We at mental_floss may not be able to squeeze into European-size-36 pants (we need at least a 38), but that doesn't mean we can't appreciate Paris Fashion Week, which is ongoing -- and which we're marking all week long with a series of faaabulous posts. Nonetheless, feeling a bit self-conscious about our thighs, we decided to make today's post about the surroundings, rather than the doings. Hope you enjoy this little travelogue from our upcoming book, In the Beginning:
Ah, Paris: land of the crepe, the beret, and the River Seine"¦ Of course, only the river was there when Paris was founded. The place wasn't even called Paris at the time "“ Julius Caesar's legions, who controlled the area starting in 52 B.C., called it "Lutetia." (The word "Paris" comes from the Parisii tribe of Celtic traders who had settled the banks of the Ile de la Cite about 250 years earlier.) Lutetia was just a sleepy town in Gaul for most of the Roman Empire, and by the fall of said empire it was little more than a military outpost. Over the next 600 years or so, though, it served alternately as the home of the Frankish king Clovis I (who gave it its tribal-based name), the target of Viking raids, the feudal equivalent of a county seat "“ and, finally, in 987 AD, with the elevation of a local nobleman named Hugh Capet to the king's throne, a real capital of France.
Many of the landmarks associated with Paris weren't built until much later, in the 1200s. The Louvre was originally designed as a fortress (and later used as a palace), not a repository of great works of art. Notre Dame was mostly built by 1245 but wouldn't be completely finished for another 100 years. (Hey, you try building something like that without cranes and bulldozers.) Sainte Chapelle, another gorgeous church, opened its doors in 1248 as a house for Holy Land relics, including (supposedly) pieces of the "True Cross" and Jesus' crown of thorns. And the Sorbonne started enrolling students five years later at the behest of its founder, the infamous Armand Jean du Plessis. You know him as the Cardinal de Richelieu "“ the royal adviser so powerful that some historians consider him the world's first secretary of state.
Then there are the modern-day landmarks. Parisians are famously snobbish about their architecture "“ the Centre Pompidou and the Louvre's glass pyramid designed by I. M. Pei (and, alas, immortalized by Dan Brown) both provoked outrage when they were built. Their designers must have taken some solace in the fact that the Eiffel Tower, that symbol of all things Parisian, was also initially considered an eyesore when it was constructed for the International Exposition of 1889. The writer Guy de Maupassant, one of the fathers of the short story, famously patronized a restaurant inside the tower because it was the one place he wouldn't have to look at the building. Today, of course, the Eiffel Tower the most popular tourist draw in the city "“ and the Louvre and the Centre Pompidou are second and third.