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Review of Context Travel Walking Tour: Haussmann and the Making of Modern Paris

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating

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One of the many ornate shopping galleries we visited during the Context Paris walking tour,

One of the many ornate shopping galleries we visited during the Context Paris walking tour, "Haussmann and the Making of Modern Paris".

©2010 Courtney Traub

The Bottom Line

When I was invited by Context Travel to join a walking tour exploring how the layout of Paris was transformed in the 19th century by city planner Baron Georges Eugène Haussmann, I gladly accepted. I wanted to get a better understanding of the profound urban transformation that Paris underwent-- but more importantly, learn more about the social and political forces behind these changes.

This turned out to be an excellent, informative tour that I would recommend to anyone looking to get a better understanding of Paris history. I can also confidently assume that Context's other Paris tours are equally good.

Pros

  • Tours led by highly qualified, personable docents
  • Thorough coverage of Paris history through the lens of art, architecture and other disciplines
  • Longer, fact-packed tours will satisfy those looking for more substantial insight into Paris
  • Tours are reasonably priced in relation to length and content
  • Tours avoid cliches and old standbys, instead offering a more authentic encounter with Paris

Cons

  • Long stretches of walking and standing may not be suitable for elderly or disabled visitors
  • Some attractions on tour not covered by listed tour price (out-of-pocket additional fees)
  • Highly specialized: may require basic knowledge of architecture, art history etc to enjoy fully

Description

  • Tour Operator: Context Travel is based in Rome and offers extensive walking tours and travel tips for European destinations.
  • Book this Tour: Visit the Context Paris website. You can also browse other Paris tours, including Louvre Italian Masters.
  • Current Tour Prices: The Haussmann walking tour is currently priced at 55 Euros per person and 270 Euros for private tours.

Guide Review - Review of Context Travel Walking Tour: Haussmann and the Making of Modern Paris

I knew Context had a reputation for offering tours that are more substantial and specialized content-wise than average counterparts, and set out to take the Haussmann tour expecting to be led by someone with a professional background in the topic.

I met up with a group of visitors and our guide, docent Michael Herrman, outside the famed Comedie Francaise theatre, where playwright Moliere worked his magic. Herrman's background turned out to be even more impressive than expected: he's a practicing architect who's won prizes including the Fulbright Fellowship and the Rome Prize in Architecture, and recently collaborated on the design of the recently opened Quai Branly Museum with heavyweight Jean Nouvel.

From the Grand Palais to the Belle Epoque: Sights on This Tour

The first leg of the tour takes us across the nearby Palais Royal, which was the site of the city's first "purpose-built" shopping center and also housed the first covered passageway built for expressly commercial purposes. Guiding us through a series of ornately decorated, interconnected passageways, Michael explains that these were revolutionary when they were built in the 18th and 19th centuries, since they provided ordinary Parisians reprieve and shelter from the dangerous, smelly medieval streets. Aside from a mind-boggling variety of shops, restaurants and trinkets, the passages offer a lot of interesting visual details, from sculptures and reliefs to (faux) marble columns. The post-revolutionary, democratic-minded city planners who built the public arcades couldn't afford to import the real stuff, but wanted the general public to get a chance to bask in the grandeur of Greco-Roman design details.

We're eventually spat out near the Avenue de l'Opera, one of the gapingly wide boulevards that appeared under Haussmann and seems exemplary of the pomp and circumstance dreamt up by the Baron. Michael gives us a detailed explanation of the events that led to Paris' overhaul (and, some would argue, obliteration) by the Haussmann team (I'll leave you to discover the details yourselves on the tour) and clears up the mystery of why the Avenue de l'Opera was left purposely treeless.

We move on to visit the Opera Garnier, built in 1875 and one of the first great public buildings to be commissioned to a young architect through a democratic competition. We drift through one opulent space after another, including a heavily gilded reception hall that was modeled after the Gallery of Mirrors at Versailles. The main auditorium is too dark for us to more than vaguely make out the ceiling painting by Marc Chagall, but it's still easy to imagine the grandeur that must be felt when viewing a ballet here (despite the misleading name, no operas are performed at the Opera Garnier anymore-- these are instead shown at the ultramodern Opera Bastille).

After leaving Garnier's wonders behind, we head into the bustling Boulevard Haussmann shopping district, where Michael takes us through (very busy) Belle-Epoque department stores Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps. The tour culminates on the sweeping terrace of Au Printemps, which affords spectacular panoramic views of the whole city.

The Verdict?

Overall, this was an excellent tour. Docent Michael Herrman was entertaining, highly knowledgeable and affable, and did a great job of pointing out details we may have otherwise missed. He also made a point of exchanging with participants individually-- a nice touch.

The one downside I noted was that participants were required to buy their own tickets for entry into the Opera Garnier. I felt it would make more sense to include the ticket as part of the quoted tour price, as this extra expense came as a surprise. Buying the tickets also took a lot of time, which could be prevented with pre-purchased tickets.

All in all, however, I recommend this tour to visitors wishing to get a strong grasp on Paris political and social history, architecture and urban planning. You really come away looking at the city in a different light, and should even be able to distinguish between pre-and post Haussmann buildings and monuments on your own following the tour.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.
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