My visit to the Musée de l’Armée at Invalides with my boys was the first time I had set foot inside the large complex where Napoleon is buried. We had all become intrigued by Invalides on our bike tour earlier in the week, when our guide told vivid stories of its construction, appropriation during the French Revolution, and role in the military life of Napoleon whose ashes lie in state there. A visit to satisfy our curiosity seemed imperative.
I had it on good authority (from no less than travel expert Wendy Perrin) that the audio guide at Invalides was worth the money. This proved to be the case, especially because there are areas of the museum that don’t have much in the way of explanatory panels. The guide offers an age-appropriate version for kids with scavenger hunts and other visuals, but 10-year-old Tommy who is always in a hurry to grow up insisted that what he wanted to listen to was the adult version. The nice thing is that it’s actually easy enough to do both, since you use the same device.
We started our visit inside the Dome Church, which is the building most people associate with this museum, although the entire complex also includes a series of long buildings arranged in a rectangle around a large courtyard. For centuries, these buildings have housed a military hospital/retirement home for soldiers (if you ever read the book Madeline as a child, you would recognize it from the picture where the girls are “very sad” about an injured solider in that courtyard with the church’s dome visible in the background).
The church was built by Louis the XIV and reflects all the splendor of both the Sun King himself and also the French military, which it now memorializes. Napoleon was laid to his final rest here in 1861, forty years after his death. The audio guide tells the story of the return of his ashes to France and his state funeral in 1840, which was followed by a tremendous excavation underneath the dome to create a space glorious enough to celebrate him. And celebrate it does; not only are his ashes encased in no fewer than 6 coffins, the surrounding floor and sculptures are memorials to his great military victories.
There’s nothing subtle here, except perhaps the light, which enters through the domes windows and plays magnificently across the ornate décor.
Also buried in the Dome Church is Napoleon’s son as well as his brothers and a number of other French military heroes including Marshal Foch, who helped to achieve the armistice at the end of World War I.
When we finished our tour of the church, we walked back into the courtyard and made our way to the extensive exhibit describing France’s role in both the world wars of the twentieth century. The exhibit actually starts in 1871 and shows the evolution of everything from uniforms to weaponry to tactics. I always find it interesting to explore the history of the world wars from the perspective of European cultures who experienced both of them so differently and especially France, which was of course complicit with the Germans in World War II.
Tommy, who is a history buff, spent over an hour in this area of the museum (and given the chance, I could have done the same). He wanted to visit every stop on the audio guide and read many of the panels, most of which are displayed in English as well as French.
Seven-year-old Teddy lost interest in the contemporary exhibit long before Tommy was finished, so we explored the canons that line the courtyard and made our way over to the exhibit displaying armor and weaponry from the 13th through the 18th century.
There are certainly enough suits of armor and canons here to satisfy the biggest knights and castles buff; one of the most interesting rooms has been set up as the royal armory once would have been with row upon row of helmets, breastplates, and swords.
I was surprised by how beautiful Invalides is. Although it is meant to be a celebration of French military might, as is typical in France, it has a great deal of aesthetic flair. So whether or not you have an abiding interest in military history, I recommend putting this lovely museum on your Paris with kids itinerary.
- I had allotted a half day for our visit to Invalides (we were at Notre Dame in the morning). Tommy said he could easily have spent more time there, although I’m thinking that perhaps breaking up that time over multiple visits would be the way to go. A plan of action might be to visit and see Napoleon’s tomb and the arms and armor and then return on another day to see the contemporary exhibit.
- I wouldn’t plan on eating in the cafeteria at Invalides; we stopped in for a drink and the food looked sad. Better to pack a picnic and eat it in the long esplanade that fronts the buildings.
- Invalides is open most of the time, but the first Monday of each month from October until June only the church and one of the exhibits are open; plan accordingly.
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