Paris is a place where histories and memories lie heavy on each other. In the centre of the city you are never more than yards from a discreetly poignant wall-plaque that reads “Ici est tombé” – “Here fell such-and-such, policeman, fireman, soldier, first-aider, resister, for France, for the Liberation, that France might live…” The plaques’ variations in wording and design signal their local and personal origins after the fighting of August 1944 which they commemorate.
In the last two decades, they have been joined, especially in the east of the city, by plaques commemorating an even more traumatic history: the deportation of thousands of Jewish families, down to the youngest children, orchestrated by the Vichy authorities two years before the Liberation. Reading these names, sometimes on the walls of schools where you can hear today’s children at play, is a stark reminder of the kind of past Britain has largely been spared.
And those children’s voices, often rising from buildings emblazoned with ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ in didactic Third Republic (1870–1940) style, remind us that cities and peoples survive terrible events, and flourish despite dramatic conflicts. Walking around central Paris – and it is still a city you can walk around, with an occasional Metro transit – offers the spectacle of many different cities, survivors of centuries of strife and striving.
Medieval Paris is there, spectacularly in the cathedral of Notre Dame, and the exquisite Sainte-Chapelle, buried inside what is now the Palais de Justice – but also in many sites, especially on the Left Bank, where sections of the city wall of Philip Augustus (reigned 1180–1223) still stand. Buried beneath the present-day Louvre museum, and excavated several decades ago, are the massive foundations of its 12th-century predecessor.
On the surface, the streets of the Marais preserve a sense of the medieval closeness of the city. This was largely erased elsewhere by the series of monumental developments that began with France’s absolutist kings and continued down to Baron Haussmann’s legendary 1850s-60s remodelling of the great boulevards. The continuity of this idea of the city as a monumental space can be seen from the courtyard of the Louvre. On a good day, you can look from the glass pyramid, across the Tuileries Gardens and Place de la Concorde, down the Champs-Élysées, over the Arc de Triomphe to the Grande Arche de la Défense. Situated beyond the city boundary, La Défense was President Mitterrand’s contribution to extending the voie triomphale into the modern era.
The ambiguity of that vision of grandeur can be measured by the likelihood of meeting a demonstration when walking on one of Haussmann’s great straight thoroughfares, and in the knowledge that it was after their construction that Paris experienced its greatest and bloodiest internal conflict, the Commune of 1871. Deep within the Père Lachaise cemetery in the north-east of the city is the Mur des Fédérés. More than 100 Communards were shot in cold blood here, and it remains a site of pilgrimage for the left.
North-west from here, high on the Butte Montmartre, sits the basilica of Sacré-Coeur, built by the rightwing Catholic authorities after the Commune, symbolically dominating the districts where revolt had begun. In 2004, proving that these arguments never go away, the open space in front of the church, with its monumental flights of steps and phenomenal views, was renamed Square Louise Michel, after one of the Commune’s most indomitable female leaders.
Across the city to the south, a fascinatingly different vision of how these historical conflicts can be modulated lies under the great dome of the Panthéon. This virtually windowless piece of hardcore neoclassicism was built as a new church for the city’s patron saint, Geneviève. In its unfinished state, it was taken over by the revolutionaries of the 1790s as a resting place for ‘Great Men’. Over the 19th century, it reverted twice to being a church, and its interior walls are covered in gloriously rich ‘realistic’ depictions of the life of the fifth-century saint. The great men in its crypt endured nonetheless, including the marvellous tomb of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from one end of which protrudes a trompe-l’oeil hand clutching the flaming torch of enlightenment.
More than a century after the Panthéon’s completion, the government filled part of the interior with a sculptural monument to the National Convention of 1792. It’s a looming allegorical female figure, on one side of which politicians make dramatic Roman salutes of loyalty, while on the other side soldiers rise up, as if from the soil itself, to defend France. The remarkable fact is that all this, and the scientific wonder of Foucault’s Pendulum swaying beneath the central dome, works to make it a magical place. And outside, of course, is another of those little plaques, to the fallen resistance fighter Alexandre Massiani, le gardien de la paix.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
You won’t find Paris lacking in crowds at any point, though at the height of summer you will find the less-touristy areas devoid of quite a lot of their locals, as many Parisians still honour the idea of the long break in the provinces. Paris in summer can be oppressively hot, and horribly polluted; Paris in winter can be simply dank. It may be a cliché, but if the weather forecast looks good, there’s no better time than spring.
You can fly to any one of several airports, all in the general vicinity of Paris, from almost anywhere. If you can I suggest taking the Eurostar straight to the Gare du Nord, to be tipped seamlessly into an absolutely Parisian experience from the off. You can hop on the Metro and be on your sightseeing itinerary without even breaking stride.
What to pack
Comfortable walking shoes and plenty of cash!
What to bring back
A kaleidoscope of memories, and possibly a couple of extra pounds, depending on how many patisseries you pass.
Definitely recommend a visit to Musée Cluny – the museum of the medieval age. Fascinating!
David Andress is professor of modern history at the University of Portsmouth