Colin Jones is Professor of History at the University of Warwick. His books include The Longman Companion to the French Revolution, The Cambridge Illustrated History of France, The Medical World of Early Modern France (with Laurence Brockliss), Madame de Pompadour: Images of a Mistress and Paris: Biography of a City.
In Paris: A History, Colin Jones gives a sense of the city of Paris as it was lived in, experienced and imagined over the two thousand years of its history. With an eye for the revealing, startling and occasionally horrible detail, he takes the reader from Roman Paris to the present day, re-creating the highs and lows of the history of the city and its inhabitants. Here, in our exclusive feature, Colin encourages us to wander off the beaten track to find the real Paris.
Walking the History of Paris
The eighteenth-century chronicler of Paris, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, joked that one could only paint the portrait of Paris with one’s legs. And it remains true that the best places in which to explore the history of Paris indeed are the streets, squares, bridges, parks and quais of the city itself. Paris may be famous for its monuments and museums – but the face of the city is just as instructive in allowing us insight into the city’s past. One needs, however, to be ready to wander off beyond the tourist trails...
Roman Paris – or Lutetia - has left few traces. Besides the old baths on the Boulevard St-Michel, however, there are the Arènes de Lutèce, quietly hidden away in a little-visited site off the Rue Monge, with nothing to suggest their erstwhile vocation for gladiator fights and animal combats. One can get a sense of the medieval street plan from strolling round the Latin Quarter by the Place St-Michel. Picturesque medieval street-name remain intact here too – the Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche (‘Fishing Cat Street’), for example, named after a tavern, or the Rue du Fouarre, (‘Straw-Street’), which evokes the straw bundles on which medieval students sat to listen to their masters.
For the city from the Renaissance through to the 1789 Revolution, the visitor will want to linger on and around the Pont-Neuf. Constructed in 1607, this ‘new bridge’ is ironically Paris’s oldest structure straddling the whole of the Seine. Also representative of this era is the Marais neighbourhood. One of Paris’s most fashionable residential areas down to 1789, it was only matched by the Île St-Louis and the Faubourg Saint-Germain, also well worth pedestrian exploration. The quais nearby remind us of the importance of the river in the city’s past – something now virtually completely effaced.
The 1789 Revolution did not revolutionise the structure of the city. That was the work of Baron Haussmann, Prefect under Napoleon III in the 1850s and 1860s. Much of Haussmann’s Paris is too grand for the pedestrian – it is best seen from a bus. Try the 26 or the 22, which take in the most famous of Haussmann’s boulevards, including the big departments stores like Au Printemps and the Galeries Lafayette, also founded in the late nineteenth century. Try too the great city parks which Haussmann and his collaborators designed: the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes if one wishes, but also, out in the 19th arrondissement, the Buttes-Chaumont park, whose Swisso-kitch charms belie the site’s former life as public gallows and slaughtering-yards.
Remarkably little was built in Paris between the First World War and the 1950s. A building explosion then started which is still going on. One can sample the numerous high rises out behind the Place d’Italie in the 13th or the Fronts du Seine in the 15th. More distinguished (if occasionally over the top) are the grand projects, formal public buildings and monuments which Presidents Pompidou, Mitterrand and Chirac have been keen to sponsor. The Pompidou Centre and the Louvre pyramid are the most visited of these, but try too the science amusement park out at La Villette, the under visited André-Citroen park in the 15th, or the coulée verte, the raised pedestrian walkway connecting the Place de la Bastille and the Bois de Vincennes.
Finally, for Paris in the round, one can become air bound. The view from the Eiffel tower is a history lesson on the growth of the city over the ages. But equally satisfying are the panoramas to be enjoyed elsewhere. The view from the top of Notre-Dame cathedral or from the steps of the Sacré-Coeur up in Montmartre (especially at sunset) are spectacular. And if one samples the view from the terrace atop the La Samaritaine department store near the Pont-Neuf or if one just sits on the municipal park benches up at the recently-created Parc de Belleville in the 19th, one just might meet some twenty-first century Parisians alongside the tourists.