Hidden Gems of Paris: 5 Historical Tidbits About the City of Lights

notre dame

I love walking tours. Free or paid, they always offer great information. Not only are they informative, walking tours help you understand the lay of the land. I’ve taken them in almost every city I’ve encountered…and they are awesome. During our 2015 honeymoon in Paris, Leon and I woke up bright and early for a walking tour through the city’s hidden gems which I booked on Viator.

We started the day at a well-known location: Place du Concorde. Armed with piping hot cups of coffee and thick coats to protect us against the cold air, we sat against the famed obelisk in the center of the square and waited for our group to gather. A little after 8am, the tour began. First, here’s a historical tidbit about our meeting place.

(1) The History Behind Place du Concorde

hidden gem in place du concorde
Place du Concorde is an iconic landmark in Paris, but has a dark history dating back to the French Revolution.

During the French Revolution, Place du Concorde was the site of daily executions. Sordid, repulsive, disgusting…unfortunately, Paris’ history has several distasteful moments (but not as bad as Game of Thrones). You can’t visit Paris without acknowledging the French Revolution, something which is often recounted by its residents. However, one particular fact interested me about Place du Concorde: it showcased the infamous guillotine.

Prior to the guillotine’s reveal, death penalties were determined by the type of crime each person committed. Heretics were burned at the stake to prevent them from entering Heaven, while hangings were reserved for thieves. However, when the Revolution started, the people agreed that decapitation was the ideal punishment.

Eventually, people began to acknowledge the inhumanity of these sentences, especially for those of lower rank who were subjected to beheadings by axe.

Ouch… I swear, these facts get less dark very soon.

Monsieur Guillotine came up with an invention that he believed was “humane” because punishments could be carried out more swiftly. Ironically, Msr. Guillotine was a humanist who believed people sentenced to death during the Revolution deserved a quick decapitation, regardless of rank. How generous…? Regardless, the guillotine now serves as a reminder of the horrors suffered during the French Revolution.

I know, I’m just full of fun and perky details. But I bet I got your attention. Anyways, on to something a little less morbid. Let’s leave the 8th arrondissement and head into the 1st.

(2) Discovery of Bloody Mary (the cocktail, not the one that scared the crap out of you in grade school)

The 1st arrondissement of Paris is quite small. When you look at a map of Paris, the neighborhoods start with the 1st in the middle and wind themselves around until the higher numbers are on the perimeter of the city center. It’s entirely feasible to walk from the 8th arrondissement into the 1st because they are adjacent to one another. Confused? Don’t think too hard about it. Just visit Paris and get lost among its winding streets.

After walking a few blocks, we found ourselves staring at the Hôtel Ritz Paris. Oh yes, we were in the middle of a very fancy shmancy square. (I’m not kidding: a Hermes scarf could go for 8,000 euro, or just over $9,000. WTF?!) If you’re thinking of staying at the Ritz Paris, I envy you: it goes for at least 1,000 euro per night. I think I’ll stick to AirBnB, thank you very much. 

hidden gem of ritz paris
Hotel Ritz Paris is super expensive, and also has a rich history. A bartender created the Bloody Mary for Ernest Hemingway in what is now known as Bar Hemingway.

Despite it’s high rates, the Ritz still invites people to drink at its famous bars. Bar Hemingway has a particularly interesting story about the birth of the Bloody Mary cocktail. This story has since been refuted by a Frenchman who claimed to have invented it in New York in 1921. I’m going to tell Hemingway’s story because it’s more fun.

Ernest Hemingway is known to many as one of the greatest literary geniuses of the 20th century. To others, he’s remembered as a misogynist and a drunk. I can’t dispute the latter, but also I can’t deny the former. Hemingway was a complicated dude. Nevertheless, I have seen films and read books about Mr. Hemingway’s life in Paris during the 1920s. Like the main character, Gil, in one of my favorite films of all time, Midnight in Paris, I love reading about the city’s romance and debauchery during the roaring 20’s. During Hemingway’s extended stay in Paris, he successfully wrote his first novel A Moveable Feast.

Hemingway’s reputation preceded him, as he was known for pissing away all of his earnings on alcohol, and he preferred to get drunk at the Hôtel Ritz Paris. His first wife, Mary, who rightfully protested his abhorrent behavior, endured their impoverished lifestyle. After selling the final draft of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway headed over to the Ritz and spent all of his advance on booze. However, in the midst of his drunken haze, he remembered Mary. Hemingway requested the bartender make a drink that would cover up the smell of alcohol. The Bloody Mary was born.

(3) Napolean III: Architectural Genius?

The first arrondissement is fairly small and mostly filled with upscale shops and hotels. Let’s move on to one of my favorite neighborhoods in Paris, Le Marais, located in the 4th arrondissement.

lipstick display in the first arr.
One of the incredible displays of upscale items in the 1st arrondissement included this peacock lipstick display.

 

croissants in laduree
Delicious croissants in Laduree, one of the most well-known bakeries in Paris.

We all remember Napolean III from our history lessons. Short man who tried to take over the world. I know, he was a real gem. In his defense, historians estimate he was a respectable 5’6″. During a period when France couldn’t settle on one form of government, Napolean crowned himself “ruler” of the country.

Although, that title didn’t suffice…only Emperor would do for Napolean. So humble, right?

While many of his actions were questionable, some even downright horrible, Napolean’s influence on Paris’ infrastructure is undeniable and maintained to this day. Back in the 1830’s, France had many tiny streets for both pedestrians, carts, and even waste. One more reason why the plague was so disastrous in this part of the world.

napolean tomb les invalides
Napolean’s Tomb sits in the center of Les Invalides in the 7th arrondissement.

