Paris – City of Love and (Red) Light

Deutsche Version

On the occasion of the upcoming Valentine’s Day, I decided to take on the topic of „Paris – City of Love“. I am not so much interested in tips and recommendations for the next city trip but in the origin of this epithet. (Maybe I’ll reveal some places I particularly like at the end of the article ;-))
While Paris is sometimes called the “City of Love” in various foreign languages, the term „City of Light“ tends to dominate. Not so in Germany. Here clearly the “love” prevails. But why is that?

Romanticised notions of Paris

If you google the term „Paris City of Love“(I did that in German: Paris, Stadt der Liebe), you will find countless entries about the most romantic places in Paris and tips on restaurants, etc. By and large, everything revolves around tourism promotion. There are references to flair and emotional appeal. Sensual restaurants, the “Mûr des je t’aimes” in Montmartre and presented in the title photo (Metro Abbesses, in case anyone wants to visit) and Montmartre in general! Evening walks along the Seine river with its beautifully lit bridges, marriage proposals at the Eiffel Tower and so on. You know these images.

Of course, the fact that Paris still has a lot of old buildings plays a role, and the cityscape automatically produces a certain ambience.

Then there is the Hollywood factor. There are countless romantic films that show Paris as the ideal setting. There’s “The Fabulous Destiny of Amélie Poulain”, “Funny Face” and “Charade” with Audrey Hepburn, “Before Sunset” and „Moulin Rouge“, to name but a few.

Potential visitors to Paris who do not yet know the city are thus given the impression that Paris is one big kitsch-laden backdrop. An image is drawn that does not necessarily correspond 100% to reality. This can be problematic because many visitors – especially those arriving in the North or North/East of the city (at the Gare de l’Est, the Gare du Nord or Charles de Gaulle airport) are initially shocked by the filth.

The Paris Syndrome

There is even the so-called “Paris syndrome” that describes this culture shock.  It is particularly known among Japanese tourists who arrive with their over-romanticised ideas. The cityscape with disorder, noise and chaos does not meet their expectations at all. In the worst case, this drifting apart can lead to anxiety and hallucinations: Paris Syndrome. It affects an estimated twelve Japanese tourists a year (Viala et al. 2004) and is therefore not particularly common. However, its existence in itself is an indication of the discrepancy between exaggerated imagination and reality. One should not forget that Paris is an (almost) normal European city and not a film set bathed exclusively in golden evening light.

Paris, city of couples

It is true, however, that Paris is more a city for couples (or at least adults). Density, little to no accessibility to the metro and cramped tables in bistros, restaurants and bars are not very conducive to a relaxed family holiday. That’s not to say children aren’t welcome, but it’s just impractical. Especially with small children still in prams, you are constantly faced with obstacles and there are virtually no baby-changing facilities either.

Of course, if you look past the normal metropolitan chaos, you’ll find plenty of romantic places in the city – pretty squares, little bistros, the beautifully lit Seine bridges etc. In most cases, however, these places are shared with other tourists and the well-known cafés and restaurants in particular are often overpriced and rarely frequented by locals.

This mixture of image and illusion of today’s Paris already provides the beginnings of an explanation for the name „City of Love“. However, I think we need to dig deeper…

Once the reputation is ruined…

Personally, I think that the deeper history of the city plays a major role in the emergence of the term. Starting with the French Revolution, the subsequent development of prostitution and the culture of the Maisons Closes.

After the French Revolution, prostitution was abolished as a criminal offence in France. This led to a new and open organisation of the trade. In 1791, a catalogue with the addresses and specialisations of all Parisian prostitutes was created, “L’Almanach des demoiselles de Paris, de tout genre et de toutes les classes” or “Le Calendrier du plaisir”. The consequence of this exploding and initially unregulated prostitution was hygiene problems and the uncontrolled spread of venereal diseases.

This situation gave rise to the so-called „Maisons Closes“. Brothels that were regulated by the administration and could thus be better controlled with (concealed) lists of visitors, health checks and clear regulations for infected prostitutes.

There were more than 200 of these houses in 19th century Paris – a inconsiderable number of them were in the Pigalle district in the 9th and 18th arrondissements. They earned the city the unflattering nickname „brothel of Europe“ during this period until the Second World War. You may already see where the journey is heading…The City of Love, though not necessarily in a romantic sense.

At the same time, the 19th century is the era of the great courtesans (in French) such as La Païva (born Therese Lachmann) and Apollonie Sabatier (born Aglaé Joséphine Savatier). Both contributed greatly to the cultural and artistic life of the City and became quite famous.

