Paris, the fabled city of light – inextricably linked to Toulouse-Lautrec, Victor Hugo, and Edith Piaf – revels in its perception as the cradle of sophistication. Mere mention of it evokes romantic strolls along the Seine, crusty baguettes shared in quaint cafes, plaintive accordion strains, intimate brasseries, and soulful croonings by sultry chanteuses. But this dreamy image only hints at the city's riches. Landmarks run rampant in this haven of culture and of cool: among them, la Tour Eiffel, le Sacrй Coeur, Notre Dame, and la Sorbonne. Refinement also makes a home in Paris, infusing each cafй and square with Continental charm. The specter of high-brow edge, however, is ground down by Montmartre and la Rive Gauche, which temper luxury with bohemian ambience. Moreover, the French reputation for disdain and snobbery reads as greatly exaggerated; residents often prove disarmingly helpful to well-intentioned tourists. In short, Paris virtually sings with a welcome, easy grace, a world capital enticed into urbanity itself.
The city sits in a hollow depression, ringed by hills and traversed east to west by the River Seine, which divides Paris into the northern Rive Droite (Right Bank) and southern Rive Gauche (Left Bank). In the midst of the river is the city's original birthplace, the Оle de la Citй, where Notre Dame now stands. Paris – known then as Lutиce – first came to prominence when it was conquered by Julius Caesar in 52 BC. For three centuries afterwards, it functioned as a Roman outpost, and its status as a trade center made great strides. In 486, the Franks took control, and Paris was Christianized. From that point on, the city's history becomes a convoluted affair, peopled by the Hundred Years War, Louis XIV, the 1789 Revolution, Napoleon, two World Wars, and Francois Mitterrand. Through much of it, struggles between the rich and poor roiled, sometimes below the surface, sometimes in flagrant conflict. Such recurring instability was settled most recently when the country made the lengthy, tortured transition from monarchy to democratic republic. Even so, the push towards globalization now brings challenging new issues: identity versus inclusion and independence versus unity.
Skirting politics (which can be difficult in this opinionated city), Paris prides itself as the French locus of trade and style. Tourism ranks as the largest industry, followed by banking, business, government, and publishing. Within the city, family-run enterprises produce luxury goods, while farther out, manufacture of machinery, chemicals, and electronics is common. Not only do these, as a whole, sustain the city's growth, but they showcase it as a center of taste, fashion, and productivity.
But lest the city be seen primarily as flash, spectacle partners with substance in its world-class restaurants. French cuisine reigns supreme, whether it's rendered sublime in breathtakingly ornate venues or served simply and without fanfare in casual cafйs. Dining, in fact, is more than just consumption; it's a daily event characterized by great food, drink, conversation, and socializing. As such, leisurely, measured meals are a tangible metaphor for the French approach to life: dedication to, and appreciation of, good, authentic pleasures.
It's this focus on sensual delight that travelers often find most striking in Paris – and most enviable. The city, it's said, gets seated in the blood, forever transforming visitors with a beckon from the past and a seduction of the present. And while baguette crumbs can be dusted away and wine stains fade with time, the allure of the City of Light haunts those who've made her acquaintance, hanging in the air like distant music or lingering like fog along the Seine.