Since the first settlers built a fence around their settlement, the inhabitants of Paris have constructed walls around their habitat. As early as the 4th century CE, there were walls on Cité Island. As the city grew, new walls were erected, forming concentric circles, from Gallo-Roman times to the 21st century. Let’s have a closer look.
The city wall of Philippe Auguste dates back to the 13th century. Remains can be found near the Pantheon in the 5tharrondissement on the left bank, as well as in the 4tharrondissement on the right bank, in the Marais and near the Village Saint Paul.
TheGeneral Farmers Wall was built between 1784 and 1791 by the corporation of tax farmers. It was no longer a wall to protect Paris from invaders but to collect taxes on incoming goods.
Finally, the Adolphe Thiers Wallfrom 1846 corresponds more or less exactly to the boulevard des Maréchaux of today.
The present-day Paris city limitlies just a little over 100m further out and is marked by the Boulevard Périphérique (“Périph” or BP) expressway, a 35km-long ring road around Paris, but also including the Bois de Boulogne to the west, the Bois de Vincennes to the east, and a heliport in the southwest, near the Seine river.
We will have a closer look at each of these walls in the following posts. Stay tuned!
The Latin Quarter takes its name from the shared language students from all over Europe spoke as they studied here in Medieval times. They still study at the Sorbonne and other Paris universities today, but Latin is no longer the lingua franca.
Back in the 13th century, when most people other than those students and their teachers couldn’t read or write, many public writers and manuscript-copying scribes lived in a street that took the name of “writers street”, rue des Écrivains.
In 1387, the street’s name changed to rue de la Parcheminenerie, for it was now home to parchment vendors. This coincided with a new kind of parchment, not as thick and coarse as the one used since the 7th century. It became widespread, and it was in this street that universities and students stocked up on it. In the 17th century, people still came here to stock up on books. Today the number 29 houses a Canadian bookstore.
During research for my time travel story set in the French Renaissance in the early 16th century, my fingers started itching to use a feather quill as my time-traveling protagonist did. I found some how-to websites and got started.
First, obviously, you need some nice feathers. I’ve been told the use of certain birds’ feathers may be forbidden in some countries, so please make sure you know where your feather comes from.
Other items you will need:
Soapy water and an old toothbrush or
Space in a freezer
A recipient big enough your feather fits completely in
An oven-proof recipient
A sharp knife, an x-acto knife or a cutter work best
A cutting board
Ink and paper
One internet source says to scrub them in soapy water (with an old toothbrush, for example). During a zoo visit, a bird keeper told me that leaving the feathers in the freezer for a day or two would kill off any vermin. (I left mine for two days, to be on the safe side.)
If you wash them, the next step is obviously letting them dry.
Then you shave off the fibers near the tip because once you dip your quill into the inkwell, you don’t want to have them dripping with ink.
Next you leave them in water overnight. The instructions say this makes them soft and easy to bend.
Again, you let them dry.
Heat sand in the oven to 350°F/175°C. Stick the feathers into the hot sand once you take it from the oven and leave them in there while the sand cools. This is supposed to harden the feather so you won’t have to resharpen it too often.
Now comes the trickiest part – cutting the tip into the right shape. Be warned, the feather is still surprisingly hard and cutting it in the shape you want will not be easy. Use a pen to trace the shape on the tip and then cut along your markings. This is more carving than cutting, actually. Once your nib has the right shape, you need to make a split at the center.
Now all you need is an inkwell, paper, and some practice. Look what my 10-year-old daughter did when I let her choose one of my feathers.
And to to round it off nicely, here’s some history:
In Europe, the feather replaced the reed pen for writing in the 6th century CE. The birds whose feathers were most commonly used besides the goose were raven, duck and grouse for fine writing, and vulture and eagle feathers for bold writing. The feather dominates writing in Europe through the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Classical Period, until the invention of the metal-tip pen in the 19th century.
If you look at a French calendar on February 2nd, instead of Groundhog Day it will say Chandeleur. Your dictionary will translate that to Candlemas. But what’s that to do with crêpes?
