Paris, the City of Light, has been a light in my life for decades. Its romantic reputation upholds as the capital of France, which exemplifies “joie de vivre,” and as the world’s epicenter of art, architecture, fashion and gastronomy. No wonder Paris has more than 19 million visitors a year, second only to Bangkok in tourism.
Paris first got its nickname as the City of Light in 1667 when an ordinance by King Louis XIV increased the number of streetlamps to improve security at night. This light became philosophical during the Enlightenment in the 17th century as Paris attracted many intellectuals and artists. In 1878, the city added to its enlightening reputation by installing the world’s first electric streetlights. Today, its lights are even more stunning, notably on most of its 37 bridges and the Eiffel Tower, which has 20,000 light bulbs (professional photogs, beware*).
Before the liberation of Paris during World War II in 1944, Adolph Hitler ordered General Dietrich von Choltitz to destroy the Eiffel Tower and bomb Paris. Fortunately, the general loved the tower and city so much that he surrendered to the allies instead!
Built in 1889 for the World’s Fair Exhibition, the Eiffel Tower was first loathed by many Parisians and only supposed to stand for 20 years. Of course, it has since stood the test of time as the city’s number one symbol. But surprisingly, it is surpassed in visitors by Notre-Dame cathedral.
The 800-year-old cathedral is officially the center of Paris as designated by a compass just outside of it called “Point Zero.” Any distance to and from Paris gets measured from there.
Notre-Dame sits on Île de la Cité, the island (and heart) of the city in the Seine River. Formed like a ship, this natural island is only about 10 streets long and five wide but key to Paris life.
Île de la Cité is connected to the mainland and smaller Île Saint-Louis by the famous Pont Neuf, which once held 40 tons of love locks. (In 2018, they were removed as part of a multi-year padlock removal effort. Ironically, this “New Bridge” is the oldest in Paris today.) Île aux Cygnes (Swan Island) also sits in the Seine of Paris. This man-made islet features a quarter-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty.**
The Seine flows about 13 kilometers through 10 of the city’s 17 arrondissements (subdivisions). The latter are numbered in a spiral from Île de la Cité, aptly resembling a snail as a nod to the fine cuisine of Paris and French love of the delicacy escargot. (Note the arrondissements also have names which relate to landmarks within them, such as “Louvre” for the 1st.)
Despite its escargot shape and organization, Paris’s true gastronomic symbol is a baguette, which is tightly regulated. Baguettes sold there must meet the Décret Pain of 1993, which calls for only four ingredients (wheat flour, yeast, water and salt) and consistency as well as a certain size. Moreover, baguettes must be sold where they are made; they cannot be shipped. Since 1994, Le Grand Prix de la Baguette has been held annually to determine Paris’s best. No wonder the French consume a half baguette per person per day!
Helping with this consumption are more than 40,000 restaurants in Paris, including cafés. The city has the most Michelin Star restaurants in the world after Tokyo, including 10 with three stars. The city also has free sparkling water fountains! What’s not to love?
My love affair with Paris began many summers ago when I traveled abroad for the first time with my high school French club. Paris made me fall head over heels in love with Europe.
Its spontaneous, romantic reputation rang true when several female classmates and I met some fun French guys one night, jumped in a fountain with all of our clothes on and stayed out past our teacher’s curfew. When we returned to the hotel wet and laughing, she was waiting at the entrance with smoke coming out of her ears.
“I’m calling your parents,” she grimaced. Surprisingly, none of our parents were bothered by her report. After all, we were teenagers in Paris! (My parents were far more annoyed when I called them on Father’s Day to report I got pickpocketed on the metro.)
In fact, my parents supported me going back to Paris as a university student to study and intern for a semester. My internship was at France-Soir Ouest, a regional section of a former national newspaper, for which I wrote short articles and went on assignments with a young, good-looking reporter in his convertible. We had two-hour lunches with the staff, who drank wine and smoked cigarettes. It was the quintessential French experience.
