Paris

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 Landmarks

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.

Art Galleries

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.

Montmartre

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

A Very Brief History of France

  • The country of France emerged from the fragmentation of the large Frankish-dominated Carolingian empire which dominated western and central Europe during the early Middle Ages.
  • The name La France derives from the (German origin) word, “Frank,” which means “Free Man.” Though France began West Frankia, consolidating power and expanded territorially.
  • Continuing wars were fought over land with English monarchs, with territory being ceded and reclaimed several times.  Henry II ruled over more of France than the king of France and France was again conquered by Henry V, who claimed a right to the throne, through his mother. The Hapsburgs later also claimed land, especially after they inherited Spain and territorially surrounded France.
  •  French royal power reached its peak, with the reign of Louis XIV (1642–1715), known as the Sun King, and French culture dominated Europe. But Louis also established a pattern of royal financial excesses, leading ultimately to the French Revolution, in 1789, and a republic.
  • The government established after the French Revolution had its own problems and leadership struggles leading to the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) as emperor. The ensuing Napoleonic Wars saw France first militarily dominate Europe, then be defeated. The monarchy was momentarily restored, but it was a shaky one and was followed in quick succession by a second republic, a second empire and a third republic followed in the nineteenth century. France is now in its Fifth Republic.

Is France in the EU?

France is the largest country in the EU and a founding member.

Facts and Factoids

  • France is officially called La Republique Francaise, but it has numerous nicknames. La Belle France is widely known, but as the French take France very seriously, there are also: Les Pays Des Droits De L’Homme (Land Of Human Rights), La Diagonale Du Vide (The Empty Diagonal), originally referring to the less densely populated region between the Southwest of France and the Northeast of the country, La Gaule (from the Roman named province Gaul), La Province (used by Parisians to refer, somewhat derisively to the rest of France), La Métropole (mainland France), La France Profonde (countryside culture), La France Continentale (again mainland France) and, most commonly used by the French themselves to refer to the mainland region - L’Hexagone (referring to its six sides).
  • France has several overseas territories and departements. These were reorganized in 2016, giving rise to the name La France d’Outre Mer and the abbreviation DROM-COM, DROM refers to the overseas département nations of Mayotte, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guinea, and Reunion. COM comes from Overseas Communities: French Polynesia, Saint-Martin, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, St Barthélémy, New Caledonia and Wallis and Futuna.
  • The currency of France before the euro, the franc, was named after one of the Frankish Kings of France, called Rex Francorum.
  • The Tour de France cycle race has been taking place for over 100 years.
  • The French government gives medals to citizens who have 'successfully raised several children 'with dignity'.
  • France has over 40,00 chateaux (castles) and makes over 400 different kinds of cheese.

Is France expensive?

Overall, France is 13.4 percent more expensive than the European average, but the difference between Paris, ‘where you will be paying through the nose for something roughly the size of a shoe box’, and the provinces is enormous.

What is There to See and Do in France?

France has more tourists than any other country in the world and I’ve visited it more often than any other country in the world. It’s so invitingly close, (especially when the train left from Waterloo). Like most Brits I have a love - hate relationship with France, but it’s mostly love. The internet tells me that France's popularity is down to ‘stunning landscape, comprising of Alpine mountains, beautiful meadows, farms, rivers and spectacular seacoast. France is the leading light in our planet's culture, performing arts and gastronomy.’ The countryside is spectacular, the history fascinating, the weather is warmer than it is here, the food is good (mostly but not consistently, whatever they say) and the men are happy to flirt.

Sometimes I’m passing through, sometimes it’s a dedicated visit, most often to Paris, but maybe just a quick visit to a channel port and hypermarket. (Some of these photos are a little old!)

Normandy and Brittany

Normandy has been visited often. Dieppe was the destination for my first trip abroad, a school outing at the age of 11. There was a storm in the Channel and it was a rough crossing. We found some bunks to lounge on and took turns in going green. An unkind man laughed at my accent when I asked for stamps and I carried some French patterned pencils and an increasingly drooping baguette triumphantly home with me.

I’ve sailed down the coast in a catamaran from Le Havre to Cherbourg. We visited picturesque Honfleur, ate oysters at Ouistreham, glimpsed the famous church at Sainte Mere Eglise, viewed the Bayeux Tapestry and heard the story of the Battle of Hastings from the French point of view (there was excellent eating in the restaurant next door), endured the Barfleur Race (very big waves), hitched to the graveyard battlefields - a sombre occasion, all those young men (someone had written in the book of remembrance ‘not enough dead Krauts about’), saw the World War Two D Day Museum and Mulberry Harbour at Arromanches and ran aground outside Isigny (we had to wait for the tide to come in again). Along the way I feathered for mackerel and did the cooking while my three male companions sailed the boat.

We were marooned by bad weather in Cherbourg for a week. We got to know it very well. We visited one economically priced restaurant often and were alarmed to hear loud shouting from the kitchen and the sound of objects being thrown as we arrived one evening. ‘Eggs are off, ‘said the waitress. ’The return journey was stormy too (I’m obviously cursed). In classic story book fashion the wind came up very suddenly and changed direction, so the sail whipped round and we had to take it down. Neither of the outboard motors would start, although both were gradually brought into play amidst much swearing and frantic starter cord pulling. We were very pleased to see the entrance to Poole harbour. Well, we couldn’t actually see it, it was dark and I was positioned ahead to watch out for Old Harry and any other sundry rock stacks. They hooked me onto the rail. It was so scary I didn’t have time to be sea sick.

I’ve since led a school trip to Le Touquet. and I’ve flown to Normandy in a small Cessna to stay in a remote farmhouse. (The pilot cut the engine deliberately because he was annoyed with me asking to return home early.)

 At times I was  more adventurous and pottered through to Brittany and Mont St Michel, St Malo and the Pink Granite Coast.

Heading South

A little further on and Red-Roof Country begins. This signals the south, great beaches and warmer climes.

I’ve also driven through France to and from Spain and Italy and old Yugoslavia, discovering some of those 40,000 chateaux, arguably the most splendid medieval cathedrals in Europe and a canyon or two. I’ve skied in several of the Alps resorts, clinical, but high up and with easy access to the slopes. (Austria wins hands down for atmosphere.)

Even further south, (Beyond the Hexagon), Corsica has wonderful beaches and mountains and the flowers are stunning in Spring.

See also these posts:

And the DOM-COM:

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