The name Chandeleur comes from chandelle, the French term for candles (fancy ones, those you put on a birthday cake would be bougies). The fête des chandelles or Chandeleur has both pagan and Christian origins, like many Christian celebrations. In the Christian religion it corresponds to the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. The date is no accident, February 2nd marks 40 days after Christmas, and it concludes the Christmas-Epiphany season.
After the King Cake on Epiphany, the crêpes on Chandeleur symbolize the sun whose return was awaited impatiently by the farmers at the end of the winter.
A custom said to bring prosperity to the household consisted in turning the first crêpe with the right hand while holding a coin (even better, a gold coin!) in the left. French educational journalist Jamy Gourmaud makes a nice demonstration in his Chandeleur video (at 1’45).
Today, Chandeleur is an important occasion for the French to bake and eat crêpes. Even my local fromager had a crêpe stand a few days before Chandeleur this year!
What’s your favorite crêpe topping? Mine is the Nutella/banana/shredded coconut combo.
As first a settlement and later a city, Paris has existed for over 2,000 years. History has left its marks on the city, and traces of different time periods can be found all around Paris. In non-chronological order, let’s look at some that you might have come past during a visit without knowing.
If you have been driving on the roads of northwestern France, maybe you have noticed stone markers with a flame in addition to regular distance markers. The bornes de la liberté are set along the route of the Allied Forces from D-Day in June 1944. Liberty Road (la Voie de la Liberté) starts in Normandy, travels across northern France to Metz near the German border and then northwards to Bastogne on the border of Luxemburg and Belgium. But other markers can be found outside of this main route.
In March 1941, following the battle of Kufra in Libya, Leclerc (then a colonel) and his men swear an oath to “not put down the arm until our colours fly over the cathedral of Strasburg”. They fulfilled their oath in November of the same year. But before they could liberate Strasburg, they had to liberate Paris.
In August 1944, the Second Armored Division, in French 2e Division Blindée shortened to 2e DB, marched into Paris from the south. Commanded by the now General Leclerc, it was also called the Division Leclerc.
This monument commemorates not only the Oath of Kufra and the Liberation itself but also the events in this town the 2e DB crossed.
Traces of the combat in Paris in August 1944 can be found–among other places–on the wall of the Paris School of Mines on the boulevard Saint Michel (6tharrondissement, near the Luxemburg Gardens).
The avenue d’Orléans, in the 14tharrondissement leading from the Porte d’Orléans to the Place Denfert-Rochereau is today called Avenue du Général Leclerc.
Did you know that in French, a “hotel” isn’t always a place where you can book a room for a night? A hôtel-Dieu, for example, was originally a hospital for the poor run by the Catholic Church, Dieu being the French word for God. The most famous of all these hospitals is also the oldest in Paris, created in the year 651 by the Parisian Bishop Saint Landry. Today you can find the hospital building right next to Notre Dame on Cité Island.
A hôtel particulier is no more a hotel than a hôtel-Dieu, but a grand townhouse or mansion. Their main characteristic is that they will be free-standing, most often located between the main courtyard and the garden, and of course, be in a city.
The Hôtel de Sens is a hôtel particulier built in the 15th century in the 4tharrondissement, near the Seine river. At the time, Paris did not have its own archbishop but belonged to the archbishopric of the Archbishop of Sens, a town 100km to the southeast of Paris. The archbishop had this hôtel particulier built as his pied-à-terre when he was in Paris. Several archbishops resided there, in fact, over time, as well as other notable figures such as Antoine du Prat, chancellor and prime minister under King François 1er, Louis de Bourbon-Vendôme, a prince from the royal family, or Louis de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine.
One resident, however, had a more eventful stay than the others: Marguerite de Valois, better known as La Reine Margot (granddaughter of François 1er and first wife of King Henri IV). Her marriage with King Henri IV was annulled in 1599. She lived at the Hôtel de Sens from 1605 to 1606. Legend has it that she had a fig tree at the door cut down because it was in the way of her carriages. Whether it is true or not, the street now bears its name.
