The Ballards - France Paris


Paris is a beautiful old city surrounded by concentric rings of post-war desolation: tower blocks, ethnic minorities, crime, vandalism and lost hope.

Paris is like any other French city, but has a cultural gravity greater than most capital cities.

Unlike London and in this case Birmingham, Paris escaped the Luftwaffe in the 1940s. Hitler decreed that it was not to be touched and although a few Allied bombs hit Paris, on the whole it remained untouched throughout the conflagration that detroyed most of the large cities of Europe.
This was good news for the Parisians, who at least had something to live in by the late-1940s and weren't reduced to prefab concrete huts like many Brits and Germans, but meant bad news for the communal services of the Napoleonic-era tenement blocks that comprise the majority of central Paris.
These blocks have had no major upgrading since they were built, and the central service ducts have had to put up with the piecemeal implementation of sewage systems that take actual loo-paper, fresh water in pipes that don't cause the residents to go mad and blind i.e. not lead, gas, steam heating, electricity, phones, cable TV, satellite TV, broadband services, fibre-optics and LAN cables.
As the communal services are always under severe price pressure from the residents these are bodge-jobs and thus constantly malfunction in mysterious ways. Shades of the guerilla plumber in Terry Gilliam's distopian masterpiece Brazil...

As the average building is 4 or 5 storeys and high-rise public buildings restricted to La Defense, the views from the roof of grand old monuments like the Arc de Triomphe are splendid. In the background is always the tallest of them all: the Eiffel Tower, intended when built in 1889 for the Worlds Fair to be a temporary structure, but now the universal Parisian symbol.

Napoleon had much of the old city bulldozed to make the now-traditional wide Paris boulevards. The joke is that they are tree-lined because German soldiers like to march in the shade.....
Stalin copied him because wide streets are harder for radicals and revolutionaries to block, as the Parisian students found in 1968 (what on earth were they protesting about, anyway?)

The Pompidou centre was the bonkers brainchild of the architects Rogers and Piano (sounds like a comedy duo) who bult it between 1972 and 1976. It is, of course, the inside-out precursor of the Lloyds Building in London and many other copycat designs, but it is the original, and is in remarkably good condition.

La Defense is the financial centre of Paris, built in the 1980s afresh on old catlle markets 6 miles from the old centre. It is Paris's equivalent of London's Docklands: all flashy architecture and expensive apartments for young pseuds. Interesting to visit, but like Docklands it just needs demolishing...

The Louvre is a staggering array of art both inside and out. Architecturally it is orders of magnitude more interesting than anything ever built in London, inside the museum is labyrinthine and beautifully appointed, full of stunned-looking people of all races who know that this is the best and anywhere else is just a copy, an approximation.

Les Invalides is a beautifully-maintained requiem to Napoleon Bonaparte: he was reviled in the UK and revered in France. Visiting the tomb makes you realise why the two countries can never quite find cultural common ground.

Notre Dame is a big cathedral. These can be very boring, until you think of how they managed to build it with manpower and wooden scaffolding.
Health & Safety may have had something to say about 100-ton blocks of stone on man-powered pulleys....

Travelling on the Seine, far more than travelling on the Thames, is an experience. Many cities tend to present their uglier sides to the water, as in London and Oxford; Paris is quite the opposite, and a water-tour is worthwhile.

Sacre-Coeur cathedral is worth seeing, but the bloody tourists are a pain. There are more yucky American tourists there than anywhere else. Do it early in the morning only, and go on the roof, the views are great.

Like Birmingham, and unlike London, civic spending on transportation didn't stop dead in 1968 and only proceed in fits and small starts in the 1980s. So Paris has a decent transport infrastructure: roads like the Peripherique (where are you now, West Cross route and M41?), underground transportation like the Metro (surely we can do better with our tinker-toy Tube system? London should be ashamed of it's interactive transport musuem) and the RER rural train service that takes over where the Metro leaves off, going far out in to the countryside on dedicated tracks that don't simply follow the Victorian-era lignes grande vitesse ours do.
London, take note: you need a better public transport infrastructure before the congestion charge is a sensible solution. That means diggers and bulldozers, not coloured stickers and yellow road markings. When will they learn?
London's pathetically inadequate transport infrastructure will be sorely tested by the 2012 Olympics.

Parisian life is hectic and cosmopolitan, the hookers are dressed like ordinary girls (how are you meant to know the difference?), there are no Indians just African blacks wherever you look, and the women are beautiful.

Street vendors play music and sell anything, and the street sweepers drive around in these cute little Vespa motor scooters, like Filipino farmers in the 3rd world. Everyone parks on the pavement and they let their little dogs crap everywhere.

But it's still beautiful and worth seeing.