The Paris Story

The Paris Story
  If you are planning a quick stopover in Paris and know little or nothing about its history, you should be warned that quite a lot has happened since the official kick-off back in 52BC when Julius Caesar turned up in a teeny Celtic settlement on a little island in the Seine (the Ile de la Cité) and declared, “From this day forward, this place shall be known as… Lutetia!” Errr, well at least he was making an effort! Sometime later, in the 1950’s in fact, when Jack Kerouac first dropped in on Paris, he wasted a lot of time and energy–and found himself being laughed at quite a bit–as he marched around desperately trying to locate the Bastille prison. Maybe he was looking for Burroughs and figured this was his best shot? Anyway, it does go to show that a little immersion into the history of the city may well enrich your visit. But if you don’t have the time or the inclination to sit down and read a big fat book about the incredible history of this, the greatest of cities, or be dragged all over town in a wide-eyed gaggle of amateur photographers as some ‘expert’ spells it all out for you, you could try ‘The Paris Story.’ Located at 11bis, rue Scribe (just west of Opéra Palais Garnier), and open Nov-Mar 9am-6pm; April-Oct 9am-8pm, playing every hour on the hour, this is a 45-minute sound and vision history of the city, which is so sugar-coated you could put on weight as you sit watching. (Price: Adults, 8 euro; under 18/students, 5 euro.) I bought my ticket from a friendly guy at reception who kindly spoke English as he furnished me with a post-card sized advertisement for something called ‘Les Visites de Paris,’ which ‘The Paris Story,’ turned out to be connected to. The foyer of ‘The Paris Story,’ was quite pleasant, filled with tourist trinkets, guide-books, photography-books, brief histories and a dull-looking exhibit called ‘Paris Styles,’ designed to help us ‘better understand the Paris monuments.’ My problem was that I would also have needed to better understand the French language, which unfortunately I don’t. Whilst waiting for the previous crowd of history buffs to exit the arena, I looked at the ‘Les Visites,’ card and saw several pictures of different events: boat rides down the Seine; a wine museum; a cinema complex; a cabaret show; a little train-ride around Montmartre; a couple of restaurants; Tour Montparnasse. A full-on and fun-filled tourist trap, in fact. On the flip-side were the official titles of these events, along with addresses, phone numbers, web-addresses, etc., and discount coupons valued at one to two–and in the case of the cabaret show, five–euros. Those coupons seemed very much a token gesture to me, but the idea struck me as a useful one for anybody on a flying visit into Paris; anybody who simply doesn’t have the time to stroll around and discover things for themselves. First, you stop off at the Paris story to get a quick-fix history of the city–a kind of starter on the events menu, to stick to the food metaphor above–then you simply go a la carte and start picking off events as they catch your eye, moving effortlessly from one to the other as it suits. So the question is: Is that sugary starter going to spoil your appetite? Let’s review: Once allowed into the arena I found myself in a cinema-seat with a set of headphones attached and a simple little remote-control type device fixed in at the side. (I had been advised before entering to press the buttons on this device until the number 1 appeared on the display, which would give me an English language commentary. The fact that I found this a simple procedure means that it is foolproof.) There was a main cinema screen with two small screens fixed at slight angles on either side, and when the lights went down Victor Hugo appeared–as a kind of ghostly hologram–on the left screen. He started talking to ‘lady’ Paris, as we the audience found ourselves immersed in a night-time view of the city looming up above one of the gargoyles of Nôtre-Dame. The music swept romantically across the night sky as Monsieur Hugo charmed the lady and she softly delighted him with a tale of how a bunch of people had once got their heads chopped off on Place de la Concorde. I wondered if they’d had discount coupons like us, but nobody else seemed interested. But somehow, through all the glossing over and the smug mood–I didn’t blame them for this; it’s understandable, considering the subject–the story itself still managed to make itself heard and I actually found myself interested in it. For some reason, the story of the Middle Ages and the innovations in Gothic architecture throughout that period held me spellbound. They told the secret of the amazing design innovations, explaining how they built great cathedrals whose weight was not supported by the walls, thus allowing great walls of glass with light pouring through. Stained glass in temples of natural light–visions, awesome and beautiful–telling their own religious histories and tragedies, illuminated and glorified by the sun itself. Astounding. I hadn’t realised how little thought I had given to walls until that moment. Strange, considering that I spend huge amounts of my time in extremely close proximity to four of the damn things. Obviously, Gothic architecture took off in a major way for a few hundred years, making itself much more than just a part of the city’s history. Then everyone got bored with it and decided to hold a Renaissance instead, during which time simple little pictures and sculptures of naked young nymphs became the order of the day. Ah, Paris! Of course, I’m making fun because ‘The Paris Story’ is put across in such a frivolous, glossy way that it’s hard not to. Having said that, the very fact of having so many powerful and conflicting events and images reduced to forty-five minutes of post-card pretty history makes certain things stand out to those who are paying attention. What really struck me was that one thing remained constant throughout those years: the absolute influence of the Roman Empire. Even today, if you look around Paris, that influence is palpable, from all those grand, bold designs to the unashamed celebrations of sensuality and luxury; from the hunger for knowledge to the strong-willed push towards progress, that original influence…
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