Marguerite had a number of lovers. According to another legend, two of them fought it out just below her window. One was killed, the other executed in the same spot.
During the Revolution, the Hôtel de Sens became property of the state, was sold and housed, like many hôtels particuliers in the area at the time, shops, workshops, or factories. During the 1830 Revolution (commemorated by the July Column at Bastille), a cannonball hit the façade and lodged so deep within the wall it became impossible to remove. It is still there today, visible to any passersby, with the date engraved beneath.
On Saturday, January 16, 2021, Paris woke up in the snow. We don’t have snow very often here, and when it falls, it rarely stays on the ground due to everything that heats up the ground, from the rarely-below-0°C temperatures to the métro and other underground installations. I’ve been living here for twenty years, and I can count the number of days where the snow actually covered the ground on my hands.
In January and March 2013, we had a bunch of snow days, and again for two days in February 2018. Every other snowfall in the last decade has been negligible. Hence the excitement of visitors, the confusion of unused-to-snow locals (without adequate footwear, the amusement of Montrealers, and the desperation of overground public transport drivers.
The Galette des Rois, the King Cake, has a long tradition in France. It is eaten on or around Epiphany, Kings’ Day, January 06, celebrating the visit of the Wise Men, or Three Kings.
The tradition associated with the galette, however, is much older and goes back to Ancient Rome, where during the Saturnalia, a festival around the end of December and the beginning of January, among others, a “King of the Saturnalia” was elected, according to certain sources, with a bean hidden in a cake.
The tradition lived on through the Middle Ages and to the Renaissance where it so happened that one Kings’ Day, the real king, François Ier, after much feasting and celebrating and drinking, wasn’t happy about the “elected” king and with his friends started a snowball fight against him. During that fight, he was hit in the face by a snowball containing a hard object, leaving a permanent scar that he hid by growing a beard, setting a new trend among the male members of the nobility.
For King Cake celebrations at (by then bearded) François Ier’s court, I recommend this excellent blog post by fellow writer Julianne Douglas.
Even the Sun King Louis XIV kept up the tradition, but the French Revolution tried to do away with it, for obvious reasons. The feast of Epiphany was changed to the Sans-Culottes Day (during the Revolution, sans-culottes, literally “without breeches”, were the common people of the lower classes); however the sans-culottes changed the day to the “Day of Good Neighbors” and the cake became the galette de l’Égalité (Equality Cake) and returned to the table.
Today, it can be found in bakeries and supermarkets as early as Christmas, filled with frangipane or in variants including apples or chocolate. The bean (fève in French) has long since been replaced by a porcelain figurine, the collectors of which are called fabophiles.
In this video, Jamy Gourmaud explains the reason: The king of the day had to pay the drinks for everyone, and people would rather swallow the bean than incur the cost. To stop that practice, the real bans were replaced with porcelain ones. Each cake sold comes with a paper crown for the person who finds the fève in their part.
The cake is cut in as many parts as there are people, and the youngest person in the room hides under the table and announces who gets the next part to be served. The person who finds the fève in their part gets to wear the crown and to choose their queen or king consort.
The only King Cake in France that does not contain a fève is the one served at the Élysée Palace for the President because, in holding with the principles of the French Revolution, one cannot be at the same time president and king.
In France, and even more so in Paris, a place royale, literally a royal square, was meant to surround a royal statue, mostly an equestrian statue in the Roman tradition, but later also pedestrian statues. People could walk in the square and admire the statue of their king. There are five places royales in Paris that have undergone changes over the course of history.
1 – Place des Vosges
Initial name: Place Royale Inauguration: 1612 Statue: Louis XIII Origin of the name: The French Département Vosges (in eastern France), was the first to pay its taxes under Napoléon Ier. Location: Marais, 4tharrondissement Story: Ordered by Henri IV, it was inauguration at the occasion of the engagement of Louis XIII with Anne of Austria.
