, but this ambition was denied him. Some courageous members of the Resistance, who had been part of the Tower’s permanent maintenance crew before the war, managed to avoid the German guards and secretly crawled up it one night shortly before Hitler’s visit. They severed the elevator cables, thus disabling the whole lift system. The cables weren’t able to be replaced until 1946.
Named the Esplanade des Droits de l’Homme to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the Bill, drafted by Eleanor Roosevelt, in the Palais de Chaillot on 10 December 1948. The Esplanade is decorated with 8 gilded figures, ‘La Pensée and ‘Les Éléments’.
Re-clad and expanded, the two wings and the pair of central pavilions of the Palais de Chaillot are the only remaining portions of the original building. In front of the wings are two impressive bronze statues, ‘Hercules Subduing the Cretan Bull’, and ‘Apollon Musagète’. However, unlike the old Palais, these wings are independent buildings, and there is no central element to connect them.
Instead, the wide Esplanade provides an open view from the Place du Trocadéro across to the Eiffel Tower and beyond. The buildings are decorated with sculptural groups and quotations on their pediments by French poet Paul Valéry, the most notable being: “Everything depends only on you: friend, do not enter without desire.”
There are four cultural institutions located at the Palais de Chaillot. The north-east ‘Paris’ wing is home to the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine (the Architecture and Heritage museum), while the south-west ‘Passy’ wing houses the Musée National de la Marine (National Naval Museum) and the Musée de l’Homme. The Chaillot – Théâtre National de la Danse is located between the two wings.
The Musée de l’Homme started out as the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro founded by the Ministry of Public Education in 1878, and was the first such museum in Paris. It closed in 1935 when the building was about to be demolished. It re-emerged, with its new name, in the Palais de Chaillot on the same site, and its French collections formed the nucleus of the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires.
Numerous modern artists, especially the Fauves, Cubists and Surrealists, visited it and were influenced by its “primitive” art, in particular Picasso when he was working on ‘Les Demoiselles d’Avignon’ in 1907, which eventually led to Cubism. The poor condition of the original museum was remarked on, as was the inadequate and shabby display cases. Picasso remembered that when he first went there in 1907 “the smell of dampness and rot there stuck in my throat. It depressed me so much I wanted to get out fast.” However, he also said that when he saw the African masks in the collection, he “discovered what painting was all about.” Others saw it as a glorified “magasin de bric-à-brac” (junk shop).
In 2015 the interior of the Musée de l’Homme (Museum of Mankind) was refurbished and the spaces were reconfigured to accommodate better public exhibition galleries, space for researchers and students, storage vaults and research library and temporary exhibition spaces. Internationally famous French architect Jean Nouvel was responsible for the work. The collection is aimed at telling the story of the human odyssey, by asking questions such as: who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we headed? Combining biological, social and cultural approaches, it’s a fascinating journey, looking at what it is that makes Homo Sapiens different from other species; getting to know humankind’s distant ancestors, following the great migrations of humans across the world and the establishment of human settlements. The museum is now highly regarded, with a constant flow of visitors.
The Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine is a museum and reference institution of architecture and sculpture, based on a collection known as Musée des Monuments Français, established in 1879 by Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. Inaugurated in 2007, the Cité occupies a surface area of 23,000 sq.m. There are massive full-sized casts of monumental French architecture from the 12th to the 18th centuries, such as portals of cathedrals, copies of murals and stained glass from French Romanesque and Gothic churches, and in the Galerie Moderne et Contemporaine, there are models of French and international architecture from 1850 to the present day.
The Cité also houses the Institut Français d’Architecture, the École de Chaillot for the training of architects specialising in the restoration of historic monuments, and a huge reference library. Under the patronage of UNESCO, The Cité supports and presents an annual Global Award for Sustainable Architecture. The Cité is a really fascinating space to visit, even for non-architects.
Another museum housed in the Palais de Chaillot is the Musée de la Marine. If you love the sea, there are over 1,000 exhibits you can admire of maritime equipment and naval set-ups, but most of all, an extraordinary collection of model ships that tell the entire history of the French Navy, from the war galleons of the 1600s up to present-day submarines and aircraft carriers.
In 1748 Henri-Louis Duhamel du Monceau offered a collection of model ships and naval installations to Louis XV, with the request that they be displayed at the Louvre and made available to students at the Naval engineering school, which Duhamel headed. The collection was displayed in a room called the “Salle de Marine”, but closed in 1793 during the Revolution. Napoleon took over the collection and added 19 ship models, known as the Trianon model collection, and after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1827, Charles X ordered a Naval museum to be opened at the Louvre.
Much of the collection was distributed to other museums, then transferred to the French Navy in 1905, and eventually, in 1937, part of the Palais de Chaillot was devoted to housing the museum, which opened on 15 August 1943. The museum closed in 2017 for extensive, much-needed renovations—the budget for this work is 50 million Euros—and is expected to re-open in the spring of 2022. The museum’s annexes in Brest, Rochefort, Port-Louis, Toulon and Saint-Tropez remain open.