Why Pigalle of all places?

(This question is a small digression from the actual topic, but is of particular interest to me as I live in this district.)

New houses were built on Place St. George and Rue de Notre Dame de Lorette in the 19th century. The houses were built in the Hellenistic style, which earned the area the name of „Nouvelle Athens“ at the time. If you visit Paris, go past Place St. George – one of the prettiest squares in Paris, in my opinion.

The problem was that no one wanted to move into these houses at first, because the plaster walls took a long time to dry and the damp atmosphere of the flats was not good for the lungs. So prostitutes initially settled here.

Along with the nickname „Lorette“ (after the neighbouring church of Notre Dame de Lorette) the prostitutes of this era were also often called “Essuyeuses de Platres” – plaster dryers. (Here is an article – in French – on this in Le Figaro: L’histoire sensuelle de l’expression : «Essuyer les plâtres»)

At the same time, the courtesans (see above) also left their mark on this district as figures of better society and as muses for artists. The Hôtel de la Païva, for example, is located on Place St. George, while Appolonie resided on Avenue Frochot in a building with a huge and impressive stained glass front. Both buildings are still among the most beautiful in the quarter and we can still admire Appolonie in the works of Auguste Clésinger and Vincent Vidal.

Together with the artists of the quarter, among them Toulouse Lautrec, who even lived for a time in a Maison Close – La Fleur Blanche – a very special ambience was created. (more background on his work: „Toulouse Lautrec et les maisons closes“)

After the Maisons closes experienced a last far less glamorous heyday during the Second World War – heavily regulated by the German occupying forces – they finally came to an abrupt end in 1946. With the official ban on pimping, trafficking in women and brothels („Loi Marthe Richard“), their era finally came to an end. Their legacy, however, lives on in many stories and a few remaining buildings.

If you have the opportunity, you should visit the bar „Carmen“ along Rue Duperré or stay in one of the rooms in the “Hotel Maison Souquet” on Rue de Bruxelles. These former Maisons Closes have been stylistically preserved and today convey a good impression of the original furnishings/equipment.By the way, the Maison Souquet was voted the most romantic hotel in the world in 2019 (article in German), thus closing the circle to the beginning of the article.  

See the hotel page picture gallery for some interior views

In Pigalle today, there are still many sex shops along the Boulevard de Clichy between Place Blanche with the Moulin Rouge and Place Pigalle. Some of the old striptease bars are still there too – although gentrification is gradually replacing them with hip venues (but that’s another topic). If you would like to see more of Pigalle, go to flickr: „C’est quoi, Pigalle?“.

And for those who want to delve a little deeper into the more recent history of Pigalle, I recommend this Arte documentary, which you can watch on Youtube.  (Unfortunately it is not available in the Arte Mediathek at the moment. On Youtube I only found it in French.)

Arte Dokumentation: Le Pigalle : Une histoire populaire de Paris • Reportage 2019

And yet Paris remains one of the most romantic cities in the world, the City of Love, more or less real. And if we are honest, we all like to be seduced by the illusion! Paris, City of light!

I wish you a happy Valentine’s Day!


Für alle, die Lust haben, die Romantische Seite von Paris zu erkunden, hier meine persönlichen (romantischen) Highlights – manche mehr, manche weniger offensichtlich:

  • Spend a sunny afternoon in the Jardin Luxembourg on the green chairs
  • Walk the small streets between the Comédie Française, the Jardin du Palais Royale, Rue Richelieu and Rue St. Anne (by the way, Rue St Anne is a Japanese culinary paradise and absolutely worth a visit – especially the Boulangerie Aki)
  • Have a café on one of the rooftop terraces of the Galerie Lafayette or Printemps and enjoy the view
  • The cemeteries in Paris are real gems. Visit the grave of Heloise and Abelard at the Cimetière du Père Lachaise in the 20th arrondissement or stroll around the Cimetière Montmartre and look for the grave of Dalida or Heinrich Heine (Fotos auf flickr…)
  • Visit the Musée de la Vie Romantique. There is also a café in the beautiful garden
  • The Musée de Montmartre with its garden (les Jardins Renoir) is a real jewel.
  • And here’s another nice net find: 5 Ideen zum Nachspielen der kultigsten Szenen in Paris gedrehter Liebesfilme (article in German)

And of course you can find more about the history of prostitution in France on Wikipedia.


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