Hear the fascinating stories behind some of the France’s most captivating sights – from Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, and French restaurants to Champagne, the Mona Lisa, and Louis XIV, King of French Fashion. Below are some of the stories you will discover for yourself while on a France Vacation.
Notre Dame: Saved By the Hunchback
Notre Dame: Europe’s most famous cathedral, whose twin Gothic towers loom above France’s most beloved river, the Seine, actually owes a lot of its international success to the author Victor Hugo. Back in 1831, when Hugo wrote his classic novel about a hunchbacked bell-ringer at Notre Dame who falls in love with a beautiful gypsy, the medieval cathedral had fallen on hard times. During the Revolution in 1789, it had been seized, looted of its treasures and converted into an atheistic “Temple of Reason.” Even worse, after the monarchy was restored in 1815, Notre Dame was used as riverside warehouse – its once-splendid glass windows now dimmed and its facades decaying pathetically above the Île de la Cité. But Parisian’s indifference to their landmark ended suddenly in 1831, when Victor Hugo published his romantic novel the “Hunchback of Notre Dame,” (called “Notre-Dame de Paris” in French). The book was an international bestseller and lured armies of tourists to Paris in search of its Gothic cathedral setting. Hugo used this groundswell of public interest to lobby the French government for renovations of his beloved Notre Dame. From 1845 to 1864, repairs were indeed carried out – the clogged medieval streets nearby were cleared, revealing the marvelous edifice we see today. Incidentally, fans of Hugo’s other famous novel, “Les Misérables,” should detour one block to the Seine, between the two bridges of Le Pont Notre Dame and the Pont-au-Change. It was to these famously turbulent waters that Hugo sent the obsessive Inspector Javerts, nemesis of Jean Valjean, when he suffered a crisis of conscience over his life-long duty to the law. “There was a splash,” Hugo wrote, “and that was all.”
Paris without the Eiffel Tower?
Eiffel Tower: Imagining Paris without the Eiffel Tower is like London without Big Ben or San Francisco without the Golden Gate Bridge. But no sooner had the architect Gustav Eiffel beaten his 700 competitors in the design competition for the 1889 Centennial Exposition, celebrating a century since the French Revolution, than a vocal outcry began to halt construction of the edifice. Three hundred famous French artists and writers signed a petition in the newspaper “Le Temps” denouncing Eiffel’s radically modern design as “useless and monstrous,” a blight upon the elegant fabric of the City of Light. Others critics were even more vicious, describing the proposed tower as a “tragic street lamp,” a gymnasium apparatus…incomplete, confused and deformed,” “a giant ungainly skeleton,” “a half-built factory pipe,” “a carcass” and even “a hole-riddled suppository.” Nature-lovers argued that it would disturb the flight patterns of Parisian birds. Even as the iron lattice began to rise, Parisians continued to refer to it by the less-than-flattering nickname, “the metal asparagus.” Of course, no sooner had the tower opened in 1889 than the rabid criticism evaporated. At 984 feet, the Eiffel Tower was by far the tallest man-made structure on earth and remained so until the Chrysler Building was completed in New York 40 years later. The view of Paris from the top swayed the hearts of many skeptical artists: It provided a breathtaking shift in how we see the world, as mind-altering in its way as the first NASA satellite images from space. But this new acceptance of the tower didn’t stop the French government from threatening to dismantle Eiffel’s creation when its 20-year lease expired in 1919. Fortunately, the antenna installed at the top had become essential for telegraphing, so the tower survived. Today, it is Paris’ number one tourist attraction and the most widely-recognized monument in Europe.
