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A brief History of Paris

What lies at the heart of Paris is the secret to its success; the River Seine. Neolithic traders first lived on the natural island slap in the middle of the river, followed by the Celtic Parisii tribe, who controlled river trade and gave their name to the city. Julius Caesar arrived in 52BC, nabbed the island for himself and named the town 'Lutetia', from the Celtic word for 'muddy'.

The Franks decided they wanted the city in 256AD, and by 500AD the city was the capital of the Frankish Kingdom. Under the Merovingian Kings, Paris was the king's treasure store, but under the Carolingians, the city became a backwater. The Vikings had a bash at taking the city in 885, but found it too well fortified. From then on, powerful dukes protected the city until Hugh Capet was crowned king in 987. For the next 800 years, his family would be in sole charge.

France, as we know it, didn't exist in the early Middle Ages; it was a collection of feudal lords squabbling amongst themselves. However, the Capet kings managed to forge a united France, and made Paris the centre of political power and trade. Medieval Paris was also a place of learning, with the University flourishing on the Left Bank, and the Latin Quarter, founded by rebel students chucked out of the cathedral school.

Louis the 7th was the first king to invest mega cash in Paris, and his son built new city walls and the Louvre, a fortress palace to protect the city's west flank. Paris became a magnet for those seeking their fortune, and soon the city couldn't cope with the influx of thousands of people. Fed up with dire conditions, Paris workers went on strike in 1270, something they have been doing ever since.

By the start of the 14th century, Paris was the largest city in northern Europe. Business was booming until the start of the Hundred Years' War, and the English invasion. Those who survived the marauding hoards of mercenaries were struck down by the Black Plague of 1348, which claimed the lives of a third of the population of Paris. By 1390, the city was under virtual siege, falling in 1420 when the English marched in. The plague followed, and Paris' population was decimated.

Successive kings tried to rebuild the city by offering cash incentives for anyone willing to live there, but there were major religious tensions. When Louis the 13th came to the throne aged only 11, he and Cardinal Richelieu finally pulled together a strong and united France. Le Grand Siècle, the Grand Century, has begun.

Extravagant Louis the 14th instigated some reforms but also squandered vast sums on his foppish court at Versailles. By the rule of Louis the 14th, Paris was suffering grinding poverty and high crime, the narrow streets constantly congested with traffic. However, Parisian society as we know it was shaping up nicely: cafés sprung up after the Turkish ambassador introduced coffee in 1669.

The last of the Louis', number 16, made the chronic mistake of stifling reforms, and ordinary Parisians were up in arms. Rioting mobs stormed the Bastille prison on 14 July 1789, the start of the Revolution that became a Reign of Terror, ruled by Lafayette, Robespierre, and Madame Guillotine. Parisians suffered greatly until Robespierre was finally executed in July 1794, and the way lay open for Napoleon Bonaparte to seize control in 1799.

From then on, it was eighty years of 'all change' in government. Napoleon threw out Paris's ruling body and declared himself Emperor in 1804. This all fell apart in 1814, when the Prussians marched into the city and again in 1830, when the citizens revolted and threw out the monarch.

By the 1850s, things were calm enough for the first department stores to be built, and Paris became a centre for fashion. Baron Georges Haussmann had grand plans for the city, which included displacing large numbers of the poor population to the outlying suburbs. Painting and literature flourished, only to be put on hold by the Franco-Prussian War. Paris was once again under siege, bravely holding out from September 1870 to May 1871

Post siege, Haussmann's massive rebuilding plans were restarted and finally completed. The city blossomed into its belle époque, the 1890s. The Eiffel Tower was built, the Metro opened, and cinema was introduced. Paris largely escaped the destruction of World War One, saved by the Battle of the Marne in 1914. The 1920s saw an influx of American writers to the city, drawn by its bohemian shabbiness and racial tolerance. Then the Depression hit, and hit hard: Paris was plagued by strikes and unrest. By May 1940, the government had fled, and Parisians opened their city to the invading Germans, then tried to carry on much as normal. Paris was liberated in August 1944, despite Hilter's (ignored) orders to have it blown up.

General de Gaulle declared the Fifth Republic in 1958 and Paris took to modernism with a passion. In 1968, Parisian students rioted in the streets, winning a moral if not political battle for democracy. Paris (and France) did change, albeit slowly, and the population still take to the streets if something doesn't suit them. However, they do love their city with a passion, combining innovative architecture with preservation of the old in a heady mix that delights millions of visitors each year.

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