PARIS ARTICLES: A Brief History Of Paris

Between February 2004 and February 2005 I wrote twenty six freelance articles for Francophile internet magazine Bonjour Paris + one article with Karen Fawcett (President) and Sarah Gilbert Fox (Directeur Général), which was published in the guide-book, “Paris For Dummies.” Here is one of the original twenty six, with the original self-penned lead…

The Paris Story Promo Pic.

A Brief History Of Paris

Pat Brien gives a brief update on all things Parisian from 52 BC through Victor Hugo to the modern day whilst providing a ‘quick fix’ variety of outings and events for those fast-lane types who need to see it, do it, buy the T-shirt and GO !

So you’re planning a quick stop-over in Paris and know little about it’s history? Be warned, quite a lot has happened since the official kick-off back in 52BC, when Julius Caesar first turned up in a teeny Celtic settlement on an Island in the Seine (the Ile de la Cité), then known as Lutetia. Julius decided that the place might be worth working on, even though the local Parisii were — surprise, surprise — something of a handful.

Who’s the geezer? It’s Julius Caesar!

Some time later, in the 1950’s in fact, when Jack Kerouac first dropped in on Paris, he wasted a lot of time and energy — and found himself being laughed at quite a bit — as he desperately tried to locate the Bastille prison. Maybe he was looking for Burroughs and figured this was his best shot? Anyway, it does go to show that a little immersion into the history of the city may well enrich your visit.

“Taxi! Take me to prison, please!’

But, if you don’t have the inclination to read a big fat history book, or be dragged all over town in a wide-eyed gaggle of amateur photographers as some ‘expert’ spells it all out for you, you could try ‘The Paris Story,’ a forty-five minute sound & vision history that is so sugar-coated you could put on weight as you watch it.

I bought my ticket from a friendly guy at reception who kindly spoke English as he furnished me with a post-card sized advertisement for something called ‘Les Visites de Paris,’ that ‘The Paris Story,’ turned out to be connected to.

The foyer of ‘The Paris Story,’ was quite pleasant, filled with tourist trinkets, guide-books, photography-books, brief histories and a dull looking exhibit called ‘Paris Styles,’ designed to help us ‘better understand the Paris monuments.’   My problem was that I would also have needed to better understand the French language, which unfortunately I didn’t.

Whilst waiting for the previous crowd of history buffs to exit the arena, I looked at the ‘Les Visites,’ card and saw several pictures of different events: boat rides down the Seine; a wine museum; a cinema complex; a cabaret show; a little train-ride around Montmartre; a couple of restaurants; tour Montparnasse. A full-on and fun-filled tourist trap, in fact. On the flip-side were the official titles of these events, along with addresses, phone numbers, web-addresses, etc., and discount coupons valued at one to two — and in the case of the cabaret show, five — euros.

Those coupons seemed very much a token gesture to me, but the idea struck me as a useful one for anybody on a flying visit into Paris; anybody who simply doesn’t have the time to stroll around and discover things for themselves. First you stop off at the Paris story to get a quick-fix history of the city — a kind of starter on the events menu, to stick to the food metaphor above — then you simply go a la carte and start picking off events as they catch your eye, moving effortlessly from one to the other as it suits. So the question is: Is that sugary starter going to spoil your appetite?

Let’s review: Once allowed into the arena I found myself in a cinema-seat with a set of head-phones attached and a simple little remote-control type device fixed in at the side. (I had been advised before entering to press the buttons on this device until the number 1 appeared on the display, which would give me an English language commentary. The fact that I found this a simple procedure means that it is fool-proof.)

Ghostly Victor Hugo guides.

There was a main cinema screen with two small screens fixed at slight angles on either side and when the lights went down Victor Hugo appeared — as a kind of ghostly hologram — on the left screen,   and started talking to ‘lady’ Paris, as we the audience found ourselves immersed in a night-time view of the city looming up above one of the gargoyles of Notre-Dame.

The music swept romantically across the night-sky as Monsieur Hugo charmed the lady and the lady responded, softy delighting him with a tale of how a bunch of people had once had their heads chopped off on place de la Concorde. I wondered if they’d had discount coupons like us, but nobody else seemed interested.

