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Quirky Paris is our personal cabinet de curiosités, the result of our flâneries* in Paris. We tell you about our favorite findings – and the stories behind – while wandering aimlessly around Paris.
* flâner: [fla – ner] * French (v.) wandering aimlessly around the city, to experience it. “Deliberately aimless”
Spotted in . . . Le Marais (A Very Special Brotherhood)
Have you ever heard about Les Compagnons du Devoir? The Compagnons du Devoir (Companions of Duty) is a secretive brotherhood of artisans with medieval roots. Based in France, they are among the best craftspeople in the world, trained over years in a long process with rituals, secretive practices, and devotion to their trades. Their initiations are held behind closed doors and inevitably a connection with freemasonry springs to mind.
Professions usually fall into one of five groups depending on their principal material: wood, stone, textiles and leather, metal, and food.
The Tour de France is one of the key pillars of the Compagnons’ training, in a direct link back to the early days of the journeymen of the Middle Ages – the cathedral-builders of the past. Over several years they travel the country, living as a community, to pick up new techniques and perfect their skills under a new master. And after six months or a year in one place, each apprentice will pack up and move to another place to learn new skills.
In 1984, the Compagnons gave the Statue of Liberty a new torch. In 1990, they helped to fix the majestic hurricane-damaged mansions of Charleston, South Carolina. And now, all the eyes are on them to repair Notre Dame de Paris. Will they accept this ultimate challenge?
Spotted in . . . Cité (A Birds Story)
Rue de la Colombe is an old and narrow street in Cité named after La Maison de la Colombe (Pigeon’s House) located at number 4. The two pigeons sculpted on the door’s lintel recall curious wanderers its moving love story.
Around 1225 there was a dilapidated one-story house. On the first floor, a sculptor sheltered a couple of tamed doves. When the house collapsed in his absence, the two doves were trapped in the stones. The male dove succeeded in escaping, getting his companion a straw to drink, and feeding her with seeds.
The neighbors, admiring the dove’s loyalty, helped to remove the stones one by one and free the female dove.
ROMAN LUTÈCE WALLS: Did you know that in the 4th century the Roman city of Lutèce was protected by fortified walls against the barbarians? At 6 rue de la Colombe, on the floor, you can find the last remains of Lutèce’s Walls! You can notice the width, 2,7 meters, of this 8-meter high walls that surrounded the island.
Spotted in . . . Le Marais (The Cemetery of Forgotten Stones)
The square Georges Cain, just behind Musée de Carnevalet, is the museum’s lapidary depôt, a kind of burial place for many vestiges of disappeared public buildings and private mansions. Amongst these ruins, the pediment of the clock pavilion of the Tuileries Palace outstands for its size and beauty. Bought from a certain Achille Picard, the pediment naturally found its place in this romantic cemetery for forgotten stones. This is the story:
The Tuileries Palace, last home of the kings of France, was built in 1654 on the site of a former tile factory. Located immediately behind the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, its facade ran for 260 meters between the Louvre Palace and the Tuileries Garden.
During the Paris Commune of May 1871, the Palace was set on fire. The Tuileries burned for 48 hours to the point that by the 26th of May there was nothing left of it but blackened stones.
The ruins of the Tuileries stood on the site until 1882 when the French National Assembly voted for the demolition and auction of the last remains of the Palace. The private entrepreneur Achille Picard bought the biggest lot of stones for the sum of 33,300 gold francs (133,000€ in 2019) for . . . retail sale.
Where are the ruins of the Tuileries Palace today? The answer is a bit everywhere. In Ajaccio, one of the Renaissance pavilions of the Tuileries Palace, became the Château de la Punta while other architectural fragments ended up in different private castles and villas in Saint-Raphaël, Arcueil, Courbevoie, Marcilly- d’Azergues and Salins. The gate of the Carrousel courtyard was sent to the Esterhazy’s family castle in Austria while the Presidential Palace in Quito (Ecuador), boasts today the ancient stone balustrades of the French Royal Palace.
