Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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SEPTEMBER 19, 2011 8:15AM

My afternoon at the French Senate

Rate: 28 Flag

hemi 1 

Europe is full of beautiful monuments and historic sites.  Unfortunately, not all of them are open to the public.  The journées européennes du patrimoine (European Heritage Days), created in France as la Journée portes ouvertes dans les monuments historiques in 1984, then established throughout Europe in 1991, are a way to remedy that – at least for a short time.  For one weekend per year, Europeans (and anyone visiting the continent) have a sort of free all-access pass to places they might otherwise never get to see.  In Paris, this includes museums and monuments, as well as government buildings like embassies, ministries, state schools and universities, mayor’s offices, the Assemblée Nationale, the Sénat, and the Elysée Palace (the French White House). Though the latter is still almost impossible to get into, involving a notorious 5 hour + line, the other sites are generally easily accessible, with no more than an hour wait – and often no wait at all.

This year, the journées du patrimoine coincided with a visit from my brother-in-law, who lives abroad.  With his gung-ho spirit and slight homesickness for France, we were goaded on to see a lot of different places.  The most memorable were the Sénat, which we visited Saturday, and the Hôtel de Ville (Paris City Hall), which we toured on Sunday.  I'm not at all a fan of politics, but these places are treasure troves of art and history, and those two things definitely float my boat.


(A fitting saying, come to think of it, considering Paris's coat of arms....)


As far as the Sénat goes, the French government is similar to the American one in its basic organization, with an executive, judicial, and bicameral (the Assemblée Nationale and the Sénat) legislative branch.  The Sénat is housed in the Palais du Luxembourg and two smaller wings.  Though in some areas its interior decorations and layout have been frequently changed over the years, the Palais basically dates to the early 17th century.  It was constructed under Marie de' Medici, widow of King Henri IV, and Regent of France from 1610-1614 until her son Louis XIII came of age.  Among other things,  the palace was known by art lovers as the site of the enormous canvasses Marie de' Medici commissioned from Rubens to depict the story of her life.  These have since been moved to the Louvre.  The site today does still house a lot of art, culled from the collections of the state.  A tiny portion of it is also a museum that features temporary exhibitions, but which I think is far too small to do justice to the great artwork you can often see there

Behind the Palais is the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of Paris’s most stunning parks.   Here's a photo of the Palais du Luxembourg taken from the park, and a photo of the park taken from a window inside the Palais:

 park view 1


jardin du luxembourg 

Le Petit Luxembourg, a smaller building that was on the site when Marie de’ Medici acquired it, is the first place we visited.  Today it’s used for official receptions.  Its 18th and 19th century interior decoration is similar to that of many official French government sites – lots of pomp and circumstance and gilding…not that there’s anything wrong with that. 


petit lux staircase 


pl room 


I found this 18th century French school painting to be very... French – a pretty, casually partially topless woman sits on a wall near the official dining area:


 fs port


An example of an official table setting:




From the window, a view of a private garden:


jardin prive 


Back inside, detail of a curtain pulled back against a wall:



Just about every French government building I’ve seen has some sort of shrine or memorial to Napoleon.:





A(nother) lovely statue:


 lovely statue


In the second building, which houses the offices of the President of the Sénat, we saw some very unique and chic bouquets, created by the gardeners of the Jardin du Luxembourg:

 bouquet 1





The central courtyard is full of tropical plants. This statue made me think of Eve in the Garden of Eden:



eve detail 


In the Palais du Luxembourg, the grand staircase evokes the majesty of centuries past….



…while a sign at the top brings us back to the present, with information on how to get up-to-date news from the Sénat, online:




A room filled with display cases showing items on sale at the gift shop felt a bit off....  Most of the items were luxury goods, which I guess sort of makes sense, since France is known for them.  But though they do have a history in France, I don't know that many people would find Senate Tarot cards a totally understandable combination.... 




TV interviews with senators often take place in the beautiful library.:




In Paris, each place that houses a government entity whose members have to get together to vote/debate,  has its hémicycle – amphitheater-shaped assembly room.  The Sénat’s was constructed in 1836-1841.  We saw the one in the Assemblée Nationale a few years ago, and this one seems much more ornate:




Just outside the hémicycle is a collection of busts of former senators.  Senators Reymond and Sebline impressed me with their formidable facial hair, faithfully captured in stone:

sen 1 


sen 2 



The breathtaking Salle des Conférences, whose decoration dates to the Second Empire (1848-1870):



Detail of the room’s very ornate ceiling:



The throne Napoleon sat on when presiding over the Sénat.  I was moved by the worn “N” near where the Emperor’s knees would have been:



worn n 


Over the door at one end of the long room is a painting featuring several famous figures in the history of France, including St. Louis, Joan of Arc, François I, Henri IV, and Louis XIV:




Outside the windows, a view of the courtyard just behind the Sénat's main entrance:




The beautiful Annexe de la Bibliothèque (Library Annexe):



The Salle du Livre d’Or no longer contains the livre d’or (record book), but its sumptuous friezes, frescoes, and paintings, created in 1817 and based on and incorporating elements of Marie de' Medici’s original palace décor, remain:


livre dor 


Further on, the Palais' decor gets a lot more modern.  It’s hard to imagine that the doorway to Public Sénat, the French C-Span of sorts, is in the same building:





The U.S. has Uncle Sam; France has Marianne.  A symbol of the French republic, each year a new model is chosen for her bust, which is found in government offices and other sites throughout France.  This Marianne is from 1848:




The lovely Jardin du Luxembourg is one of Paris’s most famous public parks – and rightly so.  I was surprised to learn that its upkeep is the responsibility of the Sénat, and not the City of Paris.  For the journées du patrimoine, the greenhouses were open to the public. For all you flower-lovers out there, here are a few images, including one of the many orchids we saw:







I hope you enjoyed this trip to the French Senate.  I think the place says so much about France, from its aesthetic (gilding, bare breasts, artwork, bouquets and gardens), to the preservation of history, to the lavish decor of the hémicycle (ideally a site of logic, justice, and reason – values that the French cherish today and that were, quite literally, worshipped during the first French Revolution and the Premier Empire).  And what would an afternoon in Paris be without a stroll through a pretty park, to boot?


If you'd like to see rare pictures from inside another grandiose Parisian government building, please feel free to click here for pictures from my visit to Paris' splendid Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). 

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The French have the most highly developed sense of beauty and your photos prove it. Thank you for taking me along on the splendid tour.
Alysa, thank you for this great tour through the French Senate. We also have this enjoyable weekend in Germany, and I have seen many local treasures over the years. Unfortunately, I live in a very rural part of the country, where there are few sights to compare with your Paris.
This is just gorgeous. You have a wonderful (and whimsical) eye. ~r
Le Petit Luxembourg... wow wow wow

I wish I had been there..
This was just great and congrats on the EP
What beautiful photos! I've been to Paris but I wish I'd had you as my tour guide.
Alysa, so many beautiful building, rooms, chambers, gardens, paintings, statues, libraries, and sights to see! I would have brought along a tube of super glue and planted myself permanently in one of those superb settings! Thanks for the excellent photo essay journey today!
Wow. What a beautiful, lush, wonderful treat to the eyes and information for the mind. Thank you, Alysa. The photos are gorgeous. In some ways it is typically European in structure with courtyards and painted ceilings, but I haven't been inside many different ones to compare. This was a lovely and complete tour. Good call on the editor's part!
A wonderful tour, Alysa. Thank you! Beautiful photographs!
It is impossible to see these and deny the creativity of French architecture and art. Wonderful pictures, Alysa!!
There's a new Mariane every year? So it's like Miss Rheingold Beer on the New York subways?
This post really feels like your there. I enjoyed this and am so proud of you. You really rock!
beautiful, tres magnifique.
Very lovely. I'm surprised the building isn't open for year-round tours. I'd pay a few Euros to see it. Considering the quality of legislation produced by most of the world's governments, it wouldn't surprise me to learn that most laws are based on Tarot readings. And since the French finance ministry is calling for austerity from others, why not start at home? Forget paying for a new batch of Marianne busts each year. Use the face of the 20-year old Catherine Deneuve every year. They aren't going to find anything better.
Such loveliness, thank you for sharing your adventures with us.
Amazing photos! I love the one looking out the window of the Palais over the garden, it looks just like an impressionist painting!
Stop making me jealous!

Much of it reminds me of the Palace at Versailles, which I did visit. Stunning photos.
Miguela – I’m so glad you enjoyed this! I agree the French have a highly developed sense of beauty…which always makes me scratch my head when I see a drab, ugly building constructed next to a gorgeous Haussmannian one….

Out on a limb – I know what you mean – my in-laws are also in a rural area and have to go to a city pretty far away if they really want to enjoy the journées du patrimoine. It’s really unfortunate….

Joan – Merci!

Matt – I was really impressed, too! But I actually ended up being even more blown away by the Hotel de Ville – I’m going to post photos of that soon.

Linda – I wish you’d been there, too! We would have had a lot of fun!

Pauline – I would love to be your tour guide, even though, as a woman I ran into yesterday pointed out, even if you live here for decades, there will always be parts of Paris that you don’t know – there’s so much to see and do. I’d try my best, though.

designanator – Thanks and I’m glad you enjoyed this! I know what you mean – I was definitely lingering at the exit….

