Monday 20 May 2019

City of Light: 10 amazing things you didn't know about Paris

Vive la France!

Aerial view of Paris at night, France. Photo: Deposit
Aerial view of Paris at night, France. Photo: Deposit
The Grand Mosque, Paris. Photo: Deposit
Paris Catacombs. Photo: Deposit
The Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris. Photo: Deposit
St Denis - Which one is he? Photo: Deposit
Le moulin de la galette in Montmartre. Photo: Deposit

Hannah Meltzer

La Tour Eiffel! L’Arc de Troimphe! La baguette! You know all there is to know about Paris, right? Wrong. Herein lie 10 secrets of the City of Lights.

1. It's got a hidden village

La Campagne à Paris (The Countryside in Paris) may be one of the French capital's best-kept secrets. The mini-village, which sits atop a small mound in the un-touristy 20th arrondissement, is comprised of 92 impossibly quaint houses.

The area, which is just a few minutes from Paris's "Périphérique" ring road - is a secluded enclave of window boxes, wysteria and pastel colours.

The village was founded as a cooperative intended for working-class familes, by pastor Sully Lombard. These days the houses will set you back well in excess of one million euros.

The area is a short walk from Porte de Bagnolet Metro.

2. And a shadow town...

Underneath the avenues and boulevards of southern Paris sits a shadowland of underground tunnels and galleries.

The public may visit the spooky Catacombs ossuary – which forms a tiny subsection of this subterranean treasure – but many more secrets lurk beneath.

The tunnels are all that remains of hundreds of years of mining Lutetian limestone, whose distinctive white hues define Paris’s Haussmannian architecture.

Paris Catacombs. Photo: Deposit
Paris Catacombs. Photo: Deposit

The occupying Nazis established a bunker under the streets of Lycée Montaigne in the 6th arrondissement during the Second World War, while members of the French Resistance simultaneously used the network to meet and pass messages.

More recently, the tunnels have taken on a subversive life of their own, serving as the site of illegal underground clubs and parties; in 2004, police discovered a fully-functioning cinema, complete with film reels and a bar and restaurant - hidden in the netherworld.

The illegal frequenters of the site have come to be known as “cataphiles” - they access the tunnels, of which they have exhaustive knowledge, via a selection of manholes, which change frequently as the police discover and seal them up.

3. You can sip tea in a gorgeous garden at La Grande Mosquée de Paris

The Grand Mosque, Paris. Photo: Deposit

Paris is well-known for its wide array of imposing historical churches, but its Grand Mosque is also well worth stopping for.

Located in the Latin Quarter and erected in 1926 – its courtyard cafe, complete with mosaic decoration and hanging foliage is the perfect place to grab a two-euro mint tea and take some time out from the bustle of the city, while experiencing an important part of its rich cultural heritage.

4. You can stay in Paris's most exclusive address for free (as long as you're prepared to write for your supper)

The Shakespeare and Co. bookstore in Paris. Photo: Deposit

The historic Shakespeare & Company bookshop, situated on the Left Bank in the shadow of Notre Dame, was originally established by intellectual Sylvia Beach and frequented by Hemingway and James Joyce, before being reopened in a different spot by legendary American bohemian George Whitman in 1951.

From the start, the shop's doors were open to "Tumbleweeds" - including some of the leading lights of the Beat movement - who were invited to stay in its book-lined lodgings in exchange for helping out in the shop, reading a "book a day" and leaving behind a page of autobiography.

Shakespesre & Co has welcomed 30,000 Tumbleweeds to date.

5. They empty sewer water on to the street every night

Or at least you could be forgiven for thinking that. If you see water gushing down the Paris streets of an evening, do not be alarmed - you are in fact witnessing one of Paris’s 12,000 “bouches de lavage”, or washing outlets, in action.

These road-level valves pump out water onto the road, which is usually buffered or directed by a folded towel - the idea is that water gathers in the gutter and collects assorted rubbish and debris which is then swept up by street cleaners or washed into the sewer system. Now you know.

Read more: 10 things you probably didn't know about New York City

6. There is one very distinctive gargoyle on Notre Dame

Notre Dame Gargoyle. Photo: Deposit

Notre Dame, one of Paris's oldest edifices, was almost demolished in the 19th century and was only saved by Victor Hugo, who planted it back in the public's heart and consciousness through his novel Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame).

Paris invested in its reconstruction and it was revamped by the magnificently-monikered Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc.

The architect took a little licence with his refurb, not least when building one particularly unusual gargoyle – with the face of a rather angry looking woman in a hat. The rumour goes it was in fact modelled on his mother-in-law.

7. Montmartre used to be a village – and you can still see its bucolic relics

Le moulin de la galette in Montmartre. Photo: Deposit

The artistic Montmartre district, which is now a firmly-established stop on the tourist circuit thanks to its status as the home of both Impressionism and the Can-Can, was once but a rural outpost.

The hilltop village was used for mining and later was home to a prosperous milling industry, of which the legacy remains in the shape of Le Moulin de la Galette. The 17th-century windmill takes its name from the savoury pancakes which were once made from its buckwheat flour.

This imposing structure was also the backdrop to Renoir's famous Le Bal du Moulin de la Gallette, which was featured in modern French classic film Amélie. The area was also used for wine-producing, and one vineyard remains on Rue des Saules.

8. It is home to one of the world's cleverest monkeys

A Bornean Orangutan at the menagerie of the Jardin des Plantes botanical garden in Paris. Photo: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Wattana the orangutan has lived and grown up in Paris's Jardin des Plantes zoo since the mid nineties. She caught the attention of zoo keepers with her human-like abilities to sew, draw, tie and untie complex knots – and she's also partial to a cup of tea.

Her story is examined by philosopher Chris Herzfield as an illuminating example of the plight of primates in captivity in 'Wattana: An orangutan in Paris.'

9. Parisians are as loyal as Londoners when it comes to their side of the river

Pont neuf, Ile de la Cite, Paris. Photo: Deposit

The Seine splits in Paris into two halves - the Left Bank and the Right Bank - thus designated in relation to the direction of the river flow. Just like North Londoners, Rive Droite (Right Bank) dwellers flinch at the idea of making the journey across to the opposite side, and many only rarely visit their opposite arrondissements.

10. You'll see headless Denis everywhere

St Denis - Which one is he? Photo: Deposit

There are a good number of headless statues dotted around the city. The decapitated chap in question is St. Denis, patron saint of France, who had his head lopped off by the Romans for refusing to denounce Christianity.

He started off somewhat of a trend in French history – and 1,500 or so years later, more than 2,000 people also lost their heads to the guillotine on Paris's Revolution Square (now Place de la Concorde).

Unlike Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, however, he managed to wander for an hour post-beheading, carrying his head in his hands – which is how you will see him depicted.

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