The piercing Eiffel Tower that dwarfs the city below, imposing Arc de Triomphe that guards the glamorous and haute couture littered Champs-Élysées, imposing gargoyles of Notre Dame always keeping watch, beret-clad accordion players, gold drenched and lamplit bridges suspended over the Seine, and wicker chair studded cafes adorning the sidewalks and street corners are instantly recognizable as elements of quintessential Paris, and scenes that every visitor to this pretty city has experienced. Yet there is a lesser know, less celebrated Paris that speaks to this City's political and historical status through the ages.
Parisian brothels, called maisons de tolérance or maisons closes, were a hub of political and social gatherings during the famed belle époque, and many buildings that served as these brothels still exist today as either apartment or office buildings. Under the reign of Louis IX (1226 - 1270), the Medieval Parisian authorities tried to confine prostitution to the Beaubourg Quartier, where nine streets were designated to house legal brothels. In 1804, Napoleon ordered that all brothels become state-controlled, and (1) had to be run by a woman, or madame, generally a former prostitute; (2) keep their external appearance discreet; (3) indicate open hours of business by lighting a red lantern outside of the brothel (hence the term red light districts); and (4) required prostitutes to undergo bi-weekly medical examinations. By law, prostitutes could only leave the maisons on designated days and still then, only if accompanied by a madame. By the year 1810, Paris had 180 official brothels, and into the early 1900s, some were the hub of political and social gatherings, internationally known for being chic and luxurious, especially le Chabanais and le Sphinx. There were 177 maisons in Paris by the time France outlawed them in 1946, in part because of their role accommodating German soldiers in WWII, several having been designated for exclusive use by German soldiers -- although one in Monmartre operated in the counter-Nazi effort helping POWs and shot-down airmen make their escapes. The annual le Guide Rose published locations, arrondissements and specialties of the maisons. When outlawed, the brothels were destroyed and stripped of their artwork and decor. However, some clues remain...
- Aux Belles Poules. Translated to The Beautiful Hens and recently discovered when the building passed through an inheritance, hidden under layers of wooden siding and covered by its history as a Chinese emporium and wholesale clothing store, this amazing and uniquely preserved former brothel has been restored, showcasing art deco artwork and decorative mosaics that depict naked women and erotic scenes, and re-purposed as an events space. 32 rue Blondel.
- Saint-Sulpice. Telltale signs and a storied history belie the otherwise unassuming and ordinary exterior of 15 rue Saint-Sulpice. A doctor's office and ordinary balconies inhabit this space today, but if you peer through the glass front door, you will catch a glimpse of a the former name of this belle époque Maison's madame, Alys, preserved in the floor tiles. The second floor of this brother was well-known for its S&M practices and legendary hammam. But read on, as this is not the more interesting of the two brothels located on infamous and sacrilegious rue Saint-Sulpice. 15 rue Saint-Sulpice.
Miss Betty's. The ever-narrow, yet entirely indiscreet facade adorned with replica Roman columns, colorful ceramic detail and oversize street number juxtapose the saintly facade (forgive the unavoidable pun) of the imposing Saint-Sulpice Catholic church, located conveniently and directly across the street. The main door of this maison is positioned not 10 feet, directly across a narrow street, from a hidden, narrow little side entrance leading directly into Saint-Sulpice, leaving very little to the imagination of whom were Miss Betty's most reliable clientele. You can imagine clergymen ducking into the hoods of their capes or seeking refuge within their black cassocks as they darted across the narrow street, hoping to avoid any gaze, and directly into the crucifixion parlor or torture room at Miss Betty's. 36 rue Saint-Sulpice.
Le Chabanais. While the building is nothing to speak of today, le Chabanais deserves mention as the former most well-known and ostentatious maison. Elaborate and luxurious, the rooms were inspired by different eras and cultures and the walls painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. The future King of England, Edward VII, used a mermaid or sea-queen-adorned, gilded bathtub that he would fill to the brim with champagne for baths before drinking the leftovers, and together with his bespoke three-person love seat made exclusively for his visits, was housed in his private room at the maison. Salvador Dali is rumored to have purchased the bath when the brothel closed in around 1946-51 for 112,000 francs. 12 rue Chabanais.
Le Sphinx. Widely popular in the 1930s and 40s, this brothel was entirely Egyptian themed and catered to artistic and literary bohemians. The girls of Le Sphinx were more widely recognized as hostesses, earning their commissions from giving haircuts, pedicures and serving drinks from behind the bar - so not a typical brothel in that sense. The building was demolished in 1962. 31 Boulevard Edgar-Quinet.
The enchanted carousels all around Paris are magical. Many permanent carousels litter the Parisian topography, but Paris adds sometimes as many as 20 over the Christmas holidays. Born of mishap when King Henri of France was killed in a jousting accident in 1559, carousels seemed a safer alternative to these barbaric but popular displays of masculinity. In 1662, Louis XVI held a three-day carousel festival in front of the Tuileries to celebrate the birth of the Dauphin, where 15,000 attendees marveled at knights on these horses in the place still known as Place du Carrousel.