Some of these ruins remained in Paris too: the Le Figaro newspaper bought Tuileries marbles, detailed in clipboards, and offered them to its subscribers (how many Parisians must have a bit of Royal Palace at home?!) while other elements decorate gardens and squares in the city and they can be the object of a fun scavenger hunt during your next trip to Paris:
- Cour Marly in the Louvre
- Hall under le Carrousel du Louvre
- Tuileries Garden (on the edge of the terrace bordering the Seine River)
- Courtyard of École des Beaux-Arts (possible to see them from Quai Malaquais)
- Trocadéro Gardens
- Square Georges Cain
- 9 rue Murillo
- Courtyard of the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture
We also have a self-guided Scavenger Hunt in the Tuileries Gardens, for those who want to learn more about this special place whilst having fun!
Spotted in . . . The Luxembourg Gardens (Gadget)
Americans in Paris will be interested to know that the origin of the word “gadget” is related to the Statue of Liberty. During its inauguration in New York on 28 October 1886, guests could notice a man wandering around the people with small-scale versions of the monument to sell.
This man – with a very developed entrepreneurial spirit, we must admit – was a friend of Auguste Bartholdi and the owner of a foundry in Paris 17 that was following the Statue’s construction works. It was in this foundry where he produced the miniatures with the name of his business engraved on the base. And his name was . . . Émile Gaget (from Fonderie Gaget-Gauthier, Paris).
In the assembly, the conquered public started asking their neighbors “Do you have your Gaget? ” Pronounced in American style, the word becomes phonetically “gadget”.
And voilà, the Statue of Liberty became the first gadget in history, way before then the Eiffel Tower!
Spotted in . . . Quartier Latin (Benevolent Montaigne)
Some statues have magic virtues. And, among them, that of Michel de Montaigne is our favorite. The Statue of Montaigne is located in the small square of Place Paul-Painlevé, opposite the main entrance to the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter, and it is said that touching the philosopher’s right shoe gives the best chance of passing exams.
Before each exam, students of the Sorbonne come to touch the shoe and greet the philosopher “Salut, Montaigne!” and from the color of the shoe it seems to work well.
Montaigne’s sculpture was commissioned in 1933 by Paul Landowski’s a good friend of the philosopher. Originally this sculpture was made of marble but given the cost of successive restorations, the City of Paris decided in 1989 to replace it with a more robust bronze. But the tradition remained and the right shoe quickly lost its patina for a golden polish of the best effect.
On the statue’s pedestal we can read Montaigne’s words: “Paris had my heart since my childhood. I am French only by this great city. Especially great and incomparable in variety. The glory of France and one of the noblest ornaments in the world. “
Spotted in . . . Eiffel Tower, First Floor (the First BASE Jump in History)
Apart from being the symbol of Paris, the Eiffel Tower is a wonderful place to visit with many fascinating stories behind.
The picture on the left, taken from the Tower’s first floor, reminds me of François Reichelt (1879-1912), tailor for ladies at 8 rue Gaillon in Paris and aviation-passionate. At the time when fatal accidents were frequent in aviation, François decided he would become famous by inventing the first parachute coat for pilots.
His brand new handmade khaki jumpsuit in rubberized canvas featured a design inspired by the wings of bats. With a surface of 12 m2 and a diameter of 6.5 m (refined version), the batman-coat weighed 9 kg!
The invention looked brilliant: during the fall, this large coat provided with a kind of chimney had to open under the effect of the wind and slow down the descent …
Of course, when people invent new things, it is a good practice to test them. And that’s what François did from his home at rue Gaillon: he put the parachute coat on the back of several mannequins and hop!, he pushed them from his window, several floors high.
All of these jumps ended in failure. ALL of them.
Zut! But François was convinced of his invention and he believed that if he tried it himself he would succeed. So to make things fancier, why not trying from the tallest building in Paris, from the Eiffel Tower? Go!
4th February 1912 8 am. Our super tailor climbed up to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower for his big day. The news of the first BASE jump in history (although that name had not been invented yet) generated great expectations and downstairs the audience was numerous.
From the railing, François glanced down. He hesitated and began to tremble. He hesitated again and then he jumped.
- 57 m height (from the Eiffel Tower’s first floor to the ground)
- 4 seconds of free fall
- A 20 cm x 30 cm crater on the ground.