To say the city’s infrastructure was abysmal would be an understatement. The French army ran into particular trouble whenever the people revolted in the streets and created impasses. Napolean made the clever decision to widen all of the streets, demolishing and renovating about 60% of the city’s layout. These architectural improvements have remained in place to this day. All of those tiny streets left standing now include sidewalks and private passageways for shops, arcades, and apartments.

hidden gem arcades in paris
An example of one of the arcades we saw in Paris. This used to be a very small and busy street, but now is home to antique shops.

(4) Do You Know How to Get to the Loo?

tiny streets in paris
Just one of the tiny streets that used to be cramped with pedestrians, transportation, and waste. Now, it’s home to private homes and shops.

Remember how I said those tiny streets contained pedestrians, transportation, and waste? Those conditions lasted for quite some time throughout all of Europe. The source of the word “loo” originated during the medieval period in France. Isn’t it crazy how humans managed to create fire, set up complex societies, and even came up with military strategies…yet we forgot about basic hygiene?

These problems lasted for centuries, but I’m going to concentrate on 15th century France because that’s what the tour guide told me. (Haha, I’m so reliable aren’t I?) The townspeople would toss out buckets of waste from their windows and onto the sidewalk. Back in the 15th century, men would walk on the inside of the sidewalks to protect women from waste being tossed out the windows overhead. It got so bad that political officials started requiring the city’s residents to shout “Gardez l’eau!” (watch out for the water!) before disposing of their waste.

Anyone else feeling dirty? Thank goodness for toilets. 

The English had a similar problem in London, and adopted this same phrase but had trouble with the pronunciation. Instead, they would shout out a botched version of this phrase, “Gardy loo!” before emptying their chamber pots onto the streets. Nowadays, the English use of the word “loo” refers to the toilet.

Now, excuse me while I go wash my hands…

(5) Saving the Best for Last

hidden gem auberge nicholas flamel
Nicholas Flamel used to live in what is now the oldest home in Paris.

This one is for all of those Harry Potter fans out there: DID YOU KNOW NICHOLAS FLAMEL WAS A REAL PERSON!?

Nicholas Flamel is mentioned in the first installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The fictional Nicholas Flamel was an alchemist and famously known for possessing the sorcerer’s stone, granting him an immortal life. (You’ll just have the read the books to find out what happens.)

However, the real-life Nicholas Flamel lived in Paris during the 14th century as a philanthropist and bookseller. In fact, the house which he built now stands as the oldest home in Paris. It is located on Montmorency Street. It’s a bit hard to find, but our guide knew the Paris streets well. A sign sits on top of the doorway of Flamel’s home, which is now a restaurant aptly named Auberge Nicholas Flamel.

tiny doorways in paris
Can you believe how tiny the doorways used to be? It’s like they were made just for us!

End of the Road: Centre du Pompidou

centre pompidou unique structure
Centre Pompidou is a unique structure in Paris, which also offers one of the best views of the city.

As with all good things, we’ve reached the end of the road. Our “Hidden Gems” tour ended in front of one of the strangest buildings I’ve ever seen: Centre du Pompidou. It looks like a building turned inside out, with all of the pipes and pillars showcased on the outside for the public to see. Inside, it’s home to the Musée National d’Art Moderne, as well as a restaurant on the top floor. However, I’ll give you a tip: take the elevator directly to the restaurant and you don’t have to pay the entrance fee. (I apologize if this isn’t true anymore since I visited in 2015 and don’t know if security has cracked down on this loophole.)

At the top, you’ll find unhindered and unique views of the Paris skyline. Take your time there and enjoy one of the lesser known vantage points in the city. Of course, bring a camera: you’ll want to have a few visual memories of Paris.

view of notre dame from centre pompidou
View of Notre Dame du Paris from the top of Centre Pompidou.

 

eiffel tower parisian homes
The eiffel tower really stands out from the Parisian homes.

At the bottom of the Pompidou Centre, scary clowns entertained children with giant bubbles. A few blocks away sat Les Halles, a central fresh food market where locals shopped for produce. Head over there for some of the most delicious crepes and cheese you’ll ever devour. I don’t mean taste; I really mean devour. Your taste buds won’t let you slow down.

clowns and giant bubbles
Clowns produce giant bubbles to entertain children at the bottom of Centre Pompidou.

 

gourmet cheese in les halles
Vendors sell gourmet cheese and other delicious produce in Les Halles, a fresh market in Le Marais.

Take Time to Discover Those Hidden Gems

Paris is famous for its legendary landmarks: Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame du Paris, Sacré-Coeur, and Champs-Élysées just to name a few. However, I feel like there have been countless articles including these places on their “Best Places to Visit in Paris” lists. Here at Little Blue Earth, I’d rather shed light on some of the places and people that often go unrecognized. The hidden gems of our world.

les halles square
Square just outside of Les Halles.

I absolutely LOVE Paris, and would return any day of the year. It’s really true: Paris is always a good idea. However, if there’s anything I hope you take away from this post, look closer for those hidden gems. Research a city’s history. Ask where the locals like to eat. I’ve barely scratched the surface. And yet, that’s what makes revisiting places so exciting: you never know what gems you’ll find hidden below the shiny surface.

paris rose hidden gems

 

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2 Comments

  1. Last time I was in Paris I took a walking tour of a neighborhood near the Luxembourg Garden (I think…it was so long ago, my memory of it is a little fuzzy) and it was all about the American expat writers who lived in Paris in the ’20s. So, while I really can’t stand Owen Wilson in anything else, I really enjoyed Midnight in Paris too! It’s been so long since I’ve been to Paris, this post really makes me want to return!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it! I can go back to Paris anytime of the year. It’s so beautiful there, and I loved exploring its side streets and little gems.

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