But it’s easy for tourists to be confused about what Les Invalides is, exactly. That’s because it is many things at once. What started as a hospital for war wounded invalids, built in the late 1600s, is today a military museum. The landmark gold dome tops a church.
The church’s artistic domed ceiling may have merited an upward glance from the dictator. What he didn’t know was that the French Resistance met in the secret space between the ceiling bottom and the outside walls of curved gold.
Les Invalides, despite its beauty, was set with explosives later in WWII. The world came close to losing it. When the wartime mayor of Paris met with the German major general Choltitz one day, they stood on a balcony and looked out over the city. The mayor pleaded with Choltitz to spare Paris.
“Often it is given a general to destroy, rarely to preserve. Imagine that one day it may be given you to stand on this balcony again, as a tourist, to look once more on these monuments to our joys, to our sufferings, and be able to say, ‘One day I could have destroyed this, and I preserved it as a gift to humanity.'”
For more of the story of the occupation of Paris, I highly recommend the book Is Paris Burning? by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins.
Today, Les Invalides with its glittering dome survives. Choltitz never gave the orders to blow it up.
Cars and pedestrians pass Les Invalides every day. I wonder how many of them know about the layers of history and what happened here. And what almost happened here. And how thankful we can be that this gift to humanity sits safe and sound.