In an effort to cross some items off my bucket list, and after a long night’s rest, I jumped on the 13 straight to Invalides, the military museum and tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. Hotel des Invalides was incredible: I was constantly ooh-ing and aah-ing as I made my way through the World War I and World War II exhibits, after spending an ample amount of time in the tomb of Napoleon and the crypt. The tomb was beautiful – luxurious, regal, and every bit what Napoleon would have expected. It did raise a lot of questions in my head, however: for example, why did a near dictator get such a regal burial? Charles de Gaulle arguably did more than Napoleon, so why the epic burial for him? It seems that in abolishing the royal family and installing himself as Emperor, Napoleon only created a king out of himself under another title, and made sure to be remembered as one.
The tomb itself, however, is absolutely breathtaking. Upon entrance, you walk up to a balcony that looks down on his tomb, which is raised on a large platform in the center of a circular room beneath a gorgeous dome painted with a fresco. The posterior of the room is a church (it’s really more like a small chapel), all gold and ornate, looking more like it belongs at Versailles than in the middle of Paris. Down a set of marble stairs is the crypt, where you get a closer view of the tomb itself, as well as of a large statue of Napoleon himself, depicted as Julius Caesar: wearing a Roman crown of leaves and a toga. On the floor is an inscription that reads: “Napoleon, Roi de Rome” – Napoleon, King of Rome. Oh, Napoleon. Such an egotistical little man. I was almost bothered by the whole thing: this man – who crowned himself emperor, began the long period of French colonialism which would create more harm than good, and was generally a huge jerk – gets an entire building devoted to him, in this massive, ornate tomb that millions visit each year. Napoleon did create a lot of positive changes in France, and while it was the end of an indulgent monarchy, he didn’t exactly do much better: he was basically a dictator, which is arguably worse than a king. Generally history is not kind to Napoleon, but this tombeau would have us thinking differently. He is made out to be a god, a king, and the leader of a great nation, when reality was much different.
My favorite part of the museum, however, was the World War I and World War II exhibits. I didn’t even make it all the way through, so I will be making a trip back, but I was overly impressed with the curating. I was floored, actually. The thing is, most major tourist attractions tend to suck: you stare mindlessly at old stuff or art, not really knowing why it’s important or what it is, and then say you went there and how great it was. Invalides is different. They have made a complex, engaging, and informative exhibit that makes history accessible and brings the art and artifacts to life. Many of the military garb is shown on life-like mannequins of the people who wore them, and videos installations are scattered throughout the halls that provide in-depth information and first-hand footage. The details are incredible: in the section about the air forces in WWII, the video installation is projected on a screen hung high on the ceiling in between two corners, so you are looking up at the footage of airplanes. Brilliant, yet so simple!
Some of the items in the museum are incredible: a handwritten copy of a speech given by Charles de Gaulle, the military jacket of a man who died in the trenches, still covered in mud, an original “I want you!” poster (see above), political cartoons from the Dreyfus affair…and all presented in a way that is organized and educational. I absolutely loved it, and would highly recommend it for any history buff/geek/traveler even remotely interested in military history. I don’t know much about it myself and even I was fascinated. They have military uniforms from basically every country and several wars, and place them so strategically. One of my favorite things was an original U.S. flag from WWI battle, torn and tattered but still together – I admit I even got a little emotional. Although I was soon herded out by the security guards, I made a promise to head back there soon to finish the huge exhibit, and perhaps even move on to ancient armory!
I have to say, I am incredibly glad I went to the museum, but I wish I had had more time there. Considering I spent a semester in a class about the history of France from 1800 until the modern era, my French history is a bit fuzzy (I don’t think I did too well in that class, but it was in French). French military history is rather intriguing though: they have a long history of not being too good at winning wars, and considering that it took them five republics to get the whole democracy thing down, you can see how the country is a bit notorious for not exactly being the best at political and military strategy. However, France has also dealt with a lot of scandals that have rocked it to the core: the Dreyfus affair, which split the country in two, and the Boulanger affair, which only further deepened a serious wound. France’s history is fascinating and complicated, and Invalides gives a good insight into why.
My advice for this crown jewel: bring a fully loaded camera, and plan to spend several hours there. Flash a student card or visa (like I did) and get in for free, otherwise it is 9 Euro full fare or 7 reduced – but totally worth every penny. Go, go, go!!