- Big drama
The clothing unfolded but because of the air currents that rush in under the Tower, the canvas folded down and wrapped around Reichelt’s body. Also, it seems that Reichelt died of a heart attack before touching down (there was no autopsy though).
Spotted in . . . Paris Underground (Revolutionary Days)
Les Carrières des Capucins is a medieval limestone quarry located in Paris 14, underground. This quarry was exploited between the 12th and 17th centuries and it was consolidated in the 18th century. A visit to Les Carrières des Capucins is also a step back in time: indeed, below the streets of Paris that we see today, the Paris of the 17th -18th centuries still exists, tucked forever within the walls of the quarry.
During the visit, we can see different street plaques and old stone inscriptions. Amongst them, a stone with the inscription 4D2 2R (second row) attires our attention. What does this mean? This is a date of the Revolutionary Calendar!
From 1789 to 1799, France was turned upside down by a revolution (the French Revolution). The monarchy was beheaded by a Republic on September 22, 1792, where the government was divided, and all men were equal before the law. In addition, the Catholic religion was suppressed and its churches closed.
In the climax of the French Revolution, the deputies of the Convention had the idea of suppressing the Gregorian calendar, in the name of dechristianization, although this calendar dates back to Julius Caesar! The new calendar was created on October 6.
The “French Calendar”, commonly known as the Revolutionary Calendar, began on September 22, 1792, the date of birth of the first French Republic. That was the 1st Vendémiaire of “Year I of the Republic”.
The days and months changed names and the week was no longer 7 days long but 10: it is a decade with the primidi, duodi, tridi, quartidi, quintidi, sextidi, septidi, octidi, nonidi and décadi. Each month had three decades and the year ended with 5 additional days after the last month of the year (named fructidor).
For the name of the months, the inspiration came from the rhythm of the seasons and the natural events associated, all very poetic!
The calendar was imposed in the administration and in everybody’s life and lasted until 1806 before being thrown into never-never land by Napoleon I. By the way: Napoleon’s coup d’état happened on 18-Brumaire Year VIII of the Republic: can you guess the date in our calendar?
Spotted in . . . Place de la Concorde (the Chronicle of a Big Mistake?)
Place de la Concorde in Paris 8 is the symbol of classic French elegance. In the center of this former Royal Square stands today the Luxor Obelisk (13th century BC), the oldest monument in Paris! This Obelisk is also the world’s biggest sundial: the gnomon of this dial is the obelisk itself, which indicates the time by its shadow.
From the base of the ancient stone pillar the solstice curves, the equinox lines, and the hour lines were marked – on the pedestrian areas – with bronze-colored heat-sealed bands and – on the pavement – with 400 bronze nails.
On the line of the 12th hour, the curious wanderer may notice a small plaque with a very cryptic message “Au levant the THEBES surgit a PARIS le Nord”. What does this mean?
In 1830 the Sultan and Viceroy of Egypt Mehemet Ali decides to offer the two obelisks standing in front of the Luxor Temple to King Charles X of France in a gesture of friendship and gratitude for the deciphering of hieroglyphs by Champollion. The obelisks measure 22 meters high and weight 220 tons each.
It takes six years of preparation, many resources, and much energy to transport this Obelisk from Thebes to Paris. On two of the faces of the Obelisk two plaques represent the long tribulations of the Obelisk from Egypt, with the dismounting, transport, and reassembly.
The ship specially built for the occasion reaches Paris on December 23, 1833. The engineer Apollinaire Lebas in charge of the Obelisk’s conveyance concludes his journey as follows: “The second obelisk will be convoyed by whoever wants, but it will not be me.“
The Obelisk, however, is not erected on Place de la Concorde until three years later. A long national debate on the place where to place this monument is doubled by a puritan scandal: King Louis-Philippe finds the Obelisk’s base obscene! On the base there are four baboons standing on their hind legs and raising their arms to honor the sun, proudly exposing their male anatomy capable of shocking the prude souls of the time. It is decided to build a new – less suggestive base – while the original base joins the Louvre collections.
