Historic City Breaks: Paris

City breaks are a great way of getting away, discovering new cultures, learning about the country and getting out of the day to day monotonous life that we live. I find my primary purpose of travel is my interest in history, discovering a new city and uncovering the past that you never knew existed. Over the next year, I will be writing a series of European city break blogs. There are so many guides to cities so I thought I would try and write a story about my adventures, discovering the cities and adding flashbacks of  the city’s history. First in the series is the city many romanticise over, the beautiful city of Paris, hope you enjoy!

I arrived early at Paris airport. I unwrapped the bubble wrap that I had carefully sellotaped around my bike and made my way into the city. Paris was my first stop for an epic bike journey I had planned through France and Spain. Paris is the perfect place to start something amazing after all some of the greatest artists, writers and innovators started in Paris, Joyce, Marx, Van Gough, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Orwell and Hemingway. My cycling journey didn’t entirely end well (a story for another day), but I did get the chance to relax and explore Paris. The previous night before arriving in Paris, the Nice Truck terror attack happened, killing 87 people during Bastille Day celebrations in Nice. A terrorist drove a 19-tonne truck through a crowd in Nice. It shocked and saddened the nation and the rest of the world. During my visit, French flags were draped out of peoples windows and projected onto buildings to unite a country through a difficult time. 

I walked through the romantic streets of Paris, the Renaissance buildings that were flaunting their structural awe as I walked past them, in the early hours of the morning walking like a zombie. The smell of fresh-baked bread from nearby bakeries woke me up ready for my day exploring the city. I walked past crowds of people heading to work all smartly dressed, heads down walking as fast as they could as if they were all in a rush all with heavy hearts and regret in their eyes ready for another monotonous day fulfilling someone else’s dreams. It was a beautifully hot day, and the sky was a bright azure blue with not a cloud in the sky, the sun beamed down, making the city sparkle with an occasional glorious gentle breeze. It was hot, small drops of sweat started  dripping slowly down my face so the minute I spotted a shaded bench I took the opportunity to sit and chill ,and watch life go by. The city was packed with people. all with different reasons for being there , different stories, different personalities, and it is great to people watch and try to work out who they are and how life has brought them to this moment in time. I watched as a family stopped in the middle of the street, the father had his guide book open following the map inside, they looked lost. The father had a big round belly and a big long beard that was starting to go grey, his broad American accent seemed to dominate the sound in the area. You could imagine his loud American twang telling factoids about tourist attractions, fascinating his family but no one else who had the honour of hearing him. He was the leading figure of the family taking charge as he insisted they were going the right way to the Louvre (they weren’t). A couple in love walked past me hands held tight discovering the city that is known for romance in the hope that they might feel some deep connection with the city and  make themselves fall further in love. The tall gentleman whispers something into his partner’s ear, the blonde girl laughs, the way she looks at him, you could tell that she adored him. My people-watching was interrupted when a homeless looking man sat next to me. He took a sandwich out of his plastic bag half-eaten that looked as if he found it in a bin, he had long brown unwashed hair and his eyes looked sad, he seemed like he had gone through a lot. However, the smell that emanated off him was an excellent indication I should continue exploring the city.

Like in many cities as you walk around Paris, there are many statues, it is like a time machine that tells a story of the city. One of which is a statue of King Henry IV who reigned between 1589 and 1610. France had gone through religious problems and even a war between Protestants and Catholics. Henry IV was known as ‘le bon roi Henri’ (“the good king Henry”) due to proclaiming religious freedoms. Unfortunately, nice guys always finish last as Henry wasn’t liked by everyone and was assassinated. Another statue is of Louis XIV. Louis XIV, who is one of the most famous French kings. He created the Palace of Versailles, and he moved the seat of power away from Paris into the countryside. He was the longest-reigning monarch in the world which he held for 72 years. 

I was looking out over the River Seine. The river was busier than the bridge with loads of boats full of tourists floating past all gazing out over the wonders of Paris by water. The view was the most quintessential view of Paris you could get. On one side of the river amongst the rows of Haussmann-style buildings is Notre Dame a gothic Cathedral. On the other side, poking out into the skyline is the steel top of the Eiffel Tower. Two iconic buildings rolled into one picture-perfect panorama.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame took nearly 900 years to build and construction started in 1163. I am not exactly a Christian, however, it is hard not to be impressed by such an incredible building. As you walk through the arch door, the impressive carving and statues are magnificent. It was made in the 13th century and its surprising how much intricate detail and artistry there was. As you walk through the aisles, you feel so small, the vast nave triforium walls towers above you. The massive golden cross in front of me behind the altar dominates the backdrop as my eyes looked upwards, the sun shone through the stained glass windows lighting up the cathedral. The building is an architectural masterpiece, so much detail and precision has gone into creating the cathedral. Fast forward almost three years later in April 2019, I sat with a lump in my throat as I watched the news, Notre Dame was in flames. The cathedral’s distinctive spire that towered above the building collapsed, I was sad to see such an iconic building go up in flames. Photos were published showing the damage the fire had done to the inside of the cathedral, the glowing cross remained intact still towering over the devastation of the blaze. 

