The best advocates for visiting Paris are the Parisians themselves, convinced as they are that their city is the most beautiful and civilized on earth. The art, architecture, and of course, food and wine are all justly celebrated! Undoubtedly France’s linchpin, Paris excites and astounds all who come to visit, with its intense tempo of life, stunning beauty, fascinating history and notoriously assertive citizens!
Paris enjoys a history that spans over 2,500 years, during which the city has grown from a small Gallic settlement to the sprawling, multicultural capital of France it is today.
The early history of the city is murky, but we do know that in the 3rd century BC, a group of Celtic Gauls called the Parisii and founded what we know as Paris today. Unfortunately, the Romans also had their eye on the prize, and finally wrestled control from the Gauls in 52 BC. The settlement on the banks of the river Seine prospered as the Roman town of Lutetia, despite the ensuring raids on the city from the Franks. The Romans occupied what would later be known as Paris until the late 5th century. It was at this time that a second wave of invaders overran the settlement, seizing it from Roman Rule.
Paris’ fortunes would then take a turn for the worse, as it came under the militaristic ruler of the Carolingian dynasty, beginning with Charles ‘the Hammer’ Martel. He was more preoccupied with grisly wars than protecting his city and Paris languished. The Vikings paid the city more than one visit during this era and inflicted severe damage, conducting several raids on its south banks. Salvation came from the counts of Paris, whose powers had increased as the Carolingians feuded among themselves, and they decided to elect one of their own, Hugh Capet, as king at Senlis in 987. He made Paris the royal seat and the city prospered for the next 800 years.
Paris’ strategic riverside position ensured its importance throughout the Middle Ages, although settlement remained centered on the Île de la Cité, with the Left Bank to the south given over to fields and vineyards; what we now know as the Right-Bank was a waterlogged marsh. By the mid-12th century, however, the Left Bank was developing as the center of European learning and culture, particularly in what we now call the Latin Quarter. Poetry, Philosophy and the arts all flourished and the famous University, the Sorbonne, was established during this time.
Sadly, this era of good fortune was not to last as some three centuries of hostility between the Capetian rulers of Paris and the Anglo-Normans degenerated into the Hundred Years’ War, which would be fought on and off until the middle of the 15th century. The Black Death in the 14th century killed more than a third of Paris’ population but only briefly interrupted the fighting. In fact, the city would not see its population recover until the beginning of the 16th century.
The Hundred Years’ War and the plague, along with the development of free, independent cities across Europe brought revolutionary ideas to Paris, as tensions grew between the wealthy and the peasant class. In 1358, a wealthy merchant named Étienne Marcel, allied himself with peasants revolting against the ruler of the city and seized Paris in a bid to limit the power of the throne and secure a city charter. But the Dauphins supporters recaptured it within two years, and Marcel and his followers were executed at place de Grève. Ouch!
Joan of Arc
This reinstatement brought limited stability, as after the French army was defeated by the English at Agincourt in 1415, Paris was once again embroiled in revolt. The dukes of Burgundy, allied with the English, occupied the capital in 1420. An English king was crowned at the famous Cathedral Notre Dame 10 years later, although the French continued to attempt to reclaim their city. It was around this time that a 17-year-old peasant girl known to history as Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) persuaded the French pretender Charles VII that she had received a divine mission from God to expel the English from France. She won many battles against the English but failed to take Paris. In 1430 she was captured, convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake. The French would not regain control of Paris until 1436, after which conditions finally started to improve for its citizens under the first Renaissance King Louis XI.
The culture of the Italian Renaissance (French for ‘rebirth’) arrived in full swing in Paris in the early 16th century and the city would enjoy a lengthy golden age in which culture, science and art flourished. It was at this time that the French aristocracy began embracing the idea of secular over religious rule. The wars of religion between Protestant and Catholic supporters would take its toll on the city but generally Paris enjoyed relative stability under its Royal leadership until the French Revolution in the 18th century which overthrew the ruling aristocracy.
A so called reign of terror followed, where Marie Antoinette was famously beheaded along with wealthy nobles and their sympathizers. France was a republic until Napoleon Bonaparte took control in 1799 and the first empire was born. The next 100 years would see great changes and social upheaval across France, the Monarchy returned to power in the 19th century, after which Napoleon’s nephew formed a second empire in 1852. During this period, Paris was transformed by town planner Haussmann into the modern city it now is today. The city’s first department stores were also built at this time – the now defunct La Ville de Paris in 1834.