On October 25, 1836, the Obelisk is finally erected on Place de la Concorde. The technical feat orchestrated by Apollinaire Lebas takes place under the curious eye of 200,000 people. To raise the monolith vertically, an exceptional lifting device is built and it is operated by three hundred and fifty gunners and sailors. Lebas directs the maneuver in the shadow of the monolith. It is a question of honor: if the erection fails, he must not survive. In the middle of the afternoon, the Luxor Obelisk finally finds its final vertical position.
However, it seems that somebody did not read the Obelisk’s installation manual well (or perhaps the authorities in charge were all too busy debating about the baboons?) because the historical alignment has been neglected. Indeed, the Obelisk has undergone a 90º counterclockwise rotation, and the face originally to the East has ended up in the North – what is in the East (Levant) in Thebes is now in the North in Paris.
Spotted in . . . Odéon (it Smells of Revolution!)
Cour du Commerce-Saint-André is a charming passage with a fascinating history. This walkway in the heart of the neighborhood Odéon was one of the main melting pots of the French Revolution. Cour du Commerce-Saint-André runs along with the location of the walls of King Philippe Auguste that delimited the city (you can still see some remains on #4) and in the past, it was longer (now cut by Boulevard Saint-Germain).
On #20 (today disappeared) there was Danton’s house, where he lived since 1789. He was arrested there on March 30, 1794, six days before being beheaded. Danton’s statue on Boulevard Saint-Germain marks the spot where he was arrested.
On this street, we can also see the Café Procope. This is the oldest cafe in Paris, with a history going back to 1670. Years later the cafe was the meeting place for the revolutionaries Danton, Marat, Camille Desmoulins, Fabre d’Eglantine, Legendre. It was from here that the watchword for the Tuileries Attacks of 20 June and 10 August 1792 was given.
The cafe’s main entrance is on 13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie but it had a second entrance from this courtyard that used Danton when he went there.
On #8 there was the printer from where Marat published l’Ami du Peuple in 1793. A bell, still visible today above the roof of Cafe Procope, was rung to indicate that the newspaper was ready.
Finally, on #9 there was the workshop of the carpenter Schmidt. It was in this workshop where a certain Joseph Ignace Guillotin developed his most famous invention, the guillotine! The first guillotine tests were carried out in this passage, first with bales of straw, then with live sheep. The death machine was then moved for the tests on corpses, then for its heyday in the Place de Grève (today Parvis de l’Hôtel de Ville).
Rue du Commerce-Saint-André is a charming place full of old boutiques and beautiful cafes that we invite you to explore when you come to Paris.
Spotted in . . . Jardin des Plantes (A Fashion Icon in Paris)
Let me introduce you Zarafa, the first giraffe in France and a fashion icon in Paris in the 1820s. Zarafa was a gift from Egypt to Charles X King of France and the precious animal traveled from Alexandria to Marseille by boat (the deck was altered so she could stick her head out through a hole), where she arrived in October 1826
Zarafa was carefully transported to Paris by what seemed the least dangerous way: on foot! Zarafa was accompanied by her two Sudanese caretakers and a few milk cows. To see a giraffe first-hand for the first time was extraordinary, and along her way to Paris thousands of people turned out to see her approach.
Finally, Zarafa arrived in Paris in 1827, where she was welcomed by King Charles, and she found a home at the Jardin des Plantes (known at that time as Jardin du Roi) in Paris 5. During her first months in Paris, some 600,000 visitors stopped by to see the giraffe, that strange animal with a long neck and seductive eyes that moved with surprising elegance.
Zarafa became a sensation in the capital to the point that Zarafa made her mark on fashion in Paris. Everything was “la mode à la giraffe”: giraffe-themed fabrics and hairstyles (inspired by the animal’s horns) for ladies, giraffe-themed wallpapers for home, and many porcelain, accessories, combs, soap, and fans for visitors….. Zarafa was a real trendsetter! Some people called her “la Belle Africaine” (“the Beautiful African”), while others simply called her “la giraffe,” because there were no others.
The giraffemania fashion faded by 1830, together with the reign of King Charles X. Zarafa, however, lived peacefully until 1845, after which she was taxidermied. She’s still on view at the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de La Rochelle.