France was shaken in 1789 when they had a revolution that lasted over ten years. In the 1780s, France faced an economic crisis. The monarch Louis XVI tried to increase taxes that the  ordinary people paid, resentment hit a new level and riots began. On 14th July 1789, rebels stormed the Bastille palace, which was seen as the start of the revolution. This day is celebrated every year in France as Bastille day, it is seen today as France’s independence day.

Fighting continued, and in 1793 King Louis XVI was beheaded, and the French adopted a declaration that stated that “Men are born and remain free and equal in rights” which was the radical change people were after. After violence continued it sparked what is known as ‘ the Reign of Terror’, where a series of public executions took place where around 17,000 people were executed in Paris killing anyone that was seen as an enemy of the revolution. Executions with an axe was too slow as it mostly took several chops before the head would be removed. The guillotine was invented to speed the executions and create a cleaner death. After such a quick and clean death, the facial expressions on some of the decapitated heads moved, which fuelled the idea that the guillotine victims may retain consciousness for a short while after their head is removed. The French revolution changed everything and led to Napoleon’s appointment as First Consul (eventually emperor). The revolutions ideas of liberty and equality inspired the world. Many other revolutions broke out throughout the world and the revolution in France changed world history.

I looked up and stared at the 148-foot arch. It was so high that my neck ached as I looked at the top. One of the biggest attractions in Paris is the Arc de Triomphe. It sits tall on what seems like the most hectic roundabout in France. The roads are mad and renowned for a high amount of accidents, and this is the only place in Paris where Insurance companies split the costs of accident claims fifty-fifty no matter what the circumstances. The Arc de Triomphe was commissioned in 1806 after the victory at Austerlitz by Napoleon to honour those who fought and died for France in the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its inner and outer surface. A war broke out between France and Britain, Austria, Sweden and Russia to try and push France out of the Netherlands and Switzerland. Napoleon’s  innovative strategies started well conquering the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon launched an invasion of Russia in 1812, which ended in French troops retreating due to insufficient supplies because of the Russian winter. Napoleon was weak and Russia defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig with Prussia and Austria. They eventually captured Paris and forced Napoleon to abdicate. While Russian troops occupied Paris, the Bistro was born. Legend claims a lot of Russian officers would eat in Parisian cafes, irritated by the slowness of the French waiters Russians would shout “быстро!” (bis-tro, eng: “fast!”). The French later borrowed the Russian word and named their cafe and canteens bistros. In 1815 Napoleon escaped from Elba and retook control of France. The Allies responded by forming a coalition and defeated Napoleon again at the Battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was exiled to Saint Helena and died less than a year later. Napoleon has become a worldwide cultural icon who is remembered for his military genius and political power. Many towns, streets, ships and cartoon characters have been named after him and have been mentioned in hundreds of films and in thousands of books.

Paris is romanticised by many people but mainly Americans. It is hard not to sit in a cafe in Paris with the fresh smell of coffee in the air and not believe you will write the next bestseller. This image of Paris came from the 1920’s period, where a group of American authors lived in this fantastic city. In what is known as the Latin Quarters of Paris, a community of authors socialised, shared ideas and drank far too much. Authors like Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, Aleister Crowley, John Dos Passos, F.Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald. One of my favourite novels was written about this time in Paris, written by Ernest Hemmingway called A Moveable Feast. These authors are inspiring, and most have written what we now consider classic novels, but I do wonder if we actually romanticise the party life and alcoholism rather than the literature they were struggling with writing. In the Latin Quarter, there is one of the best bookshops I have come across, the bookshop wasn’t just a gathering place for these great authors of the time, but it is a place book lovers can stay. You can stay for free as long as you abide by three rules, read a book a day, help out in the shop for a couple of hours, and write a single-page autobiography for the archives. 

