We visit the French senate:
difficult to see, amazing when you do.

Here at the Hôtels Paris Rive Gauche we are lucky enough to be a couple of minutes from the Jardin du Luxembourg (that you may already know) and the Luxembourg Palace (that you most likely don’t). This is where the French Senate sits and debates, and “regular” visits of the building are organised… except that in this case ‘regular’ means once a month.

Luckily, once of our regular guests happens to be a senator! With his help we had a special VIP tour of the building accompanied by his assistant, saw the republican guard and even sat in on a debate! Here are our impressions and photos of a truly amazing place…

photos : JasonW

First of all though, a bit of history. I have to admit that I didn’t really know much about the Senate before researching this article. It’s the second house of French government, much like the House of Lords in the UK, The building dates from the 16th Century and was constructed for the Duke of Luxembourg, François de Piney, before being bought by Marie de Medicis in 1612 who decided to have a veritable château built on the site. Work was finished in 1631, but Marie de Medicis was forced to leave the same year by her son, King Louis XIII. She had lived there for barely five years.

After the French Revolution the building was abandoned, becoming a prison in 1793, but not for long: Napoleon modified the building in order to receive the first senators (80 of them at the time) who were charged with approving the emperor’s decisions.

In 1836 more work was done as the number of senators had grown to 271. The Senate grew in size and power. Famous men such as Victor Hugo, Jules Ferry and Georges Clemenceau became senators.

That’s the short version. You can read more on Wikipedia here if you like.

For our visit, we started – quite logically – in the courtyard, a large but rather standard affair. It’s true to say that from outside, it is difficult to guess at the amazing contents of the building…

However, once inside, you soon start to realise that this is truly a grand building. For example, here’s the cloakroom…

And from here you walk up the monumental staircase towards the main rooms…

The ceiling is very high and there are details everywhere…

Part of the Hôtels Paris Gauche group poses for a photo!

Our jaws were already hanging open, but there was a lot more to come. Our guide led us into the Queen’s Chamber which in turn leads to the Messengers of State room (with an amazing ceiling) and the senators’ post office, old style…

It is from the Messengers of State room that you go into what is perhaps the most impressive part of the building: the Conference Hall. Ever single square centimetre of space is filled with mirrors or gold or paintings or sculptures. It’s enormous, very colourful and simply amazing.

As if the ceiling weren’t impressive enough, the sheer quantity of details forces respect.

Have a look at the size of the place…

At the far end there is the Victor Hugo room and another with some beautiful paintings portraying the Luxembourg gardens (one of the Medicis fountain and another of children playing).

…and running along all of one side of the conference room is the busts gallery. This where the republican guard welcomes the president of the Senate.

We moved on to some smaller rooms, including a cosy salon, and on to the library where senators can concentrate on reading thanks to the calm and light of the place. The painting on the central dome is by Delacroix, and following a recent clean the place looks splendid…

The time had come at last to visit the senate chamber, where a debate was going on. After going up a grand staircase, we slipped silently into a seat and watched…

Photos aren’t really allowed here, so we only took a couple, just as a souvenir.

This marked the end of our visit, and as we were leaving we were still seeing details that we hadn’t noticed before and catching glimpses of sweet views over the gardens. Amazing stuff!

If you’d like to have a look at all our photos, you can see the mini slideshow below, but we really think you ought to click here and get a better view of them at a decent size!

Many thanks to Gérard Bailly, senator for the Jura region and his assistant Marie-Laurence Thomas for accompanying us on this visit and making it possible.

If you want to visit the Senate, you’ll need to organise it in advance. A public visit is organised one Saturday a month by the Centre of National Monuments (good luck with finding anything on their site. I found it really tiresome) and is limited to 30 people. You’ll need to confirm a few days before (call 01 44 54 19 30). Visits must also coincide with the 120-day session when the Senate sits (split into two semesters). There’s some more information – in French, and very possibly out of date – on the official Senate site here.