Americans in Paris: Expat Heaven
Paris: Paris in the 1920s was a golden age for financially-challenged American writers, who flocked here for the excellent exchange rate for the dollar and the liberated lifestyle – not to mention the hottest art scene in the world. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and his flamboyant wife Zelda, Ford Madox Ford, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and E. E. Cummings all staked a claim in the capital of Jazz Age Europe (and were joined by Irishman James Joyce, Brit George Orwell and a bevy of Russian and Eastern European geniuses). Hemingway in particular captured the frenzied party atmosphere after the sacrifices of World War I – the members of his so-called “Lost Generation” would hang out on the “terrasses” of boulevard cafés, listen to African-American musicians in the smoky jazz bars, and enjoy bargain meals in the louche back streets of Montparnasse. At that time, Hemingway lived as an unknown writer with his wife, Hadley, in a tiny, sunny flat (74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, near the Place de la Contrescarpe), where he recalled in later books like “A Moveable Feast” the classic ambiance of cheery drunkards, street urchins, hard-working flower-sellers and prostitutes with hearts of gold. Their apartment on the top floor cost only 60 francs per month – a few American dollars at the time – and Hemingway wrote his first short stories while looking out over the poetic rooftops of the city. Of course, the writer’s diet of bread and cheese was tempered by the occasional martini at the Hotel Ritz (on the Place Vendôme) with F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Hemingway retained a lasting fondness for the place. When he returned to Paris in 1944 as a war correspondent with the American troops, he headed straight to the Ritz to “liberate” its ancient wine cellar after the German Occupation – and stayed for weeks in room 31. In the 1950s, the hotel named the Hemingway Bar in his honor and installed a marble bust of the great writer there.
The Greatest French Invention: Le Restaurant
The Greatest French Invention: Everyone who comes to Paris looks forward to its restaurants – famous institutions like Taillevent, Guy Savoy and Faugeron roll off the tongues of world gourmands – and it has remained that way for more than 200 years. Starting in the Middle Ages, aristocrats traditionally ate in their own homes unless they were traveling, when they brought along their own cooks. But the roots of the restaurant idea can be dated back to the 1770s, when a craze began for fresh, healthy soups (literally restoratives, or “les restaurants”) served to the well-to-do public by talented vendors. But the real turning point came during the French Revolution in 1789, when the culinary world of Paris was flooded with unemployed chefs from noble households (not to mention the excellent wine cellars) of aristocrats who fled France or were arrested. As a result, entrepreneurs saw the need for dining rooms where middle class citizens could choose a range of meals from menus. The idea caught on. As Napoleon conquered Europe in the early 1800s, Paris became flush with new wealth, and the city’s restaurants (as they were now called) grew more ornate, with chandeliers, Grecian columns, oil paintings, floor-to-ceiling mirrors and the first waiter service. Still, modern diners might find these early eateries a little different from those in present-day Paris. For example, no reservations were taken. As diners arrived, they would choose between the main salon and a private room – if they did not want to be observed while eating. Also, the first menus, which were as thick as newspapers, and commonly offered two dozen types of veal preparation and hundreds of elaborate dishes. In truth, the menus, which were called “les cartes,” or maps (as they still are today) were more symbolic than practical. The actual dishes offered that day were far more limited, written by hand into the margins or explained by the waiters – a casual fore-runner of the “plats du jour,” special plates of the day, scrawled in chalk on blackboards by restauranteurs all over Paris today.
Champagne: The Ups And Downs of Bubbly
Champagne: Legend has it that champagne was invented by the 17th Century wine-making monk Dom Pérignon, who tasted an accidentally refermented vintage and cried out to his friends, “Come quickly, I am drinking the stars!” But while the man did exist, crediting him for inventing “bubbly” was actually an advertising ploy from the 1800s. Techniques of developing sparkling wine had been well known in France’s Champagne district since 1530, a century before the monk’s birth – although Dom probably did perfect its production by using fortified bottles and Spanish corks to avoid the problem of explosion. Whatever the truth, by the 19th Century no beverage was as quintessentially French as the effervescent champagne and has now become a must-have at any elegant celebration around the world. Champagne’s symbolic value was such that, after the German conquest of France in World War II, the Nazi high command consumed vast amounts of it to flaunt their victory. In 1940, the Wehrmacht set up a permanent office at Reims to control bubbly production and ensure a constant supply for top Germans. (Except for Hitler himself, that is, who was a strict teetotaler.) Champagne was also the beverage of choice at German-run restaurants in Paris. (Maxim’s was favored by Nazi officers on “r-and-r.”) The famously gluttonous air force leader Herman Göring filled vast cellars with stolen bottles, and some of the last planes into besieged Stalingrad were actually carrying crates of vintage champagne to the desperate officers. But the symbolism rebounded on them at the end of the war. In a form of poetic justice, the surrender of the German army on May 7, 1945 was signed at Reims, where US General Dwight Eisenhower set up his Supreme Allied headquarters, around the corner from the most illustrious champagne houses of France.
