The Ferme Générale was an outsourced customs, excise and tax collection operation created under King Louis XIV in 1681. It taxed goods coming into the city in the name of the king. Between 1784 and 1791, it built a 5m-high and 25 long wall around the city that was not meant to protect against invaders but to prevent any merchandise to enter the city without paying taxes. However, smugglers used the old quarries running under the wall in what is today the 14tharrondissement.
Two entry points of this tax wall can still be seen today: the lodges of the barrière d’Enfer at Denfert-Rochereau in the south (14tharrondissement), and the barrière du Trône at Place de la Nation (11th/12tharrondissements) to the east.
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.
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 the English-speaking world, the French national holiday on July14 is called Bastille Day. There’s the Place de la Bastille in Paris, too, but what exactly is or was the Bastille?
At first, the Bastille was a small two-towered châtelet built in the 14th century at the eastern city gate Porte Sainte Antoine, as part of the Charles V city wall. Later, King Charles V decided to enlarge it to an urban fortress by raising the two towers and adding six more. This fort was meant to defend the Porte Saint-Antoine and the eastern Paris city walls. It could also protect the king in the case of a popular revolt since it protected the road linking the king’s residence at the Hôtel Sant Pol to the château de Vincennes.
Under later kings, the fortress served various purposes: Louis XI used it as prison, Francois 1er as a weapons depot, and Henri IV as a safe for the royal treasures. It was used more and more as a prison, especially during periods of unrest but it was Cardinal Richelieu who officially transformed it into a state prison. One of its famous inmates was the man in the iron mask (1698-1703). As prisons go, the Bastille was a more comfortable one, for people of the nobility and the bourgeoisie. They ate the same food as the governor, the prison cells had large rooms, they could bring a servant, correspond with people on the outside and receive visits. From the end of the 17th century on, the Bastille also included less comfortable premises for common prisoners. They lived from charity, were sometimes in chains, and slept on straw that was changed once a month. When a new prisoner arrived, a bell was rung. The neighboring shops closed and the guards covered their faces so as not to see the face of the new prisoner. Between 1661 and 1789, one out of six inmates was imprisoned for writing of some sort or other (printer, bookseller, peddler, or writer of satirical or defamatory books,). Given the number of prison cells, the Bastille could accommodate 45 prisoners at the most, but there were about 60 at one time under Louis XIV.
On July 14, 1789, the Bastille held only 7 prisoners whose incarceration conditions were quite loose. The people of Paris had taken the Invalides for weapons and cannons. They stormed the Bastille in search of powder and ammunition, and also freed the seven prisoners. The storming of the Bastille thus marked the beginning of the French Revolution and has become its symbol. Starting the very next day, the Bastille was knocked down by a private businessman who sold part of the Bastille stones as souvenirs (carved into the shape of the Bastille). One of them can be seen in the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the city of Paris. The demolition lasted until 1806. Part of the material was used to build the Pont Louis XVI, now Pont de la Concorde, the bridge linking the Place de la Concorde to the Assemblée nationale (Lower House of Parliament),
If you are looking for remains of the Bastille, there is one of the eight towers (the Tour de la Liberté, where the Marquis de Sade was imprisoned) in the nearby park square Henri-Galli.
Part of the counterscarp wall can be found on the platform of the metro 5 in the station Bastille.
The Storming of the Bastille is commemorated on July 14 since 1880, day of the national holiday.
Today, in the place of the Bastille fortress, stands the July Column, commemorating the 1830 Revolution that saw the fall of King Charles X and the beginning of the Monarchie de Juillet, the July Monarchy. The marble base of the column contains a funerary gallery in which rest two large sarcophaguses (13m x 2m) containing the remains of the martyrs of the 1830 Revolution and the 1848 Revolution. (Yes, France saw a lot of revolutions.) However, they are not alone! There are some Egyptian mummies in there, too. These mummies were brought back from Egypt 50 years earlier by scholars who had followed Napoleon during the Egyptian Campaign. They were deteriorating in a room of the National Library and were buried in the garden next to it, right where after the July 1830 revolts the bodies of the rioters were buried. That’s how the mummies got mixed up with the martyrs when they were exhumed in a hurry and ended up under the July Column with them.