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Through The Spectre of Time: finding the relics of Paris’ past

Paris is a city of gorgeous relics, artefacts, and reminders of a time gone by.

Whereas most modern cities bulldoze and pave over their past to build something new and flashy, Paris’ history from centuries-past is not only still standing, but still in use.

They take old buildings and reuse them with very little modifications. They repurpose old signs, old books, old furnishings, and keep them alive as if they hit the markets only yesterday. Just because something is old doesn’t mean you throw it out, or put it in a museum and lock it behind glass. If it’s still useable, use it.

My time in Paris showed how much of the past is still tangible today.

First stop for anyone curious about Paris’ past alive in the present is Maxim’s.

The restaurant and dance hall from La Belle Epoque (a period of 15 years from approximately 1899 to 1914) has never been remodelled, and was left undamaged by both World Wars. Apart from installing computerized cash registers and modern electricity, the interiors, the furnishings, the architecture, even the plates, are all originals and approximately 113 years old. Maxims now runs an English-language tour by appointment-only during the day, and I managed to snag a spot.

La Belle Epoque furnishings were characterized by the repeated use of the female body on all things, like this ashtray.

Or this dish.

Even the money!

An original Toulouse-Lautrec drawing!

Another Toulouse-Lautrec! Now this isn’t the original painting, it’s a poster BUT the poster dates back 113 years, so it IS an original poster from the time when this was an actual promotional poster, not a work of art to decorate your home.

This dressing table with typical ladies’ grooming tool of the day (brushes, mirrors, etc) are gorgeous but seem pretty standard until you are told that they belonged to THE ONE AND ONLY SARAH BERNHARDT! Notice her portrait on the table?

I double dare you to ride that bike.

Female body everywhere. Note the shape of this water jug … it’s quite… suggestive. Don’t you think?

Then there was this gorgeous book-holder (adorned with a lady, of course) which was behind a locked cabinet so I couldn’t pull it out. From the awkward angle I had to photograph, I could barely make out the book title.

It says La Fille du Maudit by Lord Marcus, but the internet has absolutely no information on this book, which is surely out of print and forgotten by time. But if you look back at the front cover, from behind the holder, you can barely make out the publishing location as Rue Des Grands-Augustins which, as you’ll remember from my last post, was where Picasso’s studio was….. interesting.

The cremerie polidor is infamous in Paris for three reasons:
#1 It’s exterior and interior have remained unchanged for over 100 years, and has sat in the same location since 1845!!

#2 Hemingway and James Joyce used to hang out here.

#3 An integral scene from the movie Midnight in Paris by Woody Allen was shot here (specifically, the scene where Gil meets Hemingway, and we learn how much Zelda Fitzgerald hates Hemingway and vice versa).


Here’s a historic location that practically no tourists get to see (unless they’re crafty like me): La Petite Ceinture!

Wikipedia describes it thusly:
The Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture (French for “little belt railway”) was a Parisian railway that, from 1852, was a circular connection between Paris’ main railroad stations within the fortified walls of the city. In a partial state of abandonment since 1934, the tracks (and some stations) still remain along much of its right-of-way…. Many French railway enthusiasts nostalgically regard the Petite Ceinture as a surviving element of bygone era, and there are several associations whose aim is to protect the abandoned railway and its remaining stations as part of France’s national heritage.”

Did you get that folks? This is a rail line & station from 18-FRICKEN-52 that was abandoned in 1934! Yes, lotsa graffiti has found its way onto the historical relic, but… but … LOOK AT ALL THE ABANDONED HISTORY STILL STANDING!


These two men were city workers tasked with cleaning up the joint, and they told me that technically they’re not allowed to let people in. When I found the normally-locked gate ajar and walked in, I asked them if it was okay for me to see it, and they said yes, they’ll defy their boss and walk me through it. They were awfully kind and took down my blog address. HI FELLAS!

The abandoned railway station. Despite its load of graffiti, you can still decipher the 1852 architecture. The platform, the stairwell for arriving passengers, the waiting area above…

The front of the station.

The planks are 170 years old, as are the nails and spikes …

It’s so cool that the rail lines and bridges rise above Paris, but no one knows it’s there, nor do they have access to it. If only they knew the jewel rising above their streets.

And now some random historical gems that I happened upon…

An ornate patisserie in Montmartre which, undoubtedly, looked the same 90 years ago.

This old Bistro and Hotel was being gutted when I found it, but look at the façade and exterior mosaic decorations. I would date this as anywhere from World War I to the 1930s.

I love it. Just imagine a bunch of men with watch-fobs and fedoras standing outside this establishment to drink a pint and smoke a pipe. I can see it now.

As you can see here, Rue Tournefort used to be called Rue Neuve Genevieve because, 300 years ago, they used to carve the street names into the buildings. I love its permanence, and how no modernity nor change can rob it of its ever-present past.

Gorgeous Belle Epoque architecture on Rue Chapon

Rue des Thermopyles. Even though this is located in the heart of Paris, it looks like a tiny village road somewhere out in the countryside.

Rue des Thermopyles’ charming yellow door.

… right next to a charming blue door.

…. right next to a charming green door.

The old letters box.

Place Contrescarpe

Of course there are so many more historical gems peppering the streets of Paris. Have you found any amazing sites? Leave a comment below!


5 responses

  1. What an absolutely stunning post. I’m totally dreaming of a Parisian getaway now, as though I wasn’t before. I can only image the treasures you could (and obviously did!) find tucked away in some sleepy little back street of Paris. Thanks for the mini-vacation, I needed it!

    June 28, 2013 at 3:46 PM

  2. You make me want to leave everything behind and get the next flight to Paris. Beautifully captured pictures.

    July 2, 2013 at 6:52 AM

  3. Pingback: Parisian History before your eyes | The Spadina Monologues

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