Paris skyline Copyrighted image Credit: BBC

In Paris, everything begins and ends with the river, so Sandrine takes a voyage back in history with a police patrol on the Seine. Returning to dry land, she investigates the old heart of Paris, the Ile de la Cité. Much changed today, it is the site of Paris’s original palace and two of its most beautiful and mysterious buildings, the Cathedral of Notre Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle. Sandrine takes us to one of the city’s hidden treasures, an ancient house where one of France’s most tragic and grisly love affairs played out, between Abélard and Héloïse.

Over the centuries Paris endured some very hard times, including war and plague, until France’s favourite king, Henri IV, came along and laid the foundations for the city we love today. Henri gave the city the greatest square in the world, the Place des Vosges. Sandrine gets a bird’s eye view of the square from the top floor apartment in Henri’s very own home. Henri also completed the Pont Neuf, Paris’s most romantic bridge and a magical place popular with young lovers and street performers alike.

Sandrine reveals how Paris was a city of haves and have nots. The city’s colourful old street names reveal its dark and dangerous side, an underworld of cut-throats, whores and beggars. At the same time magnificent new palaces were being built by the aristocracy in the elegant Marais district. This was the era of the Salon, of theatre and of chocolate. Chocolate was the number one fad among the rich and famous because it was healthy, sexy and very exclusive. Sandrine goes to the Salon du Chocolat festival and indulges her love for chocolate and champagne.

Chocolate was a metaphor of the rift between the classes. It was Louis XIV, the all powerful Sun King, who turned it into a gulf with devastating consequences. He built imposing edifices in Paris, while locking up the city’s beggars, lunatics and prostitutes in the sinister hospital of Pitié Salpêtrière, which made the news in 1997 when Princess Diana died there. Louis had a deep-seated fear of Paris and when he decided to move his court to an imposing new palace at Versailles he sealed the long-term fate of the French capital.

Versailles became the most glamorous and decadent court in Europe. It created a demand for the finest furniture and tapestries. Sandrine visits the Gobelins tapestry factory which dates back to the 17th century. Versailles also gave birth to the modern fashion industry. Sandrine talks to top fashion designer, Christian Lacroix, about his inspiration from the past and how Queen Marie-Antoinette became the world’s first supermodel.

Paris did not miss out on the fun. The Palais Royal was the place where hedonists and libertines gathered to indulge their most extreme fantasies. New ideas of sexual freedom evolved into wider concepts of political liberty. These combined with new scientific discoveries to undermine the monarchy. This was the age of Enlightenment and Paris was at its epicentre.

Sandrine reveals how the Parisian love for coffee was a catalyst for change and that the seeds of revolution were sown in the city’s first café, the Procope. The revolution erupted on one of the most famous dates in history – the 14th July 1789. Paris and the world would never be the same again. Freedom, democracy and the rights of man were established as key principles of government. The spirit of revolution is as strong as ever in Paris today, as Sandrine finds out when she joins a demonstration and meets a controversial rap band.

The revolution turned nasty and vindictive, as the blood lust of the Terror took hold. Sandrine visits the eerie Catacombs, where human bones are stacked high, and the beautiful Basilica of Saint-Denis in search of the remains of the victims of revolution. In the end, the revolution set Paris on course to becoming the world’s first truly modern city.

First broadcast: Tuesday 26 Jun 2007 on BBC TWO

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