Louvre: The Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa: Today, a thick pane of bullet-proof security glass keeps artlovers a safe distance from the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco Giacondo,” known in French as “La Joconde” and English as the “Mona Lisa.” But back in 1911, it was simply hung on the walls of the Musée du Louvre like any other canvas. That was until a former museum employee named Vincenzo Perrugia strolled into the gallery before opening hours on August 21, noticed the room was empty, took down the Mona Lisa and walked out of the Louvre with it under a painting smock. When the loss was finally noticed, the police were mystified. For two years, the whereabouts of the masterpiece was unknown, while French detectives made various wild guesses. (It had been stolen by the Germans. By anarchists. By evil geniuses. By lunatics.) They actually arrested the country’s top art critic, Guillame Apollinaire, then let him free. Then, out of the blue in 1913, an Italian art dealer in Florence was contacted by a man calling himself “Leonardo” who claimed to have the Mona Lisa and wanted to see it hang in the Uffizi, Italy’s top art museum. Although he found it hard to believe that the thief could be so reckless, the dealer tipped off the police and agreed to meet the strange Leonardo in a Milan hotel room. There, the nondescript fellow opened his suitcase, emptied out his socks and underwear, opened up a false bottom in the case to reveal the Mona Lisa – and was immediately arrested. It turned out that Perrugia was no criminal mastermind trying to make a fortune but a sentimental Italian nationalist who had stolen the canvas on impulse and merely wanted to see it returned to its land of origin. (The Mona Lisa was purchased by France’s King Francis I in the 1530s.) The recovery was greeted with exultation in France, and the famed canvas safely shipped to its home in the Louvre. Back in Italy, however, the thief Peruggia was hailed as a patriotic hero in Italy and served only a short prison sentence.
Versailles: Louis XIV, King of French Fashion
Versailles: There’s more than one way to conquer the world. The flabby, charismatic “Sun King,” Louis XIV, knew that he could impress the French people with his insanely lavish royal lifestyle, but he also wanted to make his mark on Europe. Throughout his 55 year rule in the 17th Century, he campaigned vigorously to establish Paris as the continent’s capital of style, promoting its gourmet food and wine, haute couture, cutting-edge perfumes, opulent furnishings and exquisite jewelry. Every new innovation required Louis’ personal imprimatur, making him the world’s first fashion dictator. Author Joan DeJean claimed in “The Essence of Style” that Louis’ devotion to elegance has shaped the culture of indulgence today – “Without the Sun King’s program for defining France as the land of luxury in glamour, there would never have been a Stork Club, a Bergdorf Goodman, a Chez Panisse or a Christophe of Beverly Hills.” The 700-room Palace of Versailles, which Louis built 10 miles from Paris, became the command center for this unique fashion experiment – a prototype for the Playboy Mansion, where courtiers could exist in a netherworld of art and pleasure (all at considerable expense, of course). While France slowly descended into bankruptcy, Louis played hide and seek with mistresses, frolicked in tree houses and held resplendent soirees in the Hall of Mirrors, lit with thousands of candles. And his every taste became law – it was Louis’ passion for diamonds, for example, that first privileged them above all other gems. The flip side of all this was that Louis became corrupted by flattery. According to one disgruntled noble, crowds of admirers would gather around the king to help him bathe and dress, even vying for the honor of assisting with royal grooming tasks. Versailles became a byword for shameless excess in the face of poverty. For one famous ball in 1696, the boutiques of Paris were stripped bare by invitees; socialites spent 10,000 livres on gowns (roughly $500,000 today) and one couple kidnapped a famous couturiere so he could not design for other guests. In short, Versailles represented everything that French revolutionaries would soon come to hate about the monarchy.