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TOURISM

7 ridiculous stories from French history that Paris tour guides love to tell

Sex scandals, episodes of horrific violence and outbreaks of artistic snobbery - French history has it all, and when it comes to telling stories of Paris, tour guides definitely prefer the juicy tales. Here former Paris tour guide Sam Bradpiece reveals all.

7 ridiculous stories from French history that Paris tour guides love to tell
All tour guides have their favourite pieces of 'history'. Photo: Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP

When I first moved to Paris, I worked as a tour guide, leading groups of (mostly) Americans around the city by bike. If you were stuck in a traffic jam in the capital between 2016-18, there is a fair chance that either myself or the fluorescent-clad warriors that I worked with were the cause. And for that, I apologise.

The recipe for a good story from French history became clear: sex scandals, vice and violence. We used to call it the Game of Thrones formula.

We cut it fast and loose with the truth. We gave the people what they wanted.

Here are some of my favourite ‘facts’ from my time spent working as a Paris tour guide:

A painting of the Martyrdom of Saint Denis on display in the Panthéon. Photo: The Local

Saint Denis

Saint Denis is the patron saint of France. There are statues of him at several historic sites – including Notre Dame and Les Invalides.

Saint Denis was the very first Bishop of Paris in approximately 250 AD. An incredibly charismatic preacher, Denis built up a significant following in the otherwise pagan society.

Before long, the power went to his head. He encouraged his supporters to smash statues of Roman Gods, considering them ‘idols’.

The Romans were pissed. They took Denis to Montmartre, an area of Paris whose name can literally be translated to ‘mountain of the martyrs’, and decapitated him.  

As a man of God, Denis didn’t let this set-back get to him. As blood spurted from his neck Denis slowly rose to his knees, picked up his severed head and attempted to walk back into the centre of town to meet his congregation.

Understandably disorientated by the loss of his head, he lost his way and accidentally marched north, eventually collapsing in a suburb outside of Paris. Today this suburb bears his name: Saint-Denis.

The ‘Fun’ King

You may have heard of The Sun King – a nickname given to Louis XIV.

But have you heard of the ‘Fun King’ – a nickname that tour guides have subsequently bestowed upon Louis XV?

Most French monarchs lived wild lifestyles. There was the hunting, lavish spending and partying. But never had there been such a promiscuous playboy at the helm.

Louis XV was rumoured to have hosted wild sex parties and kept a harem of hundreds of women. We know that he certainly had several mistresses.

It should come as no surprise that he eventually contracted syphilis (which the British used to refer to as ‘the French disease’). Without antibiotics, this was essentially a death sentence.

The Fun King’s advisers told him to build a church to demonstrate his devotion to God. This, he was told, could bring salvation.

And so, the Fun King hurriedly commissioned the construction of the Church of Saint-Genevieve.

During its construction, Louis XV’s symptoms died down. Failing to realise that the symptoms of syphilis appear intermittently, he told the workmen not to rush. Eventually the symptoms came back, the Fun King got sick again and by the time he died, the church was still incomplete.

By the time it was finally finished in 1790 Louis XV’s successor Louis XVI was in deep trouble – he would be sent to the guillotine in 1793.

The new building was instead put to a very different use by the new Revolutionary government, it became the Panthéon, where the great and the good of France are honoured with a final resting place.

Yes, the legendary hall of the heroes of France was once a shoddy tribute to one man’s sexual promiscuity.

READ ALSO France’s highest honour: 5 things to know about the Panthéon

The Panthéon, the secular temple of France. Photo by CHRISTIAN HARTMANN / POOL / AFP

Victor Hugo

Talking of promiscuity, when the famous writer Victor Hugo died in 1885, all the brothels in Paris closed for 24 hours, out of respect for one of their greatest customers.

Hugo’s spirit lived on even after his death. His funeral turned into a massive party, reportedly leading to a baby boom in Paris some months later.

Funnily enough, Victor Hugo is buried at Le Panthéon.

One of his most famous works, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, inspired massive renovation works on the cathedral.

The architect charged with the task reportedly carved one of the gargoyles to resemble his mother-in-law.

École Militaire

As much as The Simpson’s may have ingrained the image of the ‘cheese-eating surrender monkey’ into popular culture, the French military was arguably the strongest in the world for much of Napoleon’s reign. 

The diminutive emperor was a graduate of the Ecole Militaire, still one of Europe’s leading military training facilities which has also spawned elite leaders like Commander Joffre and Charles De Gaulle, all of whom made the country proud.

Today it is essentially a finishing school for the crème de la crème of the French military establishment. It is fully equipped with cutting-edge technology and the latest strategic deployment material.

Officers learn the latest in counter insurgency tactics, intelligence and perhaps most importantly – how to lift up and then wave around the white flag.

The Eiffel Tower – not loved by everyone. Photo by Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP

Guy de Maupassant

Today it is the undisputed symbol of Paris, but many of the city’s cultural elite were viciously opposed to the construction of the Eiffel Tower (part of an ongoing theme as both Sacré-Ceour cathedral and the Louvre’s iconic pyramid were also the subject of fierce protests).

Opponents of the Eiffel Tower thought it was ugly and at risk of falling over and crushing unsuspecting residents below.

One of the leading critics was writer Guy de Maupassant, who penned petitions, newspaper columns and even books lambasting the giant metal structure.

Once construction was completed, a friend begged de Maupassant to climb the tower. At first he complained. But eventually he was persuaded.

The pair ate a fine meal of lobster and wine gazing down on the sprawling metropolis below.

After that, de Maupassant visited the same restaurant every day for the rest of his life. Many years later, when the writer was drawing his final breaths, the friend asked him: “So you changed your mind about the tower then?”