The fourth cultural institution at the Palais de Chaillot is the Théâtre National de la Danse, located under the forecourt of the Droits de l’Homme. The Foyer de la Danse overlooks the gardens and fountains of the Trocadero, and offers a breathtaking view of the Eiffel Tower. In 1975, the French Ministry of Culture designated the Theatre as one of the four national theatres of Paris. Chaillot has established itself as one of the leading venues dedicated to dance in Europe, as a showcase for the arts, with an active program of international choreographers and renowned companies as well as supporting creative artists, both established and avant-garde across ballet, contemporary dance, hip-hop, flamenco among other dance styles.
There is a theatre school and three theatre venues, and offers not only performances but workshops, dance evenings, film screenings, and more. The Théâtre de Chaillot is among the largest concert halls in Paris, and is a popular venue for fashion shows featuring top designers such as Giorgio Armani, Eli Saab and Claude Montana.
Lastly, after exploring all the different aspects of the Trocadéro, it’s time to head to Le Café du Trocadéro. This beautiful café has both indoor and outdoor seating that affords captivating views looking straight across to the Eiffel Tower. The stylish décor recalls the typical Parisian bistrot of the past, but reinterpreted with a contemporary aesthetic. Importantly though, the food is excellent.
On 23 August 2004, the sun was shining on the Trocadéro, the Eiffel Tower gleamed across the Seine, and deep underground, police came across a sign. There are more than 270 kms. of tunnels, caves and catacombs under large sections of Paris. These officers were on a training exercise to explore the 7 kms of catacombs known to wind beneath the 16th arr., and to check out previously uncharted caverns. Some of the ancient catacombs that became quarries date back to the Roman era, and it’s illegal to enter. At a quiet corner of the Trocadéro precinct there’s a sign at the mouth of the tunnel warning “No public entry.” As police are not the public, they entered. They went deeper and deeper, their headlamps flashed against the old limestone walls, and then 18 metres underground, suddenly they were surrounded by the sound of dogs snarling, growling and barking. They froze in their tracks, then some started to coo canine comforting sounds into the dark.
Eventually, their lights found a PA system and a stereo with ferocious guard-dog yowls and snarls burned onto a CD. They found 300 sq.m. of subterranean galleries, strung with lights, wired for phones, live with pirated electricity. They found a bar, lounge, workshop, dining corner and a small screening area, with a few tapes of films, including 1950s film noir classics and a few more recent thrillers, scattered across the floor. The cinema’s seating had been carved into the living rock, with room for about 20 people to sit in the cool, sip drinks, munch on snacks and watch movies. On the floor of one cavern, officers discovered an ominous metal container. The object was fat and festooned with wires. They called the bomb squad and quickly evacuated, asking themselves what could they have possibly discovered? Turns out, it was a couscous maker. When the police returned to the scene they brought with them agents from Électricité de France, but they were too late. Already, someone had secretly gained entry, removed the galleries’ wiring and disappeared with the sound equipment, as well as the booze. They had carefully covered their tracks. What had so recently been a private, very secret cinema, was now just an empty space. A note had been left stating: “Ne cherchez pas” (don’t search).
Agence France Presse reported a possible “extreme right-wing” connection, the BBC theorised about a fully-fledged “underground movement”, and Paris was agog with speculation. However, the people responsible for the cinema deep under the Trocadéro, who had dubbed it the ‘Arènes de Chaillot’, weren’t any of these things. “We are the counterpoint to an era where everything is slow and complicated,” they explained. Their aim is to try to balance aspects of today that they see as craving instant gratification, of no value, characterised by shameless, hysterical tweeting. After the cinema episode, it would be 2 years until the city would see their work again. A group called La Mexicaine de la Perforation—LMPD—named after a bar in the 16th arr., had come forward to claim responsibility for the cinema under the Trocadéro, and to diffuse the increasingly outlandish theories being put forth. The ‘Arènes de Chaillot’ were built over a period of 18 months, starting in 1999 and continued every summer until the cinema’s discovery. Their aim was to show short, mostly art-house films to a small, select audience of like-minded people, for whom anonymity and a gleam of mystery were the main sources of allure. The spokesperson for the LMPD told French radio station RTL that the cavern’s discovery was “a shame, but not the end of the world”, and that there were “a dozen more where that one came from.”
With an eye to the future beautification of the city, the Mairie de Paris has decided to connect the Trocadéro to the Eiffel Tower by a garden. The intention is to turn the Pont d’Iena into a garden as part of a plan to create a magnificent 54 hectare garden that will cover 1km. Budgeted to cost 72 million Euros, the new, extended gardens will stretch from the Place du Trocadero, across the river to the Eiffel Tower and then to the École Militaire at the opposite end of the Champ-de-Mars. The creation is planned for 2023, just before the 2024 Olympics.
When you’re next in Paris, a visit to the huge complex at the Trocadéro with enhance your trip, although unfortunately, one thing that you won’t be able to do is take in an underground movie!