A Third Republic was declared in September 1870, immediately tasked with defending the capital against an impending Prussian invasion. A disastrous war with the now non-existent state of Prussia meant that Prussian troops were present in Paris until May 1871. During this time an insurrectionary government, known to history as the Paris Commune, was established and its supporters, the Communards, seized control of the capital. Vicious fighting ensued but ultimately they were defeated, and its supporters all promptly shot.
Despite this disastrous start, the Third Republic ushered in the glittering belle époque (beautiful age), with Art Nouveau architecture, and advances in science and engineering, including the construction of the first metro line, which opened in 1900. The Paris of nightclubs and artistic cafés made its first appearance around this time, and the district of Montmartre in northern Paris became a magnet for artists, writers and prostitutes!
Sadly, the outbreak of two World Wars’ in the 20th century brought an end to this golden age of freedom and prosperity. Paris was relatively unaffected by the First World War, as the fighting never reached the city and an armistice was signed in 1919. However, the Second World War with the Nazi’s meant that Paris fell under German control in June 1940. For the next 4 years Paris was under German rule until the allies liberated France in 1944. Paris was relatively unscathed by the conflict but the occupation has left a permanent scar on the city.
The latter half of the 20th century would see yet more social upheaval and development, as the left and the right would continue to clash. The Student and worker riots of May 1968 brought the country into chaos. Students occupied the Sorbonne University in the Latin Quarter and street fighting ensured across the capital. The then president Charles-De Gaulle managed to end the conflict and instigated sweeping reforms, in effect, creating today’s Modern France. A succession of leaders has brought varying degrees of social change to France but Paris has always remained independent and fiercely proud, head and shoulders above the rest of France.
Today, Paris continues to inspire visitors, as it always has done, with its incredible beauty and unrivalled cultural life. It has enjoyed a long and difficult history, with the struggle for independence and freedom at the very heart of this city. It strives to be the heart of a unified Europe, and we can think of no better candidate. Paris: capital of France and capital of the world (well, according to the locals!)
Gastronomy & Wine
Two things that are taken very seriously in France indeed. If there’s one word that symbolizes Paris, it is gastronomy. The French remain justly proud of their cuisine, and the Parisians are no exception. French cuisine derives from many varying influences, with a traditional emphasis on fresh, local produce and rich sauces, butter and cream featuring heavily! It is possible to eat cuisine from all over France (and the world) in Paris, although we recommend experiencing the classic bistro style cooking while you are there.
Expect duck and steaks in abundance at a typical Bistro, accompanied of course by the legendary Frites! Every District in Paris has its share of good restaurants, although traditional bistros are found in abundance in the Latin Quarter and for romance, Montmartre is hard to beat. The Marais district on the North Bank has some fantastic advent-garde restaurants, where classic Parisian cuisine is given a modern twist. East of Paris, we find the famous sparkling wine region of Champagne and further south we have the region of Chablis, both are found in abundance in Parisian restaurants. French wine is justly celebrated around the world and it’s possible to drink wines from all over the country in Paris, Bordeaux and Burgundy being two big highlights.
No other building embodies the history of Paris more than Notre-Dame. It stands majestically on the Ile de la Cite, cradle of the city. Built on the site of a Roman temple, the Cathedral was commissioned by the Bishop of Sully in 1163. It has been witness to great events of French history ever since, including the coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte and the state funeral of Charles De Gaulle. A must see!
Since the Middle Ages this riverside quarter has been the center of artistic and intellectual life in Paris. Dominated by the infamous University of the Sorbonne, it acquired its name from early Latin speaking students. The area has long been associated with a bohemian way of life, and has a history of political unrest. In 1871, the Place St-Michel became the center of the Paris Commune and in May 1968 it was a major site of the student uprisings. Today its beautiful streets are full of enticing restaurants, but its infamy lives on.
A definite highlight of any trip to Paris, the Louvre contains one of the world’s most important art collections and has a history dating back to medieval times. First built as a fortress in 1190 by King Auguste, it lost its dungeon and keep in the reign of Francois I, who commissioned a Renaissance-style building. It was first opened as a museum in 1793 under the first Republic and houses such famous paintings as the Mona Lisa.
Built for the Universal Exhibition of 1889, and to commemorate the centennial of the Revolution, the 324 metre Eiffel Towers was meant to be a contemporary addition to the Paris Skyline. Nothing symbolizes Paris to tourists more than the Eiffel Tower and it should not be missed. It was the world’s tallest building until 1931, when New York’s Empire State Building was completed.