De Maupassant replied: “I never changed my mind. I only visited because it is the one place in Paris where I don’t have a view of the fucking thing.”

(Actually there are loads of places in Paris where you can’t see the Tower, he could have just moved to the suburbs, but that would have been a less good story).

Adolf Hitler looking at a tiara and a sculpture of his hero Napoleon Bonaparte. Photo: FRANCE PRESSE VOIR / AFP

Napoleon

Napoleon was average height for a man of his time (1.68 metres or 5ft 6ins, roughly the same height as Tom Cruise).

His ashes lie inside an urn, inside a series of coffins, each larger than the next, inside the church at the back of Les Invalides.

To see the coffin, visitors must climb the stairs to a raised platform. It is said that Napoleon was such a great man that even in death, he wanted people to bow down to see him.

One visitor to the coffin didn’t want to follow the rules though. Apparently, when Adolf Hitler went to visit the tomb in 1940 (Napoleon was a great hero of his), he ordered his SS guards to hold up mirrors. This meant that Hitler could look up and see the reflection of the coffin over his shoulder.

Those ashes are not all that remains of Napoleon’s body.

When he died in exile on the island of Saint-Helena, the doctor tending to the body cut his penis off (he did at least wait until he was dead).

Napoleon’s penis changed hands many times in the subsequent centuries. Most recently, it was purchased by an American urologist in the 1970s for $3,000 (€2,500). 

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READER INSIGHTS

‘Painful’ – is Paris Charles de Gaulle airport really that bad?

Following a survey that said Paris Charles de Gaulle airport was the best in Europe, we asked Local readers what they thought...

'Painful' - is Paris Charles de Gaulle airport really that bad?

Recently, Paris Charles de Gaulle was voted the best airport in Europe by passengers.

The 2022 World Airport Awards, based on customer satisfaction surveys between September 2021 and May 2022, listed the best airport on the planet as Doha, while Paris’s main airport came in at number 6 – the highest entry for a European airport – one place above Munich. 

READ ALSO Paris Charles de Gaulle voted best airport in Europe by passengers

Given CDG’s long-standing reputation doesn’t quite match what the World Airport Awards survey said – in 2009 it was rated the second-worst airport in the world, while in 2011 US site CNN judged it “the most hated airport in the world” – we wondered how accurate the survey could be.

So we asked readers of The Local for their opinion on their experience of Europe’s ‘best’ airport. 

Contrary to the World Airport Awards study, users erred towards the negative about the airport. A total 30.8 percent of Local readers – who had travelled through the airport in recent months – thought it was ‘terrible’, while another 33.3 percent agreed that it was ‘not great’ and had ‘some problems’.

But in total 12.8 percent of those who responded to our survey thought the airport was ‘brilliant’, and another 23.1 percent thought it ‘fine’, with ‘no major problems’.

So what are the problems with it?

Signage 

One respondent asked a simple – and obvious – question: “Why are there so many terminal twos?”

Barney Lehrer added: “They should change the terminal number system.”

In fact, signage and directions – not to mention the sheer size of the place – were common complaints, as were onward travel options. 

Christine Charaudeau told us: “The signage is terrible. I’ve often followed signs that led to nowhere. Thankfully, I speak French and am familiar with the airport but for first time travellers … yikes!”

Edwin Walley added that it was, “impossible to get from point A to point B,”  as he described the logistics at the airport as the “worst in the world”.

And James Patterson had a piece of advice taken from another airport. “The signage could be better – they could take a cue from Heathrow in that regard.”

Anthony Schofield said: “Arriving by car/taxi is painful due to congestion and the walk from the skytrain to baggage claim seems interminable.”

Border control

Border control, too, was a cause for complaint. “The wait at the frontière is shameful,” Linda, who preferred to use just her first name, told us. “I waited one and a half hours standing, with a lot of old people.”

Sharon Dubble agreed. She wrote: “The wait time to navigate passport control and customs is abysmal!”

Deborah Mur, too, bemoaned the issue of, “the long, long wait to pass border control in Terminal E, especially at 6am after an overnight flight.”

Beth Van Hulst, meanwhile, pulled no punches with her estimation of border staff and the airport in general. “[It] takes forever to go through immigration, and staff deserve their grumpy reputation. Also, queuing is very unclear and people get blocked because the airport layout is not well designed.”

Jeff VanderWolk highlighted the, “inadequate staffing of immigration counters and security checkpoints”, while Karel Prinsloo had no time for the brusque attitudes among security and border personnel. “Officers at customs are so rude. I once confronted the commander about their terrible behaviour.  His response said it all: ‘We are not here to be nice’. Also the security personnel.”

Connections

One of the most-complained-about aspects is one that is not actually within the airport’s control – public transport connections.  

Mahesh Chaturvedula was just one of those to wonder about integrated travel systems in France, noting problems with the reliability of onward RER rail services, and access to the RER network from the terminal.

The airport is connected to the city via RER B, one of the capital’s notoriously slow and crowded suburban trains. Although there are plans to create a new high-speed service to the airport, this now won’t begin until after the 2024 Olympics.

Sekhar also called for, “more frequent trains from SNCF to different cities across France with respect to the international flight schedules.”

The good news

But it wasn’t all bad news for the airport, 35 percent of survey respondents said the airport had more positives than negatives, while a Twitter poll of local readers came out in favour of Charles de Gaulle.

Conceding that the airport is “too spread out”, Jim Lockard said it, “generally operates well; [and has] decent amenities for food and shopping”.

Declan Murphy was one of a number of respondents to praise the, “good services and hotels in terminals”, while Dean Millar – who last passed through Charles de Gaulle in October – said the, “signage is very good. [It is] easy to find my way around”.

He added: “Considering the size (very large) [of the airport] it is very well done.  So no complaints at all.”

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