For centuries Paris has been one of the world’s most important and attractive cities. It is appreciated for the opportunities it offers for business and commerce, for study, for culture, and for entertainment; its gastronomy, haute couture, painting, literature, and intellectual community especially enjoy an enviable reputation. Its sobriquet “the City of Light” (“la Ville Lumière”), earned during the Enlightenment, remains appropriate, for Paris has retained its importance as a centre for education and intellectual pursuits.
Paris’s site at a crossroads of both water and land routes significant not only to France but also to Europe has had a continuing influence on its growth. Under Roman administration, in the 1st century BCE, the original site on the Île de la Cité has designated the capital of the Parisii tribe and territory. The Frankish king Clovis I had taken Paris from the Gauls by 494 CE and later made his capital there. Under Hugh Capet (ruled 987–996) and the Capetian dynasty, the preeminence of Paris was firmly established, and Paris became the political and cultural hub as modern France took shape. France has long been a highly centralized country, and Paris has come to be identified with a powerful central state, drawing to itself much of the talent and vitality of the provinces.
The three main parts of historical Paris are defined by the Seine. At its centre is the Île de la Cité, which is the seat of religious and temporal authority (the word cité connotes the nucleus of the ancient city). The Seine’s Left Bank (Rive Gauche) has traditionally been the seat of intellectual life, and its Right Bank (Rive Droite) contains the heart of the city’s economic life, but the distinctions have become blurred in recent decades. The fusion of all these functions at the centre of France and, later, at the centre of an empire, resulted in a tremendously vital environment. In this environment, however, the emotional and intellectual climate that was created by contending powers often set the stage for great violence in both the social and political arenas—the years 1358, 1382, 1588, 1648, 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871 being notable for such events.
In its centuries of growth Paris has for the most part retained the circular shape of the early city. Its boundaries have spread outward to engulf the surrounding towns (bourgs), usually built around monasteries or churches and often the site of a market. From the mid-14th to the mid-16th century, the city’s growth was mainly eastward; since then it has been westward. It comprises 20 arrondissements (municipal districts), each of which has its own mayor, town hall, and particular features. The numbering begins in the heart of Paris and continues in the spiraling shape of a snail shell, ending to the far east. Parisians refer to the arrondissements by number as the first (premier), second (deuxième), third (troisième), and so on. Adaptation to the problems of urbanization—such as immigration, housing, social infrastructure, public utilities, suburban development, and zoning—has produced the vast urban agglomeration.
Paris is positioned at the centre of the Île-de-France region, which is crossed by the Seine, Oise, and Marne rivers. The city is ringed with great forests of beech and oak; they are called the “lungs of Paris,” for they help to purify the air in the heavily industrialized region. The city proper is small; no corner is farther than about 6 miles (10 km) from the square in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral. It occupies a depression hollowed out by the Seine, and the surrounding heights have been respected as the limits of the city. Elevation varies from 430 feet (130 metres) at the butte of Montmartre, in the north, to 85 feet (26 metres) in the Grenelle area, in the southwest.
The Seine flows for about 8 miles (13 km) through the centre of the city and 10 of the 20 arrondissements. It enters the city at the southeast corner, flows northwestward, and turns gradually southwestward, eventually leaving Paris at the southwest corner. As a result, what starts out as the stream’s east bank becomes its north bank and ends as the west bank, and the Parisians therefore adopted the simple, unchanging designation of Right Bank and Left Bank (when facing downstream). Specific places, however, are usually indicated by arrondissement or by quarter (quartier).
At water level, some 30 feet (9 metres) below street level, the river is bordered—at least on those portions not transformed into expressways—by cobbled quays graced with trees and shrubs. From street level another line of trees leans toward the water. Between the two levels, the retaining walls, usually made of massive stone blocks, are decorated with the great iron rings once used to moor merchant vessels, and some are pierced by openings left by water gates for old palaces or inspection ports for subways, sewers, and underpasses. At intermittent points the walls are shawled in ivy.