Paris (Gay Paree), the capital of France, with its two million inhabitants, is synonymous with romance in the minds of many and commonly known as the "City of Love". It also promotes the nickname the "City of Light “or "La Ville-Lumiere". A global centre for finance, art, science, fashion, gastronomy, culture and new ideas, but also because Paris began lighting the Champs-Elysees with gas lamps, the first city in Europe to do so.
Paris, divided by the River Seine, is home to nearly a fifth of the French population, who pay for the privilege. The Paris Region has the highest GDP in Europe and Paris has the ninth-highest cost of living in the world.
A Brief History of Paris
Paris derives its name from the Parisii, a sub-tribe of the Celtic Senones. They inhabited the Paris area from around the middle of the 3rd century BC. The settlement grew up on one major north–south trade routes, crossing the Seine on the Ile de la Cité. The Romans conquered the Paris Basin in 52 BC and began their settlement on Paris's Left Bank. The Roman town. Lutetia Parisiorum, "Lutetia of the Parisii", eventually became known as Parisius, later Paris. After being designated capital for a short time in Frankish times it regained the title of capital of the kingdom of France in the twelfth century.
Various renovations took place over the ages. During the 17th century, Cardinal Richelieu, chief minister of Louis XIII, was determined to make Paris the most beautiful city in Europe. He built five new bridges, a new chapel for the College of Sorbonne, and a palace for himself, the Palais-Cardinal. After Richelieu's death, it was used by the monarchy and renamed the Palais-Royal.
Because of the Parisian uprisings during the Fronde Civil War, Louis XIV moved his court to a new palace, Versailles, in 1682. To demonstrate that the city was not under any threat, the king had the city walls demolished and replaced with tree-lined streets. He also added a bounty of landmarks such as Les Invalides.
Napoleon Bonaparte erected monuments, but these related to relating to military glory. The most iconic is the Arc de Triomphe. Napoleon III, directed the newly appointed prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, in a gigantic public works project. This included widening the boulevards, a new opera house, and parks, including the Bois de Boulogne.
Paris is a total cliché, a beautiful city, easy to wander around. Or you can hop on the metro (the Paris Métro serves 5.23 million passengers daily and is the second-busiest metro system in Europe after the Moscow Metro) and admire all the art deco signage. The river is romantic, the buildings gorgeous. The historical district along the Seine in the city centre has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991. Popular landmarks there include the 12th-century, Gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral (The Bells, the Bells) on the Île de la Cité. That's now closed for renovation after the 15 April 2019 fire.
Other tourist sites include the Gothic royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle, also on the Île de la Cité, the Eiffel Tower, constructed for the Paris Universal Exposition of 1889, the Grand Palais and Petit Palais, built for the Paris Universal Exposition of 1900, the Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées and the hill of Montmartre with its artistic history and its Basilica of Sacré-Coeur.
The Eiffel Tower is excellent from a distance. (I've read that the Parisians hated it when it was first erected.) I don’t enjoy the glass lift or the open sided top deck. There's an equally good (if not better view as you can see the Eiffel Tower too) from the less vertigo inducing Montparnasse Observation Deck.
Fashionable Le Marais, the former Jewish quarter is elegant, filled with arcades, hip boutiques and gay bars. The Place des Vosges here is the oldest planned square in Paris (1612). It has fancy lawns and is lined with trees and red brick houses. There's also the Musée Victor Hugo, where the writer lived.
The galleries of Paris are replete with famous works. For me, the Musee d 'Orsay with its impressionist and post impressionist art, rather than the bustling Louvre with its glass pyramid. (The Louvre Palace was originally a fortress). The Musée Marmottan Monet and Musée de l'Orangerie are also noted for their collections of French Impressionist art. And I mustn't forget the Musée Rodin and the Musée Picasso. Amongst others.
But my favourite Parisian building (both inside and out) is the high-tech inside-out Richard Rogers designed Pompidou Centre Musée National d'Art Moderne. It houses the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in Europe.
The first time I went to Paris we stayed on the edge of Montmartre, on the Boulevard de Clichy, near the famous Moulin Rouge Cabaret. My mother had her purse stolen on the metro. So, we were bundled into a police van, siren blaring, pin-pon, across cobbled streets, to get back to the correct arrondissement to report the loss. The officer concerned affected not to understand my school girl French, so I conversed with him in German. On the way back we witnessed a knife fight on the platform at Pigalle Station.
It took my mother the rest of the day to get over the shocks. But we admired the Sacre Coeur, had our portraits drawn in the square on the top of Montmartre Hill and ate in fast food restaurants. My father said the proper restaurants were too expensive. He might have been right. I’ve struggled every time I’ve been to find decent food in the capital. Much of it is very ‘tourist menu’.
Shopping in Paris
Paris is famous for its café culture and designer shopping along the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. The Left Bank is good for glamorous boutiques. The glazed partly subterranean malls at Les Halles succeed a city market place that dates from 1137. Even the department stores are sophisticated. Stained glass and proper balconied galleries. (In Galeries Lafayette - where you can get free views across Paris from the roof top café). I still have the red laced velvet boots, which I saw displayed on a cushion in my size at the top of an escalator. What else could I do?
See also: France in a Nutshell