Standing as a testament to human greatness, I think that the Paris Panthéon is a must-see. Located near the law school of the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter, this Paris monument housed in a neo-classical building with its colonnade and inscription, Aux Grandes Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante (For great men, the grateful nation), connotes greatness.
A basilica has stood on this site since the early 6th century, but the current building was finished in 1789/1790 as the French Revolution gained steam. Originally, Louis XV commissioned its construction as a church to St. Genevieve (patron saint of Paris). He had been ill and prayed to her for recovery. By the time that the church was finished, Louis XV was dead and his son would soon be removed from the throne. As France wrote its first constitution and abolished absolute monarchy, the French government turned the basilica into a temple to house the ashes of the nation’s great men—calling it the Pantheon (every god). Although it returned to Christian worship a couple of times after the Revolution ended, it has been completely secular since 1885 with the funeral of Victor Hugo.
The main floor of the Pantheon is breathtaking with a soaring dome, magnificent sculptures, Foucault’s pendulum demonstrating the rotation of the earth, fabulous murals, and monumental architectural features. I was immediately taken back to the Age of Enlightenment as I surveyed the illustrious statesmen, authors, scientists, and humanists honored here.
After wandering through the first floor, I had felt that I received a great history lesson of the French through sculptures and art—Charlemagne, Joan of Arc, Clovis, the French Revolution, WWII Resistance fighters are all represented. But now it was time to go downstairs to see the rest of why I had journeyed to this monument—the crypt.
I don’t know why I have such a fascination with crypts, but I do. To stand near the eternal resting of place of great women and men sends chills throughout me. I think of their amazing accomplishments in life and imagine what the world would be like without them. Marie Curie is buried there, as is Voltaire, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Émile Zola, Louis Braille, René Descartes, Victor Hugo, and Jean Paul Marat. What would life be like without Marie Curie’s pioneering efforts in radioactivity? Without Voltaire’s satire? Without Rousseau’s political ideas? Or Hugo’s writings? Of course, people often say that innovation is natural and someone else would have accomplished what anyone of these people did. But someone else did not, they did. History is a delicate tapestry of intersecting stories and events, of choices and consequences, if the threads were sewn differently the product would not look the same. I walked along the cool hallways looking into crypts barred from entry by wrought-iron gates lost in thought about the past.
Eventually, my husband’s hunger got the better of him and he implored me to leave so that we could get a sandwich. We found tasty sandwiches—jambon beurre (ham on a baguette with butter) and went to the nearby Luxembourg Gardens for a picnic. The palace and gardens are lovely. I’ve heard that the area is a meeting place for spies, so I kept an eye out for them too. I didn’t see any overt espionage activities, but it was a pleasant way to end our trip to the Paris Panthéon.
Location: Place du Panthéon (5th arrondissement), Paris Latin Quarter