It’s no surprise that Paris is the world’s most-visited city. It has the monuments, the cuisine, the shopping, not to mention Leonardo’s lady with the enigmatic smile. It also possesses timeless sex appeal, like a screen goddess who miraculously stays eternally young without needing to nip and tuck.
The question is what’s the French capital’s secret? Why does it attract more visitors than Rome, Amsterdam or even spectacular New York?
The answer, I think, after living in Paris for 20 years, lies in its racy past and its wild erotic fling in the 19th century. Before then, Paris had been little more than a few palaces surrounded by medieval squalor. But in the mid-19th century, Emperor Napoleon III (Bonaparte’s nephew) commissioned a bureaucrat called George Eugène Haussmann to demolish most of the medieval houses – Haussmann was so unsentimental that he flattened his own birthplace – and carve out wide boulevards. Gone were the dark, narrow alleyways – Paris became the City of Light.
And this facelift was what spawned almost everything we love about Paris today. The Eiffel Tower, the department stores, Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings of can-can dancers and cabaret singers, as well as a new, sexy self-awareness.
The boulevards instantly became venues for erotic encounters, teeming with flâneurs (strollers) or well-off men with top hats, waxed moustaches and an eye for shop girls and (legal) streetwalkers.
Parisians care so much about the finer details of their lifestyle that the city will never change
With the boulevards came the big cafés, which originally took up whole buildings. Their upper floors housed private lounges where rich flâneurs, including the future King Edward VII of England, would “entertain” ladies of ill repute.
Today, the semi-riotous and yet luxurious atmosphere in the big traditional brasseries, such as Le Terminus Nord at the Gare du Nord or Bofinger at Bastille, where Parisians and tourists alike tear into huge seafood platters, gives a real idea of what Paris nightlife was like 150 years ago.
The starchy waiters, in their waistcoats and black uniforms, are living reminders of an age when they had to crowd-control hordes of hustling femmes fatales and their over-excited punters. Some waiters are so 19th century that the Paris council issues official pleas every year for them to be nice to innocent tourists.
The café terrace is another product of the boulevards. At first, the terraces were for flâneurs to take a break from strolling and admire what one observer called “the little feet that went clop, clop, clop”. And he wasn’t talking about Shetland ponies. And today, if Parisian terraces are still the best places in the world for people-watching, it’s because that’s exactly what they were designed for.
The idea of having a menu also dates back to Napoleon III. Before then, restaurant clients would pre-order their meals the day before. The new cafés offered freedom of choice. And even now, the more 19th century the menu, the better the food. I always look out for handwritten menus with a plat du jour, so you know that the chef has done things the old way, buying fresh that very day. My favourites are when there’s just a scrawled Post-It note stuck into the menu. The glue is new, but the technique is pure 1870.
One of the best places to hunt out handwritten menus is the quartier of antique shops around the Drouot auction house, just off the grands boulevards. The dealers there care as much about the quality of their food as the pedigree of a Louis XV armchair. At lunchtimes, the cafés and restaurants compete to offer good-value, classic French cuisine, and you can find a genuinely Parisian menu du jour for under €20.
Going old-school and exploring on foot is easily the best way of enjoying what is a surprisingly compact city. With a decent pair of shoes (no Parisienne wears heels longer than a Gauloise), you can explore all the best quartiers in a weekend.
It’s not just about famous monuments, either. The details of Paris street life are as fascinating as the museums.
Look closely at Hector Guimard’s Art Nouveau Métro entrances at, for example, Saint Michel, Pigalle or Châtelet. The sinewy green balustrades and praying-mantis lamps were once thought so erotic that prudes wanted them destroyed.
The green newspaper kiosks are also 19th century, but move with the times. They’re often customised by their tenants with satirical cartoons displayed between the advert hoardings. Though beware, I recently saw a cartoon of a kiosquier insulting a tourist who’d asked directions instead of buying a newspaper.
Even the trendiest new places in Paris have an old-school feel. The Bassin de la Villette canal basin, built in 1808, has become the preferred venue for an evening stroll, a picnic or a game of pétanque. Yes, French bowls is trendy again and the canal banks echo to the thud of toes getting flattened by cannonballs.
New cafés and restaurants are opening up there, but although the staff are young, the cuisine is triumphantly French and baskets of sliced baguette still land magically on your table. It’s all simultaneously new and classic.
This is the great thing about Paris – Parisians care so much about the finer details of their lifestyle that the city will never change.
All the best things about Paris retain a whiff of its heyday in the 19th century. This is true of the waiters’ waistcoats, the ever-present small shops, the newspaper kiosks, even the quaint habit of calling everyone Monsieur or Madame.
Paris isn’t a living museum, though, it’s a living exhibition, a permanent can-can show called la vie à Paris. And luckily, it looks as though it will run and run.