Notre Dame, as seen from the Tour Montparnasse, stands on the Île de la Cité in the 4th arrondissement. Spiralling like a snail’s shell from central Paris to the suburbs, Paris has 20 arrondissements – the word means “roundings” as the neighborhoods are “rounded off”.
Paris – Fact check

The Grands Boulevards: Paris's memory lanes

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Paris – Fact check The Grands Boulevards: Paris's memory lanes

Look down from the Eiffel Tower. Gaze from the top of the Ferris Wheel at the Tuileries Gardens. What do you see?

Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton Travel Writer

It’s a spectacular view of snaking streets and long, proud avenues; enormous, hulking Gothic churches and elegant Neo-Classical palaces.

Look towards Les Marais or the Left Bank. See how the tangled streets of the Marais give way to the grands boulevards further north. You’re not just looking at a landscape. You’re watching history.

Those narrow streets are the remnants of Medieval Paris: an urban structure that, by the industrial 19th-century, had become unsustainable: a melting pot of pollution and disease. Under Napoleon III, whole sections were razed and re-planned with the help of urban planner George Eugene Haussmann. Alleyways were turned into what are now known as the Grands Boulevards.

This was political too. Narrow streets had made ‘barricading’ the streets a popular form of political protest between 1830-1848. If you’ve ever seen Les Misérables, these are the ‘barricades’ everyone keeps singing about. The broad avenues were impossible to block and far easier to send riot police down.

The boulevards brought their own form of social change. Provided at last with streets that had space for them (and didn’t stink), the Parisian bourgeoisie adopted some new habits. Now, every time I indulge in a spot of flanerie along the boulevards, or sit at a street-side café to watch the world go by, I recall how these most famous Parisian institutions owe to history.

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