From Paris With Love
“Paris is always a good idea” – Audrey Hepburn
In the summer of 2014, love nearly broke Paris. The combined weight of tens of thousands of “love locks”, secured to the Pont des Arts by amorous visitors over the years, had become so great that the bridge’s railings were in danger of collapsing into the Seine. The figure was put at 54 tons. Each of the padlocks was inscribed with the name of a couple, and the gesture itself had become a way of symbolising a permanent union. A heavy commitment in more than one sense. Paris does that to people.
Ben Lerwill is a freelance travel writer based in Oxfordshire. His work has appeared in more than 50 publications, including National Geographic Traveller, The Times, The Independent, Wanderlust, BBC Countryfile and Time Out.
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But what is it about the place that makes it so synonymous with romance? London, Berlin and Rome might have their passion-points, but they don’t have the same heady association with love as the City of Light. “The chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulant,” TS Eliot once said, and at times this holds true. On a bright spring day, with the chestnut blossom in bloom, the river running blue and the Haussmann boulevards high and haughty in the sun, it can feel like you’re sauntering into someone else’s dream. A reverie of Marais cobbles and Left Bank cafes. A world of macarons, monuments and death-defying mopeds.
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Paris is, by many reckonings, the most visited city in the world today. It sees some 15.5 million foreign visitors a year, or 42,500 fresh arrivals a day. The city even has its own recognised medical condition, the Paris Syndrome, a profound form of culture shock to which Japanese tourists, it’s said, are particularly susceptible. Expectations are built up to such a degree that the reality of the city, with its urgency and babble, can be genuinely overwhelming. You don’t get that in Milton Keynes.
Forget the Mona Lisa, chocolates and the Louis Vuitton shopping bags – maybe all we want is our own Paris tale.
But despite the crowds, and the souvenir hoop-la that clusters around each of the main sights, the French capital is still resolutely seen as the ultimate destination for the love struck. It’s certainly a powerful place to spend time. “In Paris, everyone wants to be an actor,” wrote Jean Cocteau. “Nobody is content to be a spectator.” And perhaps it’s this sense of life being lived, of dramas unfolding, that makes it such a romantic proposition. It’s a city of revolution, after all. Forget the Mona Lisa, chocolates and the Louis Vuitton shopping bags – maybe all we want is our own Paris tale.
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This isn’t something new. In 1863, a former cabinet-maker named Thomas Cook escorted some 2,000 tourists across the channel on trips to visit the city; a remarkable number for the time. They would have seen the great set-piece memorials – the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides and so on – but were more than 25 years too early for the Eiffel Tower. Had they wandered up to Montmartre, however, they may have stumbled across a 22-year-old artist named Pierre-Auguste Renoir, brush in hand and helping to generate a new chapter in the Parisian story.
His most famous painting, the now inescapable Bal du Moulin de la Galette, shows Paris in a merry light: musical and carefree. It’s one of any number of world-famous artworks and films that depict the city, all of which have played their own part in shaping perceptions of today’s Paris. From Toulouse-Lautrec’s can-can girls to Manet’s Folies Bergère, and from Last Tango In Paris to Audrey Tautou’s Amélie, they all colour the city as somewhere to lose yourself, somewhere to indulge – even somewhere to fall in love.
“Whoever does not visit Paris regularly will never really be elegant.”
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So said novelist Honoré de Balzac, and it’s true that the city comes with a weighty reputation for its style. At times, in fact, the whole place seems geared to the romantic high life. The fashion houses, the language, the art, the architecture, the food, the parks, the grand hotels – factor in the perfect little boulangerie that you discovered in the 4th arrondissement, or the riverside bistro you chanced upon at sunset, and it’s no wonder so many of us are drawn back. Britain and the US, incidentally, routinely provide more tourists to the city than anywhere else.
Will generations still come to see the place as a hotbed of amour? Almost certainly. Cole Porter wrote I Love Paris way back in 1953 (“I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles/ I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles”), and you’d expect the song to have as much currency on its centenary as it did back then. There are some weird and wonderful theories about the city’s appeal to couples – it’s often remarked that the Eiffel Tower could be termed, ahem, suggestive – but it surely comes down to one basic fact. Where scenery, atmosphere and the chance for a rampant weekend of red wine and roses are concerned, there’s still no place quite like it.
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