Paris as a living museum, historical finds in the streets

Paris as a living museum, historical finds in the streets

Timeworn turrets, elaborately carved doors, pink brick mansions… keep your eyes peeled for pieces of history everywhere

 

Paris has some of the most internationally renowned museums and art galleries, but what about the history of the city itself? If archaeology and the distant past are what peak your interest, then here’s what you should be looking out for…

 

In many cases you’ll stumble right into antiquity quite by chance. The Roman amphitheatre in the Latin Quarter is a case in point. Known as Les Arènes de Lutèce (the arena of Lutetia), the amphitheatre was rediscovered in the 1860s during building work in the area, and a campaign by Victor Hugo saw it restored and opened as a public park in 1896.

 

Some of the oldest artefacts from the earliest settlements in Paris can be found in the so-hip-it-almost-hurts Marais District. Hôtel de Lamoignon was once a grand private house; today it houses the Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris.

 

Keep an eye out for the historic markers on walls and streets that signal, for example, the site of a 13th-century fortress that acted as the European headquarters of the Knights Templar, who built up the Marais.

 

In a cobblestoned alley off the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, you’ll find yourself in the very spot that the Duke of Orléans was assassinated in 1407 by a status-seeking rival’s henchmen.

 

Nearby, at the resplendent 18th-century Hôtel de Soubise palace, home to France’s national archives, you’ll be moved by the last, agonised letter written by Marie Antoinette, saying farewell to her sister before heading to the guillotine.

 

Moving towards the sloping bohemian hill streets of Montmartre and up to Sacré-Cœur, you’ll be following in the formidable footsteps of Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec and Amélie. Stroll the streets where a lost generation of artists lived and worked before commercialisation set in. Picasso, Vlaminck, Derain, Soutine, Modigliani, Van Gogh and countless others drew inspiration from this precinct. Look for wall plaques on buildings and cafés to tell you who did what, where.

 

While footnotes from time immemorial lie around every corner, they also lie beneath you in Paris’s beguiling catacombs. An endless labyrinth of tunnels deep beneath the foundations of the city, the underground ossuaries are almost 200 miles long and hold the remains of more than six million people. Remnants from the 13th century, when limestone quarries were mined to build Paris into a thriving city, these tunnels had become a dumping ground for the city’s overflowing cemeteries by the 17th century. And the history of Paris today remains intrinsically linked to these dark, claustrophobic spaces.

 

It may be a well-used tour guide gimmick, but the story goes that every time you pass under the Pont Marie – a bridge linking the Île Saint-Louis to the Quai de l'Hôtel de Ville – the tradition is to give your partner a kiss. Even if it’s a well-constructed fib, this is the city of l’amour, so who are we to argue?

 

Source: Condé Nast Traveller Middle East

 

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