Jardin de Tuleries. This classic French blue and red belle epoque era carousel, decorated with curtains, large bulb lighting and located in the Tuleries gardens, features wooden horses that date back to 1900.
Tour Eiffel Carousel. This newly minted belle epoque style, two-story french-blue, red and gold carousel has the usual horses, wild animals, fairytale carriages and spinning teacups, but also incorporates solar panels for its operation. More importantly, it boasts the best backdrop in the city: the Eiffel Tower.
Jardin du Luxembourg. Holding the title of the oldest carousel in Paris, this rather unpretentious carousel dates back to 1879. However, the well-loved and eternally enjoyed animals, showing their age and wear with pride, were originally sketched by architect of the Paris Opera house, Charles Garnier.
Place Saint-Pierre. One of the oldest Carousels in Paris is located in the quaint Place St.-Pierre in Montmartre. Although the horses are made of plastic, they are whimsical and Venetian-themed to compliment the Italian-made carousel that also features a spinning teacup and wooden benches.
Forum les Halles. The horses adorning this circa-1900s carousel were hand-carved by the Limonaire brothers, well-known in the 19th and 20th centuries for their Art Nouveau designs on organs played at fairs.
Bois de Vincennes & Jardin de Ranelagh. The animals of these carousels, especially piglets at Bois de Vincennes, were created by French sculptor-turned carousel carver Gustave Bayol, who later become perhaps France's best-known carver.
Musee de Arts Forains. 14 antique carousels are housed at the Musée des Arts Forains, as well as an awesome collection of other carnival-related prizes.
Square des Batignolles. For the Disney-obsessed (like me), this unique carousel features Disney characters to ride. Belgian glove maker turned carver, Henri Devos succeeded Gustave Bayol and put a twist of his own on this unique carousel. If Disney's not your thing, explore the serene Square des Batignolles, the green space where this carousel is housed.
During the belle époque, Parisian city planners created a labyrinth of hidden passages throughout the city. By the time of Napoleon's exile in 1815, around 150 of these whimsical spaces served as socializing, dining and shopping hubs for upper-crust Parisians. Sadly, many fell into disrepair, but 18 of the belle époque arcades and glittering art nouveau galleries remain, and a few have been restored to something of their former glory.
Galerie Vivienne. Built in 1823, Galerie Vivienne is, if not the most well-known, certainly one of the most elegant and sophisticated of the galeries. Its glass ceiling allows soft afternoon light to cascade through and illuminate the original mosaic tile floors. The interior shops are worth a visit in their own right, including Legrand Filles et Fils, a perfect Parisian wine store, quaint bookstore Librairie Jousseaume with new and antique volumes, or home decor shop Secrets d’Interieurs. Jean-Paul Gaultier's first (1986) and now flagship store remains. 4 Rue de Petits Champs.
Passages des Panoramas. Built in 1800 and until 1831, Passages des Panoramas offered panoramic views of the city from its two viewing rotundas until their destruction. Today, the galerie hosts shops, wine bars and restaurants in its interior, and while still classically Parisian, has an eclectic vibe. 10 Rue De St Marc.
Passage Jouffroy. As an extension to Passage des Panoramas built in 1947, you can continue from Panoramas across the road into Passage Jouffroy and even spend the night in the Hotel Chopin, breakfasting on the decadent cakes, pastries, hot chocolate and chocolates at the nearby Valentin Bakery. 10 Boulevard Montmartre.
Jardin du Palais Royal. Technically not enclosed nor interior, and far predating the other covered passageways, the Jardin du Palais Royal was constructed in 1629 and expanded in 1780 to include two semi-enclosed shopping passages, Galerie de Valois and Galerie de Montpensier. These both host to storefronts framed by the grand archways and consisting of beautiful couture, upscale fashion retailers, famed vintage shops and the impossibly chic Cafe Kitsune. The interior garden is a perfect place to take a stroll and be transported to the days of leisure and lolling of pre-Revolutionary France. 5 Rue de Valois.
Galerie Colbert. Built in 1826 and running parallel to Galerie Vivienne on Rue de Petits Champs, this galerie is open to the public, and although used by the University of Paris, retains a gorgeous central atrium. 6 Rue de Petits Champs.
Passage de Choiseul. Built in 1822 and only mildly renovated since, this galerie affords the opportunity to enjoy a laid back lunch and inexpensive shopping for clothes and antiques. 40 Rue de Petits Champs.
Passage Verdeau. Replete with antique and photo shops, cafes and bookstores, including rare and vintage bookstore Librarie Farrouille, this simple, charming galerie, with an excellent belle epoque welcome sign, is worth a visit. 33 Rue de Fauburg Montmartre.