The Rough Guide to Paris

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9781858286815: The Rough Guide to Paris
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INTRODUCTION

It’s little wonder that so many wistful songs have been penned over the years about France’s capital, Paris. What city experiences could be more seductive than sitting in the gardens of Notre-Dame beneath the drifting cherry blossom, strolling along the riverside quais on a summer evening, sipping coffee and cognac in the early hours to the sound of the blues, or exploring the ancient alleyways and cobbled lanes of the Latin Quarter and Montmartre? Paris has no problem living up to the painted images and movie myths with which we’re all familiar.

Nor does Paris falter in its reputation as a great hive of artistic and intellectual activity. World-class art collections at the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, as well as the great many smaller museums devoted to individual artists and collectors, underscore an impressive roster of talents linked to the city, including Delacroix, Ingres, Seurat, Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso, Braque and Gris, to name but a few. The newly reopened Pompidou Centre embodies a cultural attitude that both proclaims Parisian cleverness and invites you to share in it. And it is only one of many grand and ground-breaking modern buildings – the new Bibliothèque Nationale, the Institut du Monde Arabe, among others – that assert modern architecture and design.

In fact, the whole city is something of a work of art. Two thousand years of shaping and reshaping have resulted in monumental buildings, sweeping avenues, grand esplanades and bridges. Many of its older buildings have survived intact, spared the ravages of flood and fire and saved from Hitler’s intended destruction. Moreover, they survive with a sense of continuity and homogeneity, as new sits comfortably against a backdrop of old – the glass Pyramid against the grand fortress of the Louvre, the Column of Liberty against the Opera Bastille. Time has acted as judge, as buildings once swathed in controversy – the Eiffel Tower, the Sacre-Cœur, the Pompidou Centre – have in their turn become symbols of the city. Yet for all the tremendous pomp and magnificence of its monuments, Paris operates on a very human scale, with exquisite, secretive little nooks tucked away from the Grands Boulevards and very definite little communities revolving around games of boules and the local boulangerie and café.

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SOME HIGHLIGHTS

Architecturally, the Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle and the Palais du Louvre, all firmly rooted in the city’s centre, provide a constant reminder of the city’s religious and royal past. The backdrop of the streets, however, is predominantly Neoclassical, the result of nineteenth-century development designed to reflect the power of the French state. But each period since has added, more or less discreetly, novel examples of its own styles – with Auguste Perret, Le Corbusier, Mallet-Stevens and Eiffel among the early twentieth-century innovators. In recent decades, the architectural additions have been more dramatic in scale, producing new and major landmarks, and recasting down-at-heel districts into important centres of cultural and consumer life. The Pompidou Centre, La Villette, La Grande Arche, the Opéra Bastille, the Louvre Pyramid, the Institut du Monde Arabe and the new Bibliothèque Nationale have all expanded the dimensions of the city, pointing it determinedly towards the future.

Paris’s museums and galleries number among the world’s finest, and, with the tradition of state cultural endowment very much alive, their collections are exceedingly well displayed. The art of conversion – the Musée d’Orsay from a train station, the Cité des Sciences from abattoirs, and smaller, more specialized museums from neglected mansions and palaces – has given the great collections unparalleled locations. The Impressionists at the Musee d’Orsay and Marmottan, the moderns at the Palais de Tokyo, the ancients in the Louvre, Picasso and Rodin with their own individual museums – all repay a visit. In addition, there’s the contemporary scene in the commercial galleries that fill the Marais, St-Germain, the Bastille and the area around the Champs-Elysees, and an ever-expanding range of museums devoted to other areas of human endeavour – science, history, decoration, fashion and performance art.

Few cities can compete with the thousand-and-one cafés, bars and restaurants that line every Parisian street and boulevard. The variety of style and decor is hard to beat too, ranging from ultra-modern and innovative to traditional, from scruffy to palatial. The restaurant choice is not just French, but includes a tempting range of cuisines that draws from every ethnic origin represented among the city’s millions and caters to every pocket.

The city entertains best at night, with a deserved reputation for outstanding film and music. Paris’s cinematic prowess is marked by annual film festivals, with a refreshing emphasis on art, independent and international films. Music is equally revered, with nightly offerings of excellent jazz, top-quality classical, avant-garde experimental, international rock, West African soukous and French-Caribbean zouk, Algerian rai, and traditional chansons.

If you’ve time, you should certainly venture out of the city to one of the attractions detailed in Part Four of the guide. The region surrounding the capital, the Ile-de-France, is dotted with cathedrals and chateaux, such as Chartres, Versailles and Fontainebleau, as stunning and steeped in history as the city itself. An equally accessible excursion from the capital is that most un-French of attractions, Disneyland Paris, which is covered in its own separate chapter.

WHEN TO GO

The best time to visit Paris is largely a question of personal taste. The city has a more reliable climate than Britain, with uninterrupted stretches of sun (or rain) year round. However, while it maintains a vaguely southern feel for anyone crossing the English Channel, Mediterranean it is not. Winter temperatures drop well below freezing, with sometimes biting winds. If you’re lucky, spring and autumn will be mild and sunny; in summer it can reach the 30s°C (80s°F).

In terms of pure aesthetics, winter sun is the city’s most flattering light, when the pale shades of the older buildings become luminescent without any glare, and the lack of trees and greenery is barely relevant. By contrast, Paris in high summer can be choking, with the fumes of congested traffic becoming trapped within the high narrow streets, and the reflected light in the city’s open spaces too blinding to enjoy.

One of the quietest times of year to visit is during the French summer holidays from July 15 to the end of August, when large numbers of Parisians desert the city for the coast or mountains. However, many of the city’s shops and restaurants will be closed during this period. There is, too, the commercial calendar to consider – fashion shows, trade fairs and the like. Paris hoteliers warn against September and October, and finding a room even at the best of times can be problematic. Early spring, autumn if you book ahead, or the midwinter months will be most rewarding.

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