La belle époque de Paris

By Sergio González | 15:40

Sacre Coeur Basilica from Boulevard Haussmann

Everything we love and we dislike about the French capital -gourmet food, fashion, chauvinism, democracy, cabaret- began with the Belle Époque, a two decade cheerful period speeded up by railway development from 1890 to WWI. We couldn’t understand Paris tourism without Moulin Rouge or the Eiffel Tower.

France was getting in a good mood at the end of 19th century, recovering like a Phoenix from the great loss experienced at the Franco-Prussian War. Civil rights, science and education were at its best developing a freer society and major breakthroughs that were changing the world.

Paris electrification for 1889 World’s Fair earned the city the nickname of City of the lights and skirts went up as they always do after-war periods.

French chic lifestyle and fine culture were admired everywhere -Catherine the Great of Russia or Thomas Jefferson were famous Francophiles- and the people of Paris felt proud of themselves. The rebuilding of the country gave birth to nouveau-riches, industrialists and traders that had the time and the money to expect more from life than just working.  Modern elitism was born along Belle Époque.

Cabarets and bistros popped out as the new inventions were leaving more time to spare. Le Chat Noir appeared in 1881 as the first place where among drinks or dinner some performances and a master entertained the audience. The very first cabaret has nothing to do with the current one in 68, Boulevard de Clichy.

The bohemian quarter of Montmartre saw the circus Moulin Rouge rise her skirts a few years later to create can-can dance and a whole legend around the shameless ladies portrayed by Toulouse-Lautrec. Paris tourism grew as M. Lautrec’s paintings spread La Belle Époque all over the world.

Folies Bergère was the upper-class music hall but also the one with less social rules and spicier shows -Josephine Baker performed here her applauded banana striptease.

The trend nowadays is to avoid tourist crowded Maxim’s or Le Bristol and book for a fancy soiree at someone’s place. A gourmet meal entertained by dancers or painters, the finest wines and live music in the intimacy of a petit comité formed by complete strangers.

Cabaret singer Aristide Bruant pictured by Toulouse-Lautrec in 1892

Not everything was lustful in Montmartre. In 1875, Sacre-Coeur Basilica construction started thanks to popular funding’s, built to remember the people fallen at last war against the Germans. Ever wondered why this church looks always so white and clean while other monuments are devoured by pollution? The answer is travertine stone –this rock exudes calcite constantly and naturally, cleaning the walls of this Paris tourism icon every year .

The Third Republic of France  -first one to make liberté, egalité, fraternité official- was extending the French colonial empire till places such as Madagascar, Indochina and Polynesia bringing home riches and fine novelties that would fuel the new haute couture parlours and fashion industry. Parisian bourgeoisie was ready to make their capital show le joie de vivre at the 1889 World’s Fair.

The French government wanted a landmark for the exhibition, something to symbolize “the century of Industry and Science we’re living”. Mr. Eiffel provided them “a monument to express gratitude for the scientific movement the 1789 revolution prepared”. So the most famous tower in the world was born.

Despite the huge criticism –“all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghalsty dream” said the protest started by most prominent artists of that time- Eiffel Tower was a huge success since its very beginning and it seems nowadays queues started just the day it was opened.

It was intended to be demolished after twenty years but she performed so well messing with German radio communications during WWI, that the Iron Lady- La Dame de Ferremained forever in French people’s hearts  as a symbol of freedom and innovation and in Paris travel guides as capital lyrics must.

Just the same way, one hundred years later La Belle Époque lingers in our imagination, evoking a bohemian life in the chic boulevards of Paris, where we almost can listen to Satine and Christian pray for eternal love.

Photo Credit: Tarn Tourisme

Photo Credit: SNappa2006


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