2 – Place Dauphine
Inauguration: 1614 Statue: no statue in the square, but a statue of Henri IV stands in the middle of the Pont Neuf Origin of the name: Named for the Dauphin, the heir apparent, the future Louis XIII. Location: Île de la Cité, 1starrondissement Story: Created by Henri IV following the construction of the Pont Neuf. (It’s actually a triangle, by the way.)
3 – Place des Victoires
Inauguration: 1686 Statue: Louis XIV as Roman Emperor Origin of the name: in celebration of the military victories of Louis XIV Location: 1st and 2ndarrondissements Story: Financed by the Duke de la Feuillade, Marshal of France, it is the first square created by a private individual to celebrate his sovereign. (Also it is actually a circle, not a square.)
4 – Place Vendôme
Initial name: Place Louis Le Grand (Louis XIV) Other names: Place des Conquêtes (Conquests Square), and during the Revolution, Place des Piques (Pike Square, from the pikes on which were displayed the heads of the beheaded by the guillotine) Inauguration: 1699 Statue: initially Louis XIV (destroyed in 1792), presently Napoléon Ier at the top of the column Origin of the current name: The square was built in the place of the Hôtel de Vendôme, a hôtel particulier or townhouse. Location: 1starrondissement between rue de la Paix and the Tuileries Gardens Story: Initiated by Louis XIV, his grand project never saw the light of day. In the end, the square was built by the City of Paris. One of its prestigious addresses houses the Ritz.
5 – Place de la Concorde
Initial name: Place Louis XV Other name: Place de la Révolution Inauguration: 1772 Statue: Louis XV, destroyed and replaced by the Egyptian obelisk Origin of the name: Reconciliation of the French people at the end of the Terror (bloody period during the French Revolution) Location: 8tharrondissement, between the Tuileries Gardens and the Champs-Élysées, on the “royal axis” Story: During the Terror, it was the location of the guillotine where among many others, King Louis XVI and Queen Marie-Antoinette were beheaded.
You might know Nicolas Flamel from fiction stories or movies, where he is portrayed as an immortal alchemist who discovered the philosopher’s stone. But did you know Nicolas Flamel was a real-life person? Most facts about him are debated and vary from one source to another, so I’ll stick with the key points.
Nicolas Flamel’s birth year and place are uncertain, but he was probably born around 1340 in the Paris area. He died on March 22, 1418 in Paris. As a child, he was lucky enough not to die of the plague, which in 1348 killed between a third and half of the European population.
In the days long before the printing press was invented, Nicolas Flamel began his career as a public writer in a small single-story house in the rue des Écrivains, Writers Street. This street disappeared when the central east-west axis rue de Rivoli was created in the 1800s.
Nicolas Flamel married Pernelle, twice widowed, with whom he opened a small shop near the church Saint Jacques de la Boucherie, and a workshop nearby specialized in precious manuscripts. He financed the construction of a doorway of the Saint Jacques de la Boucherie church, the arcade of which showed him with Pernelle. Today, only the Tour Saint Jacques remains of this church, a tower which was built a hundred years later.
It was often speculated how the Flamels acquired their wealth, and Nicolas was rumored to be a successful alchemist. In reality, Pernelle brought money into the marriage from her previous two husbands, and Nicolas had a successful career as a scribe and bookseller. He also owned several houses in Paris and its suburbs, real estate investments that in the economic depression of the Hundred Year War contributed to his wealth.
They contributed financially to churches, and Nicolas continued to do so after Pernelle’s death in 1397. He had several houses built to house the poor. The only one still in existence is located at 51 rue de Montmorency (3rdarrondissement) and is said to be one of the oldest stone houses in Paris.
Nicolas Flamel died in 1418 and was buried in the church Saint Jacques de la Boucherie. His bones, together with Pernelle’s, were later transferred to the Catacombs. His tombstone can be seen in the National Museum of the Middle Ages – Musée Cluny in Paris.