Paris went through more dark times in 1940 when Germany attacked France. After six weeks of fighting in France with 92,000 French dead, the country surrendered and on 22nd June signed an armistice which established a German occupation zone of France. During the time Germany occupied France, the Nazis reigned terror over France. German soldiers occupied the streets, causing havoc on ordinary people’s lives, they were unnecessarily violent and arrested anyone for any reason. French freedoms were restricted with a curfew put in place from 9 pm till 5 am every night. Food was sparse and citizens were limited to only 1200 calories a day. They arrested and sent thousands of Jews and Spanish refugees fleeing Franco occupied Spain and sent them to camps resulting in the death of 3,000 Jews living in France and 5,000 Spanish Refugees. The French Resistance was a collection of French movements against the Nazis that occupied them. They used guerilla warfare against German soldiers, helped sabotage key German targets and they published underground newspapers that provided first-hand intelligence information. They helped Allied soldiers and airmen trapped behind enemy lines. On the 24th August, 1944 allied troops entered Paris and liberated France with help from the French Resistance freeing the country from the horror of the Nazis. The French Resistance has had a significant influence on literature and films.

I couldn’t visit Paris without a visit to the icon of France, the Eiffel Tower. It might be slightly controversial, but I think the Eiffel Tower is a 984-foot iron abomination. I can’t deny that it is an architectural masterpiece, but it’s a giant eyesore. The Eiffel Tower was built in 1889 and took two years to build and was named after the engineer Gustave Eiffel. At the time of building, the tower was the world’s tallest man-made structure (it was beaten by Chrysler Building in New York in 1930). Strangely the tower shrinks by about six inches in the cold weather. Despite my scepticism, it is one of the most recognisable structures in the world. In 1944 as allied troops pushed their way towards Paris, Hitler gave the order to destroy Paris. “Paris must not pass into the Allies hands, except as a field of ruins.” Explosives were laid at various bridges and monuments including the Eiffel Tower. Dietrich Von Choltitz was the governor of Paris and as the allied troops got to the city, Choltitz decided not to destroy the city. As Hitler’s orders were not carried out, Choltitz is often seen as the Saviour of Paris. These events leading up to the surrender was in his 1951 memoir named ‘From Sevastopol to Paris: A Soldier Among the Soldiers’.

I was standing on the Pont des Arts, a bridge over the river Seine, on one side of the bridge, you have the stunning Louvre, on the other grand building of the Academy of Science. This stunning imagery is ruined by the love locks that are attached to the railings of the bridge. Since 2008 tourists have taken to attaching love locks with their names written on them to the bridge’s railing, then throwing the key into the Seine river below as a romantic gesture. Since my visit, officials have cut down the locks after the bridge’s barrier collapsed under the weight of all the padlocks attached to it. It has brought back the bridge’s original beauty.

There is so much to explore in this large and expansive city, but there is also a whole new world underground. However, the aroma isn’t quite as pleasing as the fresh baguettes and the newly roasted coffee aroma that catches your scent. Paris’s sewage system seems to fascinate many people. In 1805 Pierre Brunesau decided to map the ancient ageing waste crypt, along the way he found medieval dungeons, jewels and the skeleton of an escaped orangutan. It took him seven years to finish his survey. In 1850 Baron Haussmann designed the modern Paris sewer system and by 1878 the system was over 373 miles long. The sewers are a mirror to the street above. All are large enough to accommodate a person and you could easily navigate your way around the entirety of Paris via the sewers. Each sewer street has its own street sign and each building outflow is identified by its real street number. So why not test your relationship and bring your loved ones to the Paris Sewer Museum.

Paris at night is magic. The city known as ‘the city of lights’ because of its dazzling boulevards and bridges, national buildings, bridges, churches, and statues are illuminated to full glory. You might not be able to see the stars, but the sky sparkles from the city lights. As I walked along the orange glow beams down along the cobbled stone street below my feet. The city comes alive at night, couples are wining and dining, groups of friends drinking, laughing and dancing and amateur writers reliving the 1920s by thinking up well-formed rhythmic words that make your heartache while they binge drink and wonder when and how they will make it.

As my cycle adventure began my time in Paris had come to an end. I cycled through the parts of Paris that you wouldn’t normally see and in some cases, you wouldn’t want to see. The city is huge and it took me a long time to cycle out of the city. Cars zoomed past me inches away from hitting me, trying my best to remember to stay on the right side of the road, something I’m not used to. Paris had been a treat, I was a kid when I last visited Paris and this visit had changed my perception of the city. I look forward to my next trip to Paris, but one city doesn’t define a country and now it was time for me to explore what else France has to offer.

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