Opéra Garnier, A Baroque World

The Opera Garnier

There really is a lake beneath the old opera house in Paris, just as The Phantom of the Opera says.  No phantoms are boating on it, however, as far as anyone knows. The “lake,” which is more like a water-filled hole, has a more mundane purpose; it’s a reservoir used by the city’s pompiers-sapeurs (firefighters).

Opera GarnierThe Opéra Garnier, or Palais Garnier, in the 9th arrondisement, is anything but mundane. It’s huge, grandiose, and over-the-top opulent, and a Paris sight not to be missed. It took 14 years to build and was the world’s largest theater when it opened in 1875. Operas were performed here until the new (and controversial) Opéra Bastille was built in 1989. Now the Garnier features mostly ballet and modern dance.

Attending a performance is the ideal way to see the Opéra Garnier’s neo-Baroque magnificence — the sumptuous velvet draperies, the gilded statuary, the tangle of corridors, stairwells, alcoves and landings. The ceiling, surrounding a 6-ton chandelier, was painted in 1964 by Marc Chagall. This too was controversial, as Chagall’s work is a contrast to the rest of the grand décor. It’s intricate and festive, though, with a charm of its own.

Opera Garnier ceilingIf you can’t attend a performance, try to tour the building anyway. It’s open daily except January 1 and May 1. For a fee, visitors can walk up the grand staircase and through the Grand Foyer and see the 2,200-seat auditorium. There, in 1896, a counter-weight for the immense chandelier fell and killed a worker, which partially inspired Gaston Leroux to write his Gothic Phantom novel. Guided tours are available. (Nobody gets to see the subterranean water, though.) There’s also a museum showing costumes from various productions and models of sets.

Dining near the Opera Garnier

For lunch before or after a tour, or dinner after a performance, several good restaurants are located in the 9th arrondissement.  Here are a few of the best (also, sorry, among the most expensive):
Senderens, on Place de la Madeleine, is famed for its fine cuisine. Alain Senderens “rejected” his three stars from Senderensthe Michelin guide because he felt the rating caused too much pressure and he wanted to offer a simpler, less formal dining experience. But the food and service are still of very high quality. “Le Passage,” the upstairs café-bar, is less pricey than the dining room, though with fewer menu choices.

Drouant has been a favorite dining spot since it opened in 1880.  Drouant’s Alsatian chef emphasizes vegetables prepared in imaginative ways and creative, generous appetizers. The prestigious Goncourt Prize in literature is announced here every year.

Le Fontaine Gaillon serves French cuisine, notably well-prepared seafood, in a chic, stylish, arty atmosphere. The actor Gérard Depardieu is one of the owners.

Café de la Paix
, designed by Garnier himself, is an institution, still offering its famous onion soup in a brasserie Cafe de la Paixwith an elegant ambience. If you dine on either terrace you are given a lower cost, simpler menu. The outside terrace has a view of Opéra Garnier, and the winter terrace overlooks Boulevard des Capucines.

If you’re yearning for American or Mexican food and lesser prices, the Hard Rock Café will oblige. This lively place, seating 250, has cheeseburgers, fajitas, brownies and ice cream. And there’s always the ubiquitous Starbucks for coffee and pastries. I have never been in a Starbucks in Paris, nor do I intend to, but there are many available in case you are so inclined.

Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com

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