This is a tale of two historic structures in Paris and an Emperor, the Arc de Triomphe and Les Invalides. It starts back in 1806 when Napoleon Bonaparte fresh off his victory at Austerlitz and wanted to erect a monument as "men are only as great as the monuments they leave behind". He had promised his soldiers on 2 December 1805, "you will return home under triumphal arches". Upon his return to Paris he instructed a grand arc to be built. It was originally going to be placed where the Bastille prison was torn down, but was later decided to build it on top of what was once the muddy hill of Chaillot just outside of Paris but looking down the Champs Elysees toward the Palais des Tuileries. Thanks to the great garden designer Andre Le Notre It would later be known as the Place l'Etoile (star) for the 12 avenues that radiate out.
After a 15-year break, it would take until 1836 to finish after the urging of King Louis-Philippe, and long after Napoleon would die in 1821. Upon his death on 5 May 1821, he would be buried on the island of St Helena where he had been held captive, but had stated 3 weeks before that he wanted to be buried "On the banks of the Seine, in the midst of the French people whom I loved so much".
In 1830 as Louis-Philippe came to power he vowed to return "all the glories of France", and requested the return of the Emperor from the British government. It was approved on the 10 May, and 7 months later on the 15 December with much fanfare, "les retour des cendres" was underway. A funeral carriage draped in fabric pulled by sixteen black horses carrying a mausoleum designed by Henri Labrouste. Complete with 14 caryatids, one for each of his victories held up the coffin that was topped with an imperial mantle complete with crown, sword and scepter and weighed 14 tons and stood more than 32 feet high.
The hospital built in 1671 by Louis XIV for injured soldiers and take over 30 years to finish. His architect Louvois put a special focus on the royal chapel where the King and soldiers could attend mass but in separate areas. It would be later separated for the creation of the tomb of Napoleon, but the beautiful Eglise des Soldats can still be seen today. It would take many years for the final construction of his crypt to be completed and would be finally interred into his final resting place in 1861.
As you enter the crypt a huge gate greets you at the entrance, with two bronze statues representing Justice on the left holding a crown and sword and on the right Imperial Power, with a sword and sphere topped with a crowd, an emblem of the world. Above it is inscribed in French his final wishes of being buried on the edge of the Seine.
He is watched over by the twelve allegories representing his many victories standing tall. Along the outer walls are ten bas-reliefs that depict his many achievements including civil peace, the Civil Code and the Legion of Honour. Complete with scrolls listing all the things he implemented in France. As you make your way back up the stairs you can stand in the center and look back down at his tomb, it really is an amazing place.
Today Les Invalides is still a hospital and retirement home for veterans but it also includes the Musée de l'Armée and the Musée des Plans-Relief. It is an incredible museum that spans from the 13th century with armor worn by Francois I to the tent used by Napoleon and even his horse, that is now stuffed and on display. Everything is done chronologically including a wing dedicated to WW I & II. This isn’t your normal museum dedicated to fighting forces, it incorporates amazing pieces of art, multimedia displays, memorabilia and even vehicles. Every trip my grandfather made to Paris would include a few days in this vast museum. As a lover of French history and fascination of Napoleon I also had to follow his footsteps and see it all for myself. It took two separate trips and multiple visits to finally see it all. As I am continuing to learn even more about French history I can’t wait to go back again to this museum and see the living items that tell the story.