Paris — “The City of Light” is an appropriate moniker. There are two reasons Paris earned its name — as one of the leaders of the Age of Enlightenment and also as one of the first cities to get gaslight. But there is a more obvious reason. Early in the morning or late in the afternoon, the city literally glows.

paris2The light seems to bounce off the buildings, not so sharp that one has to shield one’s eyes, but in a bright, diffused way that gives everything an ethereal shimmer. The main stone used in Paris’ construction from the 17th century on is Lutetien limestone, and that contributes to the light.

Georges-Eugene Haussmann was commissioned to renovate Paris by Napoleon III, and the Paris we see today stems from the public works project that began in 1853. He widened the streets and insisted on a uniformity to create a harmonious effect.

Most buildings in Paris prior to the renovation were made of brick or wood and covered with plaster. Haussmann demanded that the new boulevards be either built or faced with cut stone, usually Lutetien limestone (The name derives from Lutetia (French, Lutèce) which was the city’s name in ancient times). Haussmann also decreed that the facades be maintained, repainted, or cleaned, at least every 10 years, under threat of 100 francs.

The stone was extracted from the hills to the south of Paris by tunneling. The grey/cream stone was used in parts of the Place de la ConcordeLes Invalides and the Louvre.

The pastel stone gives the city a brightness that one does not find in London or New York and contributes to the personality of Paris — and major cities certainly have a personality.

The Basilica du Sacré Couer just after sunset. Photo by Andy Coughlan

The sun does not set in the summer until after 9 p.m., and an early evening stroll along the Seine or around Montmartre is recommended. The perfect cap to the evening is to sit on the steps of the Sacré Coeur and watch the sunset.

Even at night there is a glow. Watch Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” and it is easy to think the magical quality is the product of movie magic, but it is not far from reality.

Nowadays, the “Paris stone” comes from half a dozen quarries in the Oise, 25 miles north of the city and is used in upscale building projects around the world, with the hard, sliceable version selling for 2,000 euros a cubic meter.

But while the stone is beautiful in itself, it is the rows of light-colored buildings that envelope the walker that creates the true effect. Paris is for lovers, the saying goes, and architecture that contributes to the romance.


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