Tourists flock to this city on the Seine in their droves seeking an elusive imagined Paris that lives in a set of images: carelessly flicked cigarettes; rock star philosophers debating; the smell of freshly baked baguettes wafting from the baskets of passing bicycles; beauty in all things – buildings, art, food, clothing, people and ideas. Visitors come to revel in the elegance of the urban, where artistry can be found around every corner; they hope to sample just a hint of the irresistible city that provided the sustenance and setting for works such as Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.
Paris borrows its name from the Parisii, a Celtic tribe that established a settlement here in the 3rd century BC on what is now the Île de la Cité. In time the Romans built a town here and called it Lutetia, Latin for ‘midwater dwelling’. Since Clovis I, King of the Franks, made the city his capital in AD 508, Paris has been a centre of power. Clovis’s Carolingian dynasty ruled until 987 when Hugh Capet was elected ‘King of France’; Capet’s male descendants formed the Capetian line of kings who reigned until Louis XVI was deposed in the famous French Revolution of 1789. After over 800 years of monarchy, Paris lurched between republics, emperors (the three Napoleons), and kings in the 19th century before the Belle Époque (or the ‘Beautiful Epoch’, the era in which Paris flourished as the world’s centre for established and avant-garde culture) had its day. Paris, really, is a city of revolutions. It has never been stationary, and its present remains vibrant.
In many ways, we are attracted to an idea of Paris – the city of that storied Belle Époque, the ville lumièré (or the ‘City of Light’), originally derived for its celebrated luminaries. We imagine a city, home to one of the oldest universities in the world (the Sorbonne), whose sophistication, beauty and dizzying splendour, from the gasping gothic and opulent baroque to the soaring modern and mind-bending post-modern, has attracted artists and intellectuals for centuries.
As we gaze up at the Eiffel Tower, at the red windmill of the Moulin Rouge or at the paintings that adorn the walls of the Musée d’Orsay, we are grasping for those seductive years of the Belle Époque. Between 1880 and the outbreak of the First World War, the tumult of French politics seemed to abate, and Paris became the world’s cultural North Star; the place of possibilities. Automobiles were appearing on the streets, the city was lit by tens of thousands of gas lamps, and Auguste and Louis Lumière were showing the first films in history. In the whirlwind freethinking fervour Paris drove art’s evolution: from Impressionism and Modernism to Art Nouveau and Art Deco; from Vincent Van Gogh and Paul Cézanne to Henry Matisse and Pablo Picasso. Eric Satie played his minimalist melodies on a piano in Montmartre as the cancan, set to Offenbach’s music, was danced at cabarets and music halls around Paris’ distinctive boulevards, squares and parks recently designed by Georges-Eugène Haussmann. To open the 1889 World’s Fair, Gustave Eiffel built the world’s tallest structure, a wrought-iron lattice tower topped with hundreds of gas lights beaming out The Tricolore (the flag of France). Quite literally, this was The City (and The Nation) of Light.
The Paris of which we fantasise, its bohemians milling outside late-night cafés in the shadow of palaces and luxurious galleries, can still be found; but the real Paris is more than this projection. Beyond the limelight is a sprawling metropolis that extends well beyond the elegant boulevards of the city centre. It’s first and foremost the nation’s capital, where most of its financial activity has taken place, and where its politics has been shaped over the centuries.