‘Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime.’ Victor Hugo, on Paris.
There are few more qualified to describe one of the world’s premier centres of gastronomy, art, culture and architecture than the man who gave us Javert, Jean Valjean, Gavroche and Notre Dame’s hunchback, but the history of Paris goes back further than all that, much further.
While tourists may expect Paris to offer up a veritable feast of romantic vistas, stunning art and iconic cathedrals, you may be forgiven for missing a handful of hidden yet astonishing attractions dotted throughout the city. For Paris boasts over 2,000 years of history, a fact that many forget.
The Early History
A Celtic tribe known as the Parisii inhabited the area around what is now the modern city from 300 BC. The settlement was conquered by the Romans in 52 BC (originally called Lutetia). It remained a Roman city for hundreds of years, eventually becoming known by the Latin name Parisius.
All this Roman history left a significant mark on the city, significant elements of which can surprisingly still be seen today. One of the most notable Roman sites is Arenes de Lutece. One of the most important and rarest remnants of the Gallo-Roman settlement of Lutetia, the Arena of Lutetia was a vast 15,000-seat amphitheatre.
Built by the Romans in the first century AD, it staged an array of gladiatorial contests and other ancient games during the Roman period. Sacked during the barbarian invasion in 280, the arena was rediscovered in the 18th century and remains one of the hidden gems of Parisian history.
Moving through the chronological history of Paris, don’t miss the amazing but little-visited La Crypte Archéologique, or the Archaeological Crypt in Notre Dame Square.
It contains the remains of Gallo-Roman Lutetia, including the third century BC walls and streets and the ruins of a cathedral and a hospital. Make sure you look out for the Roman-built underfloor heating system.
In the third century, Denis, the Bishop of Paris and subsequently the city’s patron saint was martyred. Four hundred years later the Basilica of St Denis was built. The medieval abbey church was rebuilt in 1144 and as well as being of huge cultural and historical importance, it is one of the first buildings to use all elements of the Gothic style.
From the 10th century it became the burial place of France’s monarchs – all but three are interred there. However, during the French Revolution many of the tombs were ransacked. Today, it is open to the public offering views beyond its stunning façade into its vaulted interior and the necropolis.
As Paris grew through the first millennium, trade, commerce, arts, the sciences and architecture flourished. The Musée de Cluny, known as the National Museum of the Middle Ages is a magnificent 15th century building (described as ‘the most outstanding extant example of civic architecture from medieval Paris’).
It houses an impressive collection including Roman statues, gothic sculptures, a treasury filled with the works of medieval goldsmiths but the stars of the show are the six The Lady and the Unicorn (La Dame à la licorne) tapestries.
There is also an important series of Gallo-Roman baths known as Thermes de Cluny dating to the first to third centuries, representing some of the best-preserved remnants of the city of Lutetia.
The Revolution and Beyond
Perhaps the most famous event in Parisian history is the French Revolution, precipitated by the storming of the Bastille, the infamous prison, on 14 July 1789.
Very little of the original prison is left but for a true slice of French history, the remains of the Bastille can be found in Square Henri Galli on the bank of the Seine overlooking the Île Saint-Louis.
Look carefully and you’ll find a small plaque next to what seems like an innocuous pile of stones, the last vestiges of one of the most notorious sites in history.
Last on our list of Paris attractions not to miss is the Château de Malmaison, the home of France’s most famous son.
Fifteen kilometres west of the centre, the spectacular manor house built in the Renaissance and Empire styles was the home of Josephine de Beauharnais and her husband one Napoléon Bonaparte.
It has served as a home, the seat of Government and as a barracks and you can see Napoleon’s bedroom, a museum in his honour, the state rooms and the truly sensational gardens.