Hidden Treasures in Paris
Paris was founded towards the end of the 3rd century BC on what is now the île de la Cite by a tribe of Celtic Gauls known as the Parisii. Centuries of conflict between the Gauls and Romans ended in 52 BC, when Julius Caesar's legions took control of the territory and the settlement became a Roman town. Christianity was introduced in the 2nd century AD, and the Roman party was finally crashed in the 5th century by the arrival of the Franks. In 508 AD, Frankish king Clovis I united Gaul as a kingdom and made Paris his capital, naming it after the original Parisii tribe.
Few town planners anywhere in the world have had as great an impact on the city of their birth as Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-91) had on Paris. As prefect of the Seine département under Napoleon III for 17 years, Haussman and his staff of architects and engineers completely rebuilt huge swathes of Paris. He is best known - and most bitterly attacked - for having demolished much of medieval Paris, replacing the chaotic narrow streets, which were easy to barricade in an uprising, with the handsome, arrow-straight thoroughfares for which the city is so famous. He also revolutionised Paris' water supply and sewerage systems and laid out many of the city's loveliest parks, including large areas of the Bois de Boulogne, 16e, and the Bois de Vincennes, 12e.
In Defence of Paris:
La Defense is named after La Défense de Paris, a sculpture erected here in 1883 to commemorate the defence of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1. Removed in 1971 to facilitate construction work, it was placed on a round pedestal just west of the Agam fountain in 1983. Many people don't like the name La Défense, which sounds rather militaristic, and it has caused some peculiar misunderstandings over the years. A high-ranking official of the authority that manages the project was once denied entry into Egypt because his passport indicated he was the 'managing director of La Défense', which Egyptian officials apparently assumed was part of France's military-industrial complex. And a visiting Soviet general once expressed admiration at how well the area's military installations had been camouflaged!
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Notre Dame's Kestrels:
Birdwatchers estimate that about 40 pairs of kestrels (Falco tinnunculus) currently nest in Paris, preferring tall old structures like the towers at Notre Dame. Four or five pairs of kestrels regularly breed in niches and cavities high up in the cathedral, and once a year (usually in late June) local ornithologists set up a public kestrel-watching station behind the cathedral, with telescopes and even a camera transmitting close-up pictures of one of the kestrels' nesting sites. The birds form their partnerships in February, eggs are laid in April, the kestrel chicks hatch in May and are ready to depart by early July. In late June, birdwatchers may spot the adult kestrels returning to their young with a tasty mouse or sparrow. Unfortunately, Paris' pigeons - those dirty flying rats - are too large for a kestrel chick to handle.
Chateau de Whipped Cream:
Like every self-respecting French chateau in the 18th century, the one at Chantilly had its own hamlet complete with laitier (dairy) where the lady of the household and her guests could play at being milkmaids, as Marie-Antoinette did at Versailles. But the cows at Chantilly's dairy took their job rather more seriously than most of their fellow bovine actors at the other faux dairies, and news of the sweet cream served at the hamlet's teas became the talk (and envy) of aristocratic Europe. The future Habsburg Emperor Joseph II visited this temple de marbre (marble temple) incognito to try it in 1777, and when the Baroness of Oberkirch tasted the goods she cried: 'Never have I eaten such good cream, so appetising, so well prepared'. Not to be outdone, an equally well heeled chateau to the south has lent its name to another sweet dairy product. Take some fromage frais, fold in Chantilly and - voila! - you've got Fontainebleau, a triple-cream cheese.