A picture of the eiffel tower taken from the Pont Alexandre III bridge.
The Pont Alexandre III bridge, constructed under the supervision of Charles Girault, was opened in 1900 for the World Fair. PHOTOGRAPH BY JONATHAN STOKES

Weave between late-19th-century monuments on urban walking tours to learn about this defining era — and why it’s gilded with such intense nostalgia.

Read online at nationalgeographic.com

Of all the cities in the world, Paris is most afflicted by its own mythology. For many travellers, including the time-hopping protagonist of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011), the allure of the city lies in its ability to evoke the charms of a bygone era. The romanticisation that ensues inevitably causes some to come unstuck, of course: the term ‘Paris Syndrome’ was coined in the 1980s for Japanese travellers sent spiralling into a state of psychosis by the collision of reality with their oversaturated expectations of the City of Light.

Undeterred, I’ve come to Paris to unpack what I can of the belle époque — a golden age of bohemia, optimism and technological progress that flourished in the peaceful years between 1871 and the start of the First World War. Impressionism was born; cinema invented; the can-can made popular in louche theatres like the Moulin Rouge. Was it a truly romantic era, or just romanticised? And can it be recaptured?

My first insights come from Spanish-born Ana Gimena, who does little to dispel my nostalgia when I meet her on the magnificent steps of the Petit Palais, built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle world fair and now an art museum. Regally costumed in a swishing skirt, lace bodice and a bonnet sprouting ostrich feathers, the historical tour guide turns every head. “If I were in a time machine, I wouldn’t hesitate: I’d come right back for the Exposition Universelle,” she says, neatly folding her gloves into her bag as we enter the museum.

A woman dressed in similar clothing to that worn of Parisian women in during the 1900s
Tour guide Ana Gimena takes visitors on a historical excursion of the city, concluding in the garden of the Petit Palais. PHOTOGRAPH BY AMELIA DUGGAN

The trapped-in-time character Ana plays for the public is wild about the world fair — an era-defining exhibition held at the height of the art nouveau period, for which the Petit Palais, Grand Palais and Pont Alexandre III bridge were constructed under the supervision of architect Charles Girault. The magnificent Musée d’Orsay, on the Left Bank of the Seine, and Galeries Lafayette, on Boulevard Haussmann, are also products of this period.

“People would have seen electricity for the first time; engines, moving pictures, flying machines, the Metro. Imagine!” she says breathlessly. “Over 50 million people came to Paris when the population of the whole country was just 39 million. I don’t think the Olympics will compare.”

Along with Girault, famous Frenchmen making their mark on the city in these years included engineer Gustav Eiffel, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and composer Claude Debussy — luminaries whose graves can be visited in the city’s venerable cemeteries. But, crucially for Ana, this was a time when women started to shape public life.

We stand in front of a towering oil painting of actress and courtesan Sarah Bernhardt reclined exotically on cushions, her sinewy figure draped in satin, her face a study in bemusement. “The ultimate celebrity of the belle époque,” Ana says. “Men wanted her; women copied her fashion.” Christian virtues were still extolled by the ruling classes, however, and in a period where prostitution among the lower classes skyrocketed, her social capital was the exception rather than the rule. “Society was double-edged,” Ana says, checking the antique pocket watch pinned to her waist and donning her gloves to leave. “We must acknowledge the bad of the time, too.”

It’s easy enough to slip back in time in Paris; love and deference have been poured into preserving pockets of history in every quarter. For lunch, I drop into Bouillon Chartier, in the ninth arrondissement, a workers’ bistro built with breathtaking flamboyance in 1896, where uniformed waiters still tally the bill on the tablecloth. But to dine à la belle époque, I could have just as easily gone to Le Train Bleu or Bofinger — or a dozen more restaurants set in aspic.

I spend the evening in nearby Pigalle, home to Paris’s now-trendy red-light district, where the sumptuous four-star Hôtel Rochechouart, renovated in 2020 to its original Jazz Age splendour, hosts the great and the good of Paris. Think: foie gras in the classically French bistro; absinthe cocktails at the rooftop bar; and swaying the night away at Le Mikado Dancing, the underground speakeasy. The French windows in my suite open onto a view of the Sacré-Cœur, glowing atop Montmartre; down below, the neon lights of Boulevard de Clichy’s sex shops twinkle provocatively.

The next morning, I rendezvous with Julie Marangé, founder of Feminists in the City walking tours, and we head towards the Moulin Rouge, one of the most culturally loaded legacies of the belle époque. “Some historians describe the period as France’s ‘Golden Age of Prostitution’,” says Julie. “But to say there was anything ‘golden’ about this period for women tells you everything you need to know about who’s been writing history so far.”

Learning the stories of embattled and half-forgotten female figures is one of the appeals of the Visit Montmartre with Hysterical Feminists tour — that, and seeing Julie attempt to demonstrate a few can-can kicks. “There’s so much more symbolism and subversion to the dance than people know,” says Julie. “It speaks of sexual liberation and independence, of guns and self-pleasure.”

Asked to name French artists of the early 20th century, most people might say Claude Monet, Edgar Degas or Pierre-Auguste Renoir, all of whom kept studios in the vertiginous alleys of Montmartre. But few today would identify the Moulin Rouge’s sell-out headliner, the rags-to-riches-to-rags-again dancer Louise ‘La Goulue’ Weber, who formalised the can-can quadrille. Julie also extols the risqué performance art of the dancer and clown Cha-U-Kao and the novelist and mime Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, both of whom faced censure by expressing their love for women openly.

I’m seeing Paris in a new light, my guides helping solidify its reputation for great art and dynamic social progress, while undermining any attempt to simplify or sugar-coat the belle époque. Would I get in a time machine? With the era’s rich architectural and cultural legacy so entwined with the present day, perhaps there’s no need.

Published in the June 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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