If you put your football through one of these, kids, don’t go and ask for it back.

But somehow, through all the glossing over and the smug mood — I didn’t blame them for the smug mood; a smug mood is understandable considering the subject — the story itself still managed to make itself heard and I actually found myself interested in it. For some reason, the story of the middle ages and the innovations in gothic architecture throughout that period, held me spellbound.

The story gave the secret of the amazing design innovations, explaining how architects allowed great cathedrals to be built whose weight was not supported by the walls, thus allowing great walls of glass with light pouring through; stained glass temples of natural light — visions, awesome and beautiful — telling their own religious histories and tragedies, illuminated and glorified by the sun itself.


Obviously, gothic architecture took off in a major way for a few hundred years, making itself much more than just a part of the city’s history, then everyone got bored with it and decided to hold a renaissance instead, during which time simple little pictures and sculptures of naked young nymphs became the order of the day! Ah, Paris!Of course, I’m making fun because ‘The Paris Story’ is put across in such a frivolous, glossy way, that it’s hard not to.

Having said that, the very fact of having so many powerful and conflicting events and images reduced to forty-five minutes of post-card pretty history makes certain things stand out to those who are paying attention.What really struck me was that one thing remained constant throughout those years: the absolute influence of the Roman Empire.

Even today, looking around Paris, that influence is palpable, from all those grand, bold designs to the unashamed celebrations of sensuality and luxury; from the hunger for knowledge to the strong-willed push towards progress, that original influence has never left this city…

“Mind that dog shit.”

…but it didn’t win the battle for its soul.

One major factor that jumps right out at you despite the limitations of ‘The Paris Story,’ is the battle for the soul of Paris between the original gladiatorial Roman influence, all military precision and mathematical genius, swords at the ready, and the starving artists, with only the soft touch of brush against canvas, the gentle tap of quill against ink-pot, dreams of a better world against the machinations of political cynicism; dreamers battling it out against schemers for the soul of the greatest city on earth. And the artists won.

Actually, you don’t even need forty-five minutes to sum up this town and everything about it. Jack Kerouac summed it up in one sentence on the day he first arrived in Paris, stepping off the train, looking around himself and announcing (and I quote):

“Wow! They really built themselves a city!”

“When in Rome…”

Les Visites de Paris (Get off the beaten track!)

‘The Paris Story.’   11bis, rue Scribe (just West of Opera Palais Garnier), and open Nov-Mar 9am-6pm; April-Oct 9am-8pm, playing every hour on the hour (Price: Adults, 8 euro; under 18/students, 5 euro)

Vedettes du Pont-neuf, 1 square du Vert Galant, Paris, 1er. Tel. Metro. Pont-Neuf-Cité.   (Boat-rides down the Seine.)

Montmartrain. Departs: Place Pigalle. Parvis du Sacré Coeur. Tel. Metro. Pigalle. ( Mini-Train-ride around Montmartre.)

Etoiles du Rex. 1, blvd Poissennière – Paris, 2er. Tel. Metro. Bonne Nouvelle. (Cinema-complex.)

Restaurant   ‘La Bonne Franquette’. 18, rue St. Rustique, 18er. Tel. Metro. Abbesses. (near Place du Tertre.)

Canauxrama. 13, Quai de la Loire, Paris, 19er. Reservation by phone. Tel. Metro. Jaures. (Boat-rides.)

Tour Montparnasse – ‘The best view of Paris!’ Rue de la Arrivée, Paris, 15er. Tel. Metro. Montparnasse-Bienvenue.

Restaurant ‘Les Noces de Jeannette’. 14, rue Favart, 2er. Tel. Metro. Richelieu Drouot. (near Opera.)

Musée du Vin. Rue des Eaux, 16er. Tel. Metro. Passy. Closed Monday. 10am-6pm. Free glass of wine. (wine museum.)

Artishow. Caberet Transformiste Parisien. 3, rue cité Souzy, 11er. Tel. Metro. Rue des Boulets. (Diner Spectacle.)