Ye Olde Travel Guide: Paris 1802

Julian Humphrys guides visitors around the French capital, still bathed in the hue of revolution

A contemporary view of the river Seine and Notre-Dame de Paris. (Getty Images)

This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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When to go

The recent peace treaty with Revolutionary France means that for the first time in a decade we Brits can visit Paris in safety. But those in the know are predicting that the peace may not last for long, so seize the moment and start packing!

What to take

Get a passport. You’ll need to show it at the Prefecture of Police in Paris to get a two-month pass which permits you to stay and travel round the city. Make sure you carry this at all times – you’ll be constantly asked for it.

It’s easy to get lost in the maze of medieval streets that make up much of central Paris so a detailed map is a must. You should try to buy as modern a map as possible – many street names have changed since the revolution.

Costs and money

Prices in the capital are generally higher than elsewhere in France but if you can afford to stay in London, Paris shouldn’t present too much of a problem. However there’s a bewildering variety of coins in circulation and the old monarchical coins have been supplemented by a number of new republican ones. It’s well worth getting to know their values to ensure you’re not short-changed.

Sights and activities

The Louvre is a must for all art enthusiasts. Its extensive French collections have been augmented by hundreds of paintings brought back from Italy by Bonaparte’s armies. Raphael and Titian are particularly well represented and no connoisseur should leave the city without taking a look at that masterpiece of classical sculpture, the Apollo Belvedere.

While you’re in the Louvre take the time to visit the studio of Monsieur David, Bonaparte’s favourite painter. David’s role during the Terror means he has few friends in Paris but there’s no denying the popularity of his work. His monumental painting of the Sabine women has been valued at a staggering £5,000.

Church lovers may find Paris something of a disappointment: many religious buildings were badly damaged during the revolution and even the great cathedral of Notre Dame is a shadow of its former self. Nevertheless the Museum of Monuments in the Rue des Petits Augustins is a treasure trove of medieval religious and decorative art. Don’t miss the royal tombs rescued from the abbey of St Denis by Monsieur Lenoir, the museum’s remarkable curator.

Why not hire a fiacre (see Getting Around) and take a tour of the sites associated with the dramatic events of the last few years? Start in the Place de la Concorde where the late king was guillotined and move on to the Eglise Saint Roch where Napoleon dispersed a royalist uprising with his famous “whiff of grapeshot”. Then drive down the Rue Saint-Nicaise and inspect the damage caused by the recent bomb plot to kill him. However if you’re hoping to see the Bastille, so famously stormed in 1789, you’ll be disappointed. It was demolished within months of its capture.

Dangers and annoyances

Considering that we have spent the last ten years trying to kill them, the French seem to bear us remarkably little animosity. Most Parisians seem genuinely pleased to have us (and our money) in their midst. Unfortunately their streets are rather less welcoming – very poorly lit, lacking pavements and with an open gutter down the middle. On rainy days they become seas of filth and you may need to hire a plank of wood just to cross the road.

Accommodation

Many Parisians take in paying guests, there’s a wide variety of hotels and a number of former aristocratic town houses are available for rent. The Hotel Coq Heron is popular with English visitors, while those with a sense of history might consider staying in the Hotel Morigny where Bonaparte lodged as a young man.

Eating and Entertainment

When it comes to eating you’re spoilt for choice. There are hundreds of restaurants in Paris, many run by the former chefs of executed or exiled aristocrats. Monsieur Beauvilliers’ Grande Taverne de Londres on the Rue de Richelieu is the oldest and still one of the best.

Make the most of Paris’s open spaces. You can admire the statues in the gardens of the Tuileries or watch a firework display or balloon ascent in the Tivoli Gardens.

Tivoli is also a popular location for balls but, be warned, the newfangled waltz, all the rage in Paris, involves a degree of physical contact that some might find shocking. For shopping, gambling and other worldly pleasures, visit the galleries of the Palais Royal.

Ball in the Tivoli Gardens, Paris, 1799
A ball in the Tivoli Gardens, Paris, c1799. (Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Getting around

For anything but the shortest journey, unless you want to arrive at your destination covered in filth, hire a fiacre. These four-wheeled, three-horse vehicles are specially designed for the muddy Parisian streets. There are more than a thousand in the city so you should have no trouble finding one.

Julian Humphrys is a regular contributor to BBC History Magazine. His Parisian grandmother lived in the Rue Faubourg Saint-Honoré


Paris today

Fifteen million tourists visit Paris every year, and at times it feels like every single one of them is queuing to get into the Louvre. Paris has felt a lot closer to the UK since the completion of the high-speed Eurostar link between London and the French capital in 2007, and the days where the train-boat-train service via Calais Maritime transplanted British travellers into an alien environment feel long gone.

The French capital, beyond its world-famous sights, still has the ability to surprise, from the unique feel to every neighbourhood ensuring no two visits are the same to the colourful multicultural influence echoing France’s colonial adventures. Those of a historical bent have much to enjoy, from the city’s history museum in the Marais to the wonderful Musée du Moyen Age across the Seine in the Latin Quarter covering medieval history. The churches have been patched up pretty well, too. You could, of course, play at being a post-revolutionary gadabout by strolling the Tuileries.

If you don’t get to do any of this, there’s no need to despair. Paris is close enough to Britain that getting here is easy and good value. That means repeat visits are a must: when are you next going?

If you like this…

Lyon is a lovely French city with a fraction of Paris’s visitors. Another place that wears its revolutionary heart on its sleeve is Havana, Cuba.

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Tom Hall, editor, lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of Tom’s articles at the website