The old proverb that all good Americans go to Paris to die is really just a rather morbid way of acknowledging that it is the ultimate--though with any luck not that ultimate--city. In Paris more than in any other city in the world, with the possible exception of New York, myth and reality interweave to create a heady sensation of excitement and déjà vu, where the familiar Paris of the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre is temporarily forgotten by the visitor's sudden and often surprising discovery of another, private Paris. Whether it is found in a seemingly forgotten cul-de-sac in an off-the-beaten-track corner of the 14th arrondissement, or in an ancient shop on the slope of Montmartre selling antique clocks, this is the real Paris of which memories are made.
Somewhere in the third century BC, Paris started off on the current Ile de la Cité (an island in the river Seine) as dwelling of the Gaul tribe called Pariisi. The colonising Romans named the township Lutetia Parisiorum, which meant “the Pariisi’s village in the mud”. It was often abbreviated Lutetia, staying relatively unimportant in the period before Christ, especially compared to big brothers Nîmes and Avignon.
Paris became capital of the north western part of the Roman Empire in the third century AD, which caused the city to grow in size and significance. Many Roman leftovers from this period are to be found in Quartier Latin. (This obviously means Latin District, but it was not named after this era: it later became the University centre and therefore contained many Latin speaking students). During the decline of the Roman Empire, 700,000 barbarians under Atilla the Hun threatened to take the city in 451. A young girl named Genevieve convinced the Parisians not to flee but to pray all together to save Paris. When the barbarians indeed passed by without entering the city, Genevieve became Paris’ patron saint.
After the powerful Franks, the Vikings sent a fleet of 700 ships with 30,000 warriors to Paris in 885. Still, the Parisians managed to defend their city. A city wall was built in 1200, with the Louvre castle being the closing part. This citadel had to guard the weakest spot in the city defence, also the location were the Vikings had focused their beleaguering. It was also in this period that the islands in the Seine started to get very crowded, so people moved to the riverside. The narrow streets (for example near the Notre Dame) on the islands are a clear witness of this early epoch. Paris became an important centre of philosophy and theology when the oldest university, Sorbonne (named after priest Robert de Sorbon), was founded in 1253.
From 1370 to 1382, King Charles V let build a fortress called the Bastille to live safely from possible rioters. The Bastille was hated thoroughly, partly because Charles V ordered to arrest random men in the street to have them carry stones for the bastion. Consequently it was a quite simple effort to destruct the hated symbol of royal oppression in 1789.
Under 17th century Louis XIV the castle of Versailles became the royal palace. In this epoch the glamorous Jardin du Luxembourg, several city gates and – for the many wounded soldiers – the Hôtel des Invalides. The Parisian thinkers of the century thereafter (Montesquieu, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau) fed the French Revolution of 1789. The vacuum after the terror of Maximilien Robespierre was taken by Napoléon Bonaparte, who enriched Paris with the Arc de Triomphe and the Colon of captured cannons on Place Vendôme. His grave can be found in the Dôme des Invalides, while many subway stations carry the name of his famous victorious battles (Austerlitz, Jena, Friedland, Wagram). The people of Paris stayed very rebellious in these centuries. The broad avenues of Paris were especially set up to enable the army to arrive quickly at the possible scenes of uproar.
The major role of Paris in World War I was that of providing the location for signing the peace treaty. The settlements were made at Versailles. In the meantime the subway was founded and the city became a centre of bohemian artists. The pro-German (and anti-Semite) position of the Pétain government caused Paris to remain unharmed in World War II, even though Adolf Hitler ordered to destroy all art treasures in the capital after the Allied Forces had landed in Normandy.
The influence of some celebrated French presidents is still very much visible in Paris. Charles de Gaulle ordered to build a new airport, while Georges Pompidou marked his name through the distinctive Centre d’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou. Post-war Paris was also characterised by the blossoming of existentialism (Jean-Paul Sartre) and the student revolts of 1968 (Daniel Cohn Bendit)
As can be witnessed above in the French capital’s rich history, Paris is full of exciting buildings of bygone times. The following is an overview of the principal monuments in the city.
- Gustave Eiffel designed the Eiffel Tower for the 1889 World’s Fair. Originally the idea was to destruct the 320m metal tower after the event. Now the construction is the symbol of the city, and country. An elevator leads to the third floor; the stairs only get you to the second.
