Archive for the ‘History’ Category

Wallace fountains: a symbol of Paris

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

Fontaine Wallace de la place Bernard Halpern - Paris V (wikipedia/Mbzt)

Throughout the city one comes across these dark-green fountains, familiar to all Parisians, and often a source of curiosity for visitors during the torrid summer months. Many ask themselves, are these safe to drink out of? Can we refill our water bottles with these and without fear catching some waterborne disease? Well, the answer is yes. These fountains provide, and have provided, clean water for over 100 years now, after the philanthropist Richard Wallace donated considerable time and money into erecting these now emblematic fountains throughout Paris.

Richard Wallace was an Englishman and philanthropist who made Paris his second home in the latter half of the 19th century. After the city had been ravaged during the Franco-Prussian war it was quickly rebuilt. But the aqueducts remained destroyed, and with the rising cost of water, many poor were left with little option. Some turned to alcohol.

Wallace came up with the idea of strategically placed fountains that would provide a source of free, clean drinking water for everybody. He hired sculptor Charles Auguste Lebourg to design the fountains after his own detailed sketches.

The first two models were built, combining the harmonious aesthetic wishes of Wallace along with functionality. They followed his original conception, namely that they be beautiful and useful: they were designed to be tall enough so that they could be seen from a distance, but not so tall that they ruin the harmony of the urban landscape; the form had to be pleasing to the eye (e.g. the feminine forms inspired by Renaissance art); they had to be affordable so that many could be installed; and they had to be resistant to the elements.

To this day, except for the winter months from 15 November to 15 March, when the fountains are shut off to avoid freezing, the Wallace fountains are a life source to the denizens of Paris, especially the homeless, who sometimes have no other source of water.

A curious fact for fans of the Jeunet film, Amélie, is that the melancholy building concierge, Madeleine Wallace, was named so because she was always “crying like a Wallace fountain”.

The Left Bank (La Rive Gauche)

Saturday, April 9th, 2011

Le Café de Flore at 172 Blvd Saint-Germain, the old haunt of Sartre and Beauvoir

A study of both the banks of the river Seine tells a story about the city’s transformation, and how the focus has shifted from one bank to the other over time.

For instance, there was a time when the Right bank was thought to be the place to visit and stay, because this was where the wealthy people lived. And though the creative soul of Paris lived and worked on the Left Bank, it was thought to be more chaotic. But that changed with time as the real estate values of properties started to skyrocket on the Left Bank too. Fashionable boutiques, businesses, and cafes started to be set up here. The Right bank lost some of its fame.

Most guidebooks even today say that it is the Left Bank which is the more fashionable part of the city. But that has changed again. Many a Parisian trendsetter have quit the Left Bank in recent times and moved to the Right side of the river. Perhaps this is due again to demographic shifts in favor of cheaper rent attracting the creative crowds and the new hubs of nightlife and intelligentsia springing up as a result.

The Left Bank, however, continues to be known as the “La Rive Gauche”, and even today, it is referred to as the artistic section of Paris. Though the word “Gauche” is also associated with anything that is unsophisticated and awkward, the fact is the Left Bank is anything but. The Left Bank was once the home of Hemingway, Matisse and Picasso. It was also the home of many starving artists, many of whom were extraordinarily talented, and could have left their own mark easily. If you are in Paris, you won’t want to miss the Left bank.

Perhaps the Left Bank is more significant to what Paris is today, and why it has grown to become such a popular city among tourists who come from all over the world. Life here still reflects so much of Paris’ bygone years, and so, this is where many people are able to connect with the past, the history of the city.

On the Left side of the river you will find some world famous attractions such as: the world famous Eiffel Tower and the Musee d’Orsay, the Latin quarter, Boulevard Saint-Germain, the Musee de Cluny, the Odeon Theatre, Montparnasse Cemetery, Musee Rodin, the Saint-Sulpice Church, the Luxembourg Gardens and many others.

The Marais Neighborhood

Friday, April 1st, 2011

Yes, it is true that there are plenty of charming little neighborhoods in this beautiful city. And it’s also true that you cannot possibly see everything in just a single trip. But let’s take a moment to extoll the virtues of one of Paris’ most popular little neighborhoods, le Marais. If you want to see medieval Paris, and yet a city that is fashionable and moving with the times, this is the place.

Our recommendation is to take Metro line 1 (yellow) to St Paul, and to work your way north through the neighborhood. Serendipity will be your friend here. You cannot help but encounter some great boutiques and cafes along the way.

You’ll be fascinated with the impressive facades and ornate ironwork; the small, crooked lanes from the medieval times; the cafes, restaurants and bars; the old world bread shops; the wine shops; the hip designers; fashion boutiques; and the museums and art galleries, all cramped into one small quarter. Once you have seen the Marais, you are sure to return home with wonderful memories of your time in Paris.

The Marais of yesteryears

It is quite a wonder, really, because what is the Marais today was in the past just a swamp. Actually, “marais” is the French word for marshland or swamp. There was nothing here before the 12th century. But this was the time when different religious communities began to come up in the area. The first real activity happened when the Jewish people started to settle in the Marais around this time. Their community was further bolstered when in the 19th century they began arriving from Easter Europe.

It grew again when the la Place Royale was constructed, known today as the as Place de Vosges (don’t forget to visit the Maison de Victor Hugo at number 6 while you are here). The Marais neighborhood however suffered during the World War II as the Nazis attacked the place because of its Jewish connection. However, large scale rehabilitation work was taken up after the war came to an end. In 1962, regulations were changed to allow for much-needed renovations, giving the Marais a face-lift.

The Marais of today

Today, the Marais has emerged as one of the most unique and attractive neighborhoods of Paris. It is home to the most fashionable restaurants, art galleries, trendy boutiques and cafes. The nightlife here is very active with countless cabarets, nightclubs and shops. Marais is also known for its lively gay community, and to this day the Jewish community still thrives here alongside a multicultural atmosphere.