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Paris cannot be approached without expectations and preconceptions. For some, it represents a city of romance, with the celebrated photographer Doisneau's lovers clinched in an eternal embrace. For others, the French capital is a sparkling mix of writers and artists or an unhealthy concentration of proud Parisians. While the first visit to the French capital may surprise, it is unlikely to disappoint. On all sorts of levels - historical, architectural, cultural - this is a fascinating city.
The River Seine splits the city into the Rive Droite (Right Bank) north of the Seine and the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) south of the river. Paris is just ten kilometres (six miles) by 11km (seven miles), easily explored on foot or via the efficient transport system. Orientation is facilitated by the 20 arrondissements (designated here as 1st to 20th, in French as 1er to 20e), which spiral outwards in a snail-shell from the central Île de la Cité to Porte de Montreuil on the eastern edge of the city.
The life of the modern city began about 250BC when a Celtic tribe called the Parisii established a fishing settlement Lutétia, on the Île de la Cité. The Romans were later drawn to this strategic location, a natural crossroads between Germany and Spain, and took control in 52BC. The first King of France, Hugues Capet, ruled from Paris in AD987. Despite English rule between 1420-36, a series of French kings brought about the centralisation of France, with Paris at its cultural, political and economic heart. The climax of this process was verbalised in Louis XIV's famed claim: 'L'Etat c'est moi' (the State is me).
The history of Paris can be uncovered throughout its distinctive districts. Hilly Montmartre, with its village atmosphere, was where the Paris Commune began in 1871; the Marais evokes medieval Paris, its winding streets a sharp contrast to the wide, orderly Haussmann boulevards, envisaged by Napoleon III to keep the mobs at bay. These grand 19th-century avenues still dominate the city, interspersed with modern flourishes. The grands travaux (large projects) of Président Mitterrand added the Grande Arche de la Défense, the ultra-modern Opéra de la Bastille, the impressive Institut du Monde Arabe, and plonked a glass pyramid in the central courtyard of the Louvre.
The varied populations within Paris define the city's atmosphere just as much as its landmarks. The French establishment reside comfortably in the smart 16th arrondissement, while African and North African immigrants live less lavishly in areas such as Belleville and the Goutte d'Or. The Jewish quarters include the shabby Sentier and trendy Marais district, the latter is also Paris' gay centre.
Parisians, as a whole, are proud of their city. Yet at the drop of a hat they nip to the provinces (usually Normandy) for a weekend. In August, there is a mass exodus to the south. They go in search of greenery - although central Paris has its own lovely parks (including, most notably, the Jardin de Luxembourg and the Jardin des Tuileries) - and to escape from their fast-paced 'boulot, métro, dodo' (work, métro, sleep) existence. Fortunately, visitors may take the city at a more leisurely pace.