Popularly depicted as a city where fashionistas traverse cobbled streets, where smoothly wooing men smoke Gauloises by the Seine, where a constant stream of photographers shoot glossy adverts of models lounging at café tables, Paris is synonymous with beauty and the spirit of advancement. To many, Paris is the artistic, literary and creative capital of the world. But despite the proliferation of picture-postcard clichés, the richness, intricacy and beauty of the city make it surprisingly hard to define.
Although the streets of Paris were once the choking maze of many post-industrial metropolises, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s essential modernisation programme in the latter half of the nineteenth century, cemented the Parisian urban sprawl as it is today. Departing from the tight confines of medieval city planning, Haussmann – appointed by Napoleon III – instilled coherence, in one of the largest urban
transformations in recent history. Departing from the narrow pathways of old, Paris set a new paradigm in city planning, as larger roadways allowed expansion from the centre and ease of navigation.
Haussmann moulded the streets of Paris into a geometric grid with carefully laid pathways neatly dividing the poles of the city, bringing symmetry and order to an otherwise unpredictable capital. A new architectural façade soon followed, creating a sense of visual unity, tied together by many monuments celebrating human greatness. But far from being a homogenous block of urban development, the city has grown organically into a rousing metropolis. Most importantly, Haussmann established districts that have since shaped the multiplicity of persona inhabiting the city. Whether it’s the artistically minded and liberal many of Montmartre or the ritzy few of Trocadéro, Paris is a haven to all thanks to the distinct personality of each district. Though the city plan is quite brilliant, it is not the layout itself that is unmistakably Parisian, but the way in which people have adapted to it. Each inhabitant plays a part in ensuring their district has its own aesthetic, particular to those living, working and thriving there.
The plentiful characters that have populated Paris often sought to leave an indelible mark on the capital’s famous cityscape. Buildings such as the Arc de Triomphe, the Notre Dame and the Louvre are landmarks that have defined the French capital, but are also evidence of its continued allure for those capable of crafting such masterpieces.
Perhaps the most famous of all Parisian landmarks is the Eiffel Tower. The tower’s erection was contested by prominent figures of the French arts establishment, who claimed it defaced the Parisian cityscape. The Committee of Three Hundred decried: “We, writers, » painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection… of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower. All of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream and we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
Despite many joining in this view, the “monstrous Eiffel tower” still stands as a bombastic statement against pre-conceived notions of what ‘should be’ – a sentiment since termed ‘Parisian determinedness’. So often, as the world has lambasted a departure from the norm, Paris has proved a fertile ground for individuality.
At a time when the rest of the world remained rooted to ancient notions of representation, in Paris the individuals responsible for a departure from artistic and literary norms were amassing. Prior to the twentieth century, art and literature were grounded in realist tradition; the Parisian movements signalled a drastic departure.
From the late nineteenth century, the Whiggish idea of history and civilisation as inherently progressive, and of progress as inherently good, were increasingly challenged. In Paris this opposition came from Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, George Braque and their associates. The opening of the twentieth century saw writers, philosophers and artists breaking from traditional aesthetics, producing abstract art, stream-of-consciousness writing and atonal music. Paris boldly hosted the rejection of realism and lingering certainties of enlightenment thinking.
As awareness of the pioneers of so-called modernism grew, many aspiring artists and writers were drawn to Paris in the hope of inspiration. James Joyce said: “There is an atmosphere of spiritual effort here… no other city is quite like it. It is a racecourse tension. I wake early, often at five o’clock, and start writing at once.” Ernest Hemingway wrote: “To have come on all this new world of writing, with time to read in a city like Paris where there was a way of living well and working, no matter how poor you were, was like having a great treasure given to you.” Lawrence Durrell was enamoured by Paris for many reasons: “The national characteristics… the restless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness of good living and the passionate individualism. This is the invisible constant in a place with which the ordinary tourist can get in touch just by sitting quite quietly over a glass of wine in a Paris bistro.”
Paris’ relationship with modern art has perhaps contributed the most to the city’s reputation as an inspiration for new means and mediums of creative achievement. The city has hosted a fantastic breadth of literature and art, and is presently home to a great number of talented figures.
Setting the standard
From Paris, many of the most radical and revolutionary ideas to have shaped present day popular culture have sprung forth. Being home to some of the greatest thinkers of our time, the city has played an integral role in changing both artistic and philosophic norms.
Though the French capital is synonymous with fine dining, haute couture, romance and artistry, there are many more layers to understanding the past, present and future significance of Paris. Its multiplicity of personalities, its explosive and revolutionary domestic history and the glamour of its streets have had a deep impact on political movments and cultural trends across the globe. But better still, all these endeavours have shaped the Paris of today, a city that can only truly be appreciated first hand.
Where to eat
82 Boulevard de Clichy
+33 1 5309 8282 | moulinrouge.fr
Situated in the famously liberal Monmarte district, Le Moulin Rouge is the most famous cabaret in the world housed by one of the city’s most iconic buildings. Founded in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller, the venue’s balls gained immediate popularity, thanks in great part to the French Cancan and its dancers, the Chahuteuses (the unruly girls). Today’s incarnation, the Féerie, involves 80 artists, including 60 feather-clad Doriss girls, who treat the audience to circus, pirate and historically themed dances, as well as the infamous Cancan. The luxurious dinner options cover duck fillet, fried sea bass, and beef, with a range of exquisitely prepared French sides. Expect pungent cheeses and patisserie classics to follow.
L’atelier de Jöel Robuchon
5 rue de Montalembert
+33 1 4222 5656 | joel-robuchon.net
Renowned French chef Jöel Robuchon operates acclaimed restaurants around the world, two of which are in Paris. The Saint-Germain branch, designed by Pierre-Yves Rochon, consists of an open kitchen, where an intimate circle of 40 guests can watch their Michelin-starred food being skilfully prepared. There are a number of menus to choose from, including the incredible nine-course taster menu. At €199 per person, it’s still exceptionally good value for food of this standard. L’atelier does a particularly good steak, as well as more exotic dishes such as caviar with smoked eel potatoes. The restaurant’s informal set-up means it is also perfect for the solo diner, solving a common business travel dilemma.
129 Avenue de Parmentier
+33 1 4357 4595 | lechateaubriand.net
Regularly lauded as one of the world’s best restaurants, having ranked in the top 15 of the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for the last two years, Le Chateaubriand is famed for leading the quintessentially Parisian, néo-bistro renaissance. Head Chef and co-founder Iñaki Aizpitarte learnt the secrets of French cuisine at a number of notable Parisian restaurants, having first learnt the basics of cooking as a dishwasher in Serbia. In 2006 he opened Le Chateaubriand with friend Frédéric Peneau; it was declared Le Fooding’s Best Restaurant in its inaugural year. The five-course, €60 tasting menu is full of surprising combinations and varies by night according to the fresh ingredients available at local markets.