In 1996 the Eurostar had just opened and I made the exciting train trip from London under the English Channel arriving in Paris in just two and a half hours. Linking Paris and London has been a blessing for both, with the cross culture of two of the world's greatest cities. London rose to the occasion and rebuilt a fine piece of Victorian architecture to house the Eurostar: St. Pancras Station. Paris on the other hand, treats her new arrivals to Gare du Nord, a shabby old relic filled with dodgy characters and hot dog stands. Once out of the station, you get the pleasure of waiting in a huge line for a taxi, and the driver will have no idea of where you are going, even if you speak French and are staying at The Ritz. Like the Parisian's themselves, Paris is unlikely to give you a warm welcome, but getting to know her can be incredibly rewarding. She is a diva, she is fabulous, and she has history...
Like so many other European cities, Paris began as a Roman colony. In 55 BC it was a flood prone fishing village located on the little island in the River Seine inhabited by the Parisii tribe, where it gets its name. The city was expanded to The Left Bank of the river (still called Le Rive Gauche) and then further out in all directions. By the Middle Ages Paris had become a center of learning and religious studies, and a grand gothic cathedral was built called Notre Dame. During the Renaissance, Paris really came into the spotlight under the Louis XIV, The Sun King. He built the Palace of Versailles and his court was the envy of Europe. Paris had become the richest city in the world. But the wealth was unevenly distributed, and the peasants were getting angry. The Sun King's hapless grandson, Louis XVI married the glamorous Marie Antoinette of Austria and under their extravagant rule, the peasants had finally had enough. The Revolution of 1789 changed the world.
The poverty stricken people of Paris took to the streets, burned down the Bastille prison, beheaded the King and imprisoned Queen Marie Antoinette. 60,000 people would die in those bloody years, and the news of it sent shock waves throughout Europe. Monarchies everywhere in the world were suddenly at risk of being struck down by those they ruled. Out of the ashes, The Republic of France emerged but was teetering on without a strong leader. In 1799 a brilliant General seized power and five years later Napoleon Bonaparte crowned himself Emperor of France. Napoleon centralized the government, reformed the educational system and set out to make Paris the most beautiful city in the world. Napoleon was defeated in the battle of Waterloo and died in exile, but his nephew Napoleon III continued on with the grand scheme of remaking the city. He employed the talents of Baron Haussmann, a genius and visionary. Haussmann transformed the Medieval city by razing the slums and building the well ordered avenues and magnificent boulevards that are the signature of the City of Light.
In 1889, the most famous landmark was added. The monumental Eiffel Tower was built by Gustave Eiffel, the brilliant engineer that was also responsible for The Statute of Liberty. At 1,063 feet high, it became the tallest building in the world, finally outdoing the Great Pyramid in Egypt. It remained the pinnacle of human engineering until 1931 when the Empire State Building surpassed it. Queuing for the elevator to the top can take several hours in peak periods, but the views are truly magnificent. At the first level, there is a large, elegant restaurant called Altitude 95 (for how many meters off the ground it is). We have had the privilage of eating here on several occassions. If you are visiting with your millionaire sugar daddy, you can go one more level up to the uber chic Jules Verne restaurant and have your champagne and fois gras surrounded by the rich and famous.
Paris has too many gorgeous churches to name, but there are two that are on everyone's list to see before they meet their maker: Notre Dame and Sacré Cœur. Notre Dame is linked to Parisianne history more than any other building. It is located in the cradle of Paris, the Île de la Cité . The Gothic masterpiece was finished in 1330 and commands the lions share of the island in the river Seine. Within these walls, kings and emperors were crowned and royal crusaders were blessed. It was the home of Victor Hugo's fictional hunchback, and the gargoyles and flying buttresses that grace the facade are world renowned architectural treasures. Sacré Cœur is located on top of a hill in the artistic neighborhood of Montmartre. It is a relative new comer at only 100 years of age, but the striking white marble and three magnificent domes can make you feel the presence of God. The church is dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Christ and the views from this high point of the city are guaranteed to inspire.
As you would expect, the world's most popular tourist destination is home to some of the world's finest art. The Louvre is a vast palace that displays the most important art collection on Earth. Every other museum in the world bows down to it. The collection can be traced back to King François I who began purchasing Italian masterpieces between 1515 and 1547, including the most famous painting of all time: the Mona Lisa. It has been continually enriched over the centuries ever since. The Louvre is also one of the oldest museums, as it opened its doors to the public in 1793, just four years after The Revolution. If you still need more art and culture, there are museums dedicated to Picasso and Rodan, and the massive, incredible inside-out building called the Pompedou is bursting at the seams with the best of Modern Art. My favorite is the magnificent, but manageable Musee d'Orsay, housed in a gorgeous old railway station displaying each period in French art from 1848 to 1914.