- In the west of Paris, the 50m high Arc de Triomphe towers above the surrounding streets (including the famous Champs Elysées). Napoléon had the triumph arch built to honour his own military successes. This is why the names of some of his generals and his victories are inscribed in the arch. France buried its Unknown Soldier from World War I beneath the Arc de Triomphe, and keeps a flame burning permanently over the grave.
- Centre Pompidou (also called Beaubourg) is the National Museum of Modern Art. President Georges Pompidou initiated the construction and provided the way for a new generation of architects and a new attitude towards public space and public buildings. All construction materials that are usually hidden in the walls, floors and ceilings, are clearly visible, like sewage pipes and air conditioning tubes. The construction was finished in 1977.
- The Louvre is actually a collection of monuments. Starting of as a castle, the main building now is a museum (hosting the Mona Lisa), although part of the complex was domain of the Ministry of Finance until 1987. In that year President François Mitterrand’s controversial prestige object became the entrance of the museum: the glass pyramid. Also part of the Louvre are the Tuileries and the Arc du Carrousel.
- The biggest religious attraction in Paris is the Notre Dame cathedral. With its 150m length and 69m height, it is one of the largest gothic basilicas in the world, especially if you realise that the construction of the towers was never finished. The construction started in 1163 and lasted over a century.
- Watching over the city on the Montmartre hill is the Sacré Coeur (meaning Sacred Heart). The church was built after the war with the Germans in 1870. According to Linca, the Sacré Coeur must also be seen as an expiation for the revolution of 1870, also known as La Commune. The Roman/Byzantine construction received its blessings in 1919. To reach the church, one has to take 237 staircase steps.
- Les Invalides comprises the largest single complex of monuments in Paris, including Musée de l'Armée,
Musée des Plans-Reliefs, Musée de l'Ordre de la Libération and L'Eglise de St-Louis-des-Invalides. In 1670, Louis XIV - the Sun King - founded Les Invalides. An old soldiers home, it was funded by a five year levy on the salaries of soldiers. The first stones were laid in 1671, and it was completed in 1676. Construction of the Dome began in 1706.
- Located in the modern La Défense business district, the white Grande Arche was built by Danish architect Johan Otto von Spreckelsen in 1989 for the 200th anniversary of the 1789 French revolution.
- A useful geographical overview of Paris buildings and sites has been made by thbz.
Other interesting facts
- The 1999 census figures showed a population of 2,116,502 inhabitants, a fall of 36,371 in relation to 1990. Obviously these statistics represent only the city core, without the many suburbs.
- In the 19th century, Paris was divided in 20 districts, which are still administratively used. The census figures speak for these twenty arrondissements.
- The official city web site can be reached through http://www.paris.fr.
- Paris hosted the Olympic Summer Games twice, in 1900 with women participating for the first time, and 1924, starring Johnny Weissmuller – later Tarzan - in swimming).
- Famous movies with subject ‘Paris’ include Last Tango in Paris, Moulin Rouge, French Kiss, An American in Paris, Trois Couleurs: Bleu, Henry and June, and Killing Zoe. By the way, IMDB lists 525 movies with Paris in the title…
- Last century the highest temperature experienced in Paris (Le Bourget) was 39.6 degrees Celcius. The average in January is 4°C, in July 20°C.
Elton John included a song called Paris on his album Leather Jacket in 1986. Songwriter Bernie Taupin took care of the lyrics. Although the song is not among my favourites, the second couplet leaves a mark of the romantic side of Paris.
Nobody left in the airport lounge
They cleaned the ashtrays
TV's just wound down
I've got to wait till morning
I've got to last the night
I've only got one book
To see me through my flight
But when I get to Paris
We'll paint all our portraits
In brush-strokes of yellow
And christen the canvas
The left bank is crying
For colour to crown it
Like the roof of a palace
We'll drink in the amber
When I get to Paris
You were the best of Montmartre Street life
You signed the tablecloth
Art has its price
It's so hard to hold on
To the ghost of your breed
It takes ambition
To call the colours you need
I've got to wait till morning
I've got to last the night
I've only got one book
To see me through the flight