It’s easy to plan a visit to Paris that appreciates the city for only part of what it is: you float along the Seine on a bateau-mouche, climb the famous towers of Notre Dame, watch the light show at the Eiffel Tower, gaze at the Venus de Milo or Monet’s water lilies, and then while away an afternoon with a bottle of Beaujolais at Les Deux Magots. You’ll leave after a few days thinking to yourself, “Paris is the most beautiful city in the world.”
But that’s only part of the story. For all that she is the City of Light, Paris has a lot of darkness in her history too. Throughout most of her existence, she’s been at the center of internal power struggles as well as a target of foreign invasion. Indeed, ever since the Gallic tribe known as the Parisiis were conquered by the soldiers of a young Julius Caesar in the fourth century A.D., the city today known as Paris has been repeatedly devastated by war and revolution, and the geographical centrality of its location (at the crux of several rivers) has placed the city in the midst of an ever-changing vortex of national and international political forces.
So, how, you might ask, can one integrate some of the city’s stormy past into a weekend of tourism in the modern Paris? Well, let’s start by thinking about some of the highlights of a Parisian tourist itinerary, and let’s begin with the Louvre. First constructed at the beginning of the 13th century as a simple stone tower, it later grew into a palace that became home to many kings and queens of France. While on his way back to the palace, King Henri IV was assassinated in his carriage on a street not far from where Centre Georges Pompidou stands today. Later, part of the Louvre was sacked and set ablaze during the Great Fire of 1871, and though most of the building—and the priceless art within it—escaped unscathed (as did—just barely—Notre Dame) the medieval Hôtel de Ville was not so lucky.
It burned to the ground, and like a surprising number of buildings in Paris, Hôtel de Ville today is a reconstruction of the old facade.
At the beginning of the German occupation in 1940, Hitler toured Paris, standing in front of (but famously not climbing) the Eiffel Tower. Prussian troops marched through L’Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysées after their victory in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871. Even the winding, friendly streets of Montmartre have a violent history. The area takes its name from the Latin, Mons Martyrum, or Martyrs’ Hill, and Saint Denis, the city’s first Christian bishop, was executed there around 250 A.D.. He gives his name to Basilique Saint-Denis, which subsequently became the burying place of French kings. Today, beneath the Basilica, there is also a shrine to the young son of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, who was murdered in 1795.
Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were themselves guillotined two years earlier, in what we know today as Place de la Concorde, the scaffold then placed where the Egyptian obelisk stands now. The incredible ferocity and violence that fills much of Paris’s past, though well-documented by historians, remains hard for me, today, to really understand. Months ago, I visited military cemeteries from WWI: row upon row of orderly white gravestones, so numerous that to imagine a young man standing beside each of them brought me to tears. At times, walking in Paris past a place where I know hundreds of people died, I have a similar, visceral, emotional reaction, and history, for a second, shows itself to be inseparable from the present.
Believe me when I say I’m not trying to dampen your visit to Paris, or to sensationalize the darker, bloodier periods of its history. I adore the city, but part of loving Paris for me involves trying to understand its past, all the horror and hardship the city has overcome, which still today infuse both the architecture and the populace with the qualities that make Paris and its Parisians so singularly well-known around the world.
One way to get a sense of the history of the city is to visit the places where it buries its famous (and not-so-famous) dead. Visit Basilica St. Denis, the Pantheon, or Les Invalides, but better yet spend an afternoon wandering among the tombeaux in Cimetière du Père Lachaise. There you’ll find the tombs of French writers, artists and statesmen, including Colette, Molière, Balzac, and Edith Piaf, as well as famous ex-pats like Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and Jim Morrison. The cemetery itself has been a battlefield and, in 1871, 147 communards were executed against a wall in its south east corner. In their memory, that wall is known today as Mur des Fédérés. Nearby, monuments stand to those who’ve died in the nation’s wars: to troops, and civilians, and to Jews sent from France to Auschwitz, Ravensbrück and other extermination and concentration camps.
In Père Lachaise, some of the graves date back centuries, others only a few months, making the cemetery as much a testament to the lives of Paris, and to the life of Paris, as it is to death in Paris. The cemetery remains what could, paradoxically, be described as a living and breathing monument to all the people who’ve lived and died in Paris throughout the many centuries of its existence, and to all those who live and visit there today. Situated on one of the city’s few hills, Père Lachaise is well worth a visit, and its sweeping views (which encompass landmarks like la Tour Eiffel and Montmartre) ensure that even as you plumb some of the darkness of her past, you won’t forget that Paris remains, all the while, the City of Light.
For all the facts in this article, my thanks to Musée Carnavalet (for being free), Alistair Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris, and to the incredibly knowledgeable Roland and Monica, for dozens of history-filled walks around the city, and to cybernyber for the photo of Hôtel de Ville.