Fusun – It really was beautiful, and you’re right: from what I’ve seen, there is a sort of European tradition of grandiose settings for government buildings. In many cases, the buildings were originally palaces or homes of the very rich, which is why they’re so beautifully built, situated, and decorated with architectural elements.

Angelkisses – Thanks for reading, and I’m glad you liked the tour!

Brazen Princess – The French are very proud of their artistic heritage, and I think that’s a lot of what keeps them preserving these buildings and works of art, thank goodness!

Rw – Right on with the Premier Empire. I hope you were as thrilled by Napoleon’s chair as my boyfriend was! As for functionality overruling so much in architecture and design these days, I sadly agree. There are some architects/designers who do know how to mix the new and the old, like Frank Gehry, thank goodness. His lines make me think of Baroque or Art Nouveau buildings, though with a very modern twist, especially in the materials he uses. But for my money, and I think for yours, nothing compares to the styles of the past. Let’s hope for a Renaissance one day!

Con – It’s kind of like that, but they typically pick actresses, for example Brigitte Bardot. In a way, I find it kind of offensive – I’d rather just take my Marianne as a full-on allegory, merci!

Algis – Thank you! I’m so happy you liked this – and saying I rock is like a flattering pun, perhaps, since you love rocks so much? : - )

bobbot – Merci!

Stim – From what we found out, though it’s not very publicized, you can visit some parts of the Sénat (but not all that we saw, I think) during select moments during the year. I guess it’s like the White House, but even more exclusive, it seems.

Sheila – Thank YOU for reading!

Frank – It’s interesting what you wrote – one of the things I love most about Paris is that it often really feels like you’re walking through an Impressionist painting. Here, I feel very close to those artists – you can see the kind of skies and lights and colors that inspired them.

Cranky – I’ll try! Versailles is one of the first grand places I visited in Europe, and like you, I always make the comparaison. I agree that there are some similarities here. I think mainly the French just love opulence – or at least, they did, until more modern art movements came about. Today, modern French interiors tend to be very minimalist – and certainly so when compared to places like this.
Fantastic!!! Thanks Alyssa for the tour. the photos are gorgeous.
Great post and great photos.

But (except for the flowers) it's about things I hate. These countries with centuries of culture manifest it in encrustations upon encrustations on their public buildings. Once on a trip to England and too many Stately Homes, oh God, some rococo thing in Spain too, I swore I'd only visit buildings that had no roof. I love ruins. Piles of stones... No decoration inside and no vast collections of *stuff*. No furniture with gold knobs and god-knows-what-all. I think the worst place I was ever in was the crusaders' church in Malta. A plain stone building on the outside, unlike some gingerbread churches, but the inside - not one square inch that wasn't decorated, and there were all these statues and paintings and...and...even the entire mosaic floor was covered with bible verses or something...and it was crowded with people, singles and tours... If I weren't so phlegmatic (or something), I'd have had a freak-out. TOO MUCH!!!
thx for the tour. being young, prosperous and in paris is about as good as it gets, enjoy yourself.
trilogy – My pleasure! I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos!

Myriad – I agree, these places can look a little too “busy”…but I have to confess, I kind of like that….though I appreciate ruins, too. And I promise that though I enjoy busy décor from time to time, I wouldn’t want it in my house, in front of my eyes every day. It’s like a really, really rich dessert in my opinion – delicious sometimes, though you might regret it afterwards, but definitely too much for a daily dosage.

al – Thanks for reading. I’m fairly young, but not as young as I’d like to be, definitely not prosperous (and probably never will be) :- ) but the Paris part you have right – and that last part really is what keeps me going sometimes!
Great travelogue...loved it!
Yay, bare breasts, pretty flowers, elaborate architecture and Alysa!
This was a wonderful trip, Alysa! Thanks for taking us on it and doing such a great job. I love history too, the Napoleon chair a special treat.
Thanks Alysa for yet another vicarious thrill. Vive La France!
Le Petit Luxembourg- I've been to, but during Halloween for a short trip to Paris.

Oh, wee! The ceilings of the Senate, and that library Then the modern door to a TV studio. Such beauty and practicality. Thank you for the contrast.

Being homesick certainly paid off! I hope he was renewed for I felt happier looking at and reading your text.

"A symbol of the French republic,
each year a new model is chosen for her bust,
which is found in government offices
and other sites throughout France..."



Sorry, I have a tendency to get vulgar when shown
stately beauty, as you have here.
Magnificent photos.
Those modern lugs with their
ragamuffin clothing seem so out of place
touring this historical landscape.
Great tour. You are really something else. Thanks.
Merci pour cette visite guidée dans le Sénat français. De très belles photos. Etre sénateur est manifestement l'une des plus belles formes de préretraite.