When you have had enough of art and culture, some of the worlds best shops are here to tempt you. A stroll down the famous Champs E'lysees is a must. Start up at the top at the Arc de Triomphe and head down past the chic cafes and lavish shops. Its a long walk, but all down hill. Be warned that everything along this most famous boulevard is très expensive. Eventually you will arrive at Place de la Concorde, the largest and most important square in Paris. In days gone by, it was where the miffed Parisians built the guillotine that lopped off the head of Marie Antoinette and thousands of others. Today there are gorgeous fountains, ornate lamp posts, and a 3200 year old obelisk from Luxor, Egypt. This central spot is the gateway to the formal Tuileries Gardens, The Louvre, the Ritz and Rue de Rivoli with its boutiques, book shops and chocolateries.
The River Seine is and has always been the life blood of Paris. Nearly every building of note is along its banks or within a stones throw. It is the essential point of reference to the city. Distances are measured from it, street numbers are determined by it and it divides the city into its two distinct halves. The Left and Right Bank. A first time visitor can get his bearings quickly with a boat trip up the river. There are a multitude of pleasure boats offering everything from a quick tourist round-a-bout to luxurious dinner cruises. The Batobus river service operates a "hop on, hop off" shuttle allowing you to get off and explore when your fancy strikes. I have been to Paris dozens of times, and I still love to get on these boats.
Along with the Left and Right banks of the river, Paris is arranged into twenty arrondissements. Looking on the map these areas are numbered 1 to 20 in a snail shell pattern circling out from the centre, Arrondissement 1 being Ile de la Cite. Parisians will wax liracal about their favourite neighbourhoods, and certainly there are charms to be found in all parts of the city. But there is one area that I think personifies all there is to love about Paris. The Marais, in Arrondissement 3. Literally meaning "the swamp" it was abandoned after The Revolution and became an architectural wasteland. Its narrow streets escaped the wrecking balls of Baron Haussmann and the crumbling old mansions managed to hold onto the look they had in the 15th Century. It wasn't until the 1960's that the Marais began to be restored. The gays moved in and soon after it became the fashionable place to live in Paris. Today it is alive with fashionable boutiques, trendy restaurants, art galleries and outdoor cafes. Freddie and I met in one of these little bars ten years ago, so it is close to my heart to say the least. Near by is the most elegant 17th Century square, Place des Voges with its perfectly uniformed block of nine mansions on each of the four sides of the garden. The elegant address was home to Victor Hugo who wrote Les Miserables while gazing out across the square.
With history, art, culture and shopping ticked off the list, the next thing to mention is food. Paris is famous for its high class restaurants and French cooking was at one time the envy of the world. Those days are largely behind it now, as the best chefs have moved to London where they can make more money! And I have to say, that many of the normal, everyday bistros in Paris are disappointing. They rely on the fact that there is an unending supply of tourists that will come and sit in those cute rattan chairs under those faded gold mirrors and order bottles of not-so-good Beaujolais. The kitchen staff are no longer French, and the fastidious maitre'd is just a character in the movies. The really fabulous dining experiences are still here in Paris, but they are out of reach for most of us economic mortals. But it's not all bad news. The boulangeries are still the best in all the world, and they are still a bargain. They are everywhere in Paris, with lines out the door every morning baking croissants and stuffing baguettes at lunch time. The smell alone can lure you from a block away. And the other culinary highlight still living up to its reputation in Paris are the food markets. Every neighborhood will have an outdoor market that is alive with banter and bursting with the freshest, most gorgeous produce you have ever seen. Fruits and meats and cheeses to die for, and the French know how to make a presentation that will have your mouth watering. Buy up a bunch of goodies and make yourself a picnic in a park or on a bridge. It will be so much more rewarding than an expensive ho-hum meal in a tourist trap cafe.
So there you have it. Everything you ever wanted to know about Paris but were afraid to ask. And I ask myself: Am I still in love with Paris after all these years? ...Oh yes I am. With all her faults, I still find her incredibly attractive. And as a matter of fact, we have another date lined up for August.