Weekends in Paris as a student were non-stop, especially nightlife. Since the metro stopped running at 1 am, my classmates and I would dance in clubs until the metro started up again at 5 am. We would doze on the way back “home” to our Algerian host family in St. Denis, reeking of contact smoke from Marlboro cigarettes. But our underground nightlife could have been worse … ***
By day, Montmartre, a hill known for berets, artists and Sacre Coeur Basilica, was one of my favorite places to hang out. I remember being awed by the 13th century Sainte Chapelle with its stunning stained glass windows and the imposing Pantheon and Les Invalides where Victor Hugo and Napoleon were buried, respectively.
Those days were the only time I attempted to see the 73,000-square-meter Louvre, checking off Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (which was stolen by an Italian in 1911 but returned when he was caught two years later) and Venus de Milo inside and the IM Pei-designed glass pyramid outside. This former royal residence-gone-museum has 35,000 works, so it takes at least a full day to do it justice. (To look at each artwork for 30 seconds, you would need about 200 days!)
When I left Paris after that semester, I kept 100 French francs in a Credit Lyonnais bank account to ensure my return. Unfortunately, that did not happen for about 20 years, when the bank and my money were long gone. But I have more than compensated for those Paris-free years since, especially after I became an official resident of Brussels in 2015.
I returned to see the opening of Fondation Louis Vuitton and for a few events at the Grand Palais (temporarily the Grand Palais Ephémère while the former is renovated until 2024) and Petit Palais (which also has an elegant café.) I went to places that I never could afford as a student like the burlesque venue Moulin Rouge and Hotel Costas near Place Vendôme. (Next up is the Paris Opera, also known as Palais Garnier, to see its Marc Chagall-painted ceiling and hear world-class opera.)
Just a few weekends ago, I was in Paris again for 30 hours of romance and adventure. It began at night atop the Arc de Triomphe – a monument built by Napoleon to honor battles and generals, where a flame is lit every evening on the tomb of an unknown soldier – to see the colorful, holiday lights of Avenue Champs-Élysées, 12 avenues jutting out from it like a star and the Eiffel Tower sparkle on the hour. (The tower was enhanced in recent years with sparkling lights and a rotating blue beacon.) Afterwards was dinner at a wonderful French bistro among locals.
The next day was a grand 20K walk from Gare du Nord to Centre Pompidou – which contains the National Museum of Modern Art, temporary exhibits and more – then along the Seine to blackened Notre-Dame, past the magnificent Saint Eustache Parish, through the lively Latin Quarter and shopping streets of Saint Germain des Prés to the Rodin Museum and back. (FYI, many museums, such as Rodin and Musée d’Orsay, which houses the largest collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings in the world, are free the first Sunday of each month during the winter or year-round.) The trip ended at the smoked-filled apartment of a French photographer friend … just as I remembered Paris before it became publicly smoke-free in 2008.
Another change in Paris over the years is the friendliness of locals towards tourists. I recall being shamed by a local for trying to speak French there when I first arrived as a student. And grumpy waiters. Nowadays, in this age of globalization, service providers are much more welcoming and cognizant of the fact that while fabulous, Paris is not the center of the universe.
No matter the decade, the City of Light will forever have a certain “je ne sais quoi” and big place in my heart. Paris, je t’aime.
*Under French Law, art installations are copyrighted for the artist’s lifetime plus 20 years. The Eiffel Tower’s copyright expired, so daytime images can be used for any purpose. However, its light installation is still under copyright so nighttime photos of it are subject to copyright infringement if taken for commercial purposes.
**The Statue of Liberty was gifted to the United States from France in 1886 and a few years later, a quarter-scale replica of it was given by the American community in Paris to France. It is best viewed by boat at night.
***When overflowing cemeteries in Paris were associated with public health issues in the late 18th century, bodies were taken from them at night and dropped into quarries. To this day, piles of bones and bodies can be seen in the Paris Catacombs, a network of 20-meter underground chambers and more than 170 miles of tunnels. During World War II, some of them were used as bomb shelters and living quarters that evolved over time. (In 2004, police found a cavern with a movie theater, restaurant and bar!)