Prostitutes, pool sharks, and pyrotechnics – maybe not the first things that come to mind in the gardens of the Palais Royal. But they speak to a forgotten history steeped in booze and debauchery that’ll make you wish you’d been born in the 18th century, just so you could’ve see it with your own eyes.
That’s when the Duc d’Orléans, cousin to the king and party animal extraordinaire, took up residence here. Having exhausted his fortune on years of women and gambling, he surprised everyone by becoming something far beneath his social rank: a landlord.
To improve cash flow he surrounded his backyard with exquisite wings of limestone in the neoclassical style, with rows of arcades that housed 145 commercial spaces.
Because he rented to the highest bidders, vacancies quickly filled with a disproportionate number of brothels, casinos, pawn shops, and billiard halls. In no time he had quite simply created the Las Vegas of Europe. It was soon nicknamed both the “Capital of Paris” and the “Temple of Voluptuousness”.
Every night live music. Every night fireworks shot up from the center of the garden. Waves of revelers splashed back and forth against the architecture, crashing onto storefronts and funneling into pleasure palaces of their choosing. The crowd was a thick mixture of soldiers, shop owners, aristocrats and curious tourists looking to satisfy untold desires. It was said that an apple dropped from a window of the Palais Royal would never hit the ground.
Even more tantalizing was the fact that by law the police weren’t allowed onto the private royal property. The duke had created a good old fashioned, 18th century free-for-all.
Prostitutes worked openly among the masses, chatting up farm boys from Normandy or travelling salesmen from Bordeaux. The pricing was very organized, with lower grades of women working the dark alleys and high-class hookers under the arcades themselves. Often even “proper” working class women from Paris would earn extra cash by temporarily abandoning their real lives (and morals) to faire le palais, or “do the palace”.
One chilly November night in 1787, a young French general entered the arcades. While most came here looking to gain various things, he managed to lose one – his virginity. He met a meek but charming prostitute, with whom he quietly conversed before leading her back to his hotel room where the deed was done. His name was Napoléon Bonaparte.
Later after becoming Emperor, Napoléon would promptly legalize prostitution nationwide. So it’s safe to assume he had a pretty good time that night at the Palais Royal.
This anything-goes, anti-establishment atmosphere also bore the first sparks of the French Revolution. It was here that 26 year-old Camille Desmoulins was sat at a café with his compatriots, contemplating the looming threat of the monarchy. He’d always suffered from a stutter that discouraged him from public speaking, but on that day the stutter disappeared as he jumped onto a table:
Aux armes citoyens! he shouted while brandishing a pistol: “To the weapons, citizens!”. Two days later an angry mob was storming La Bastille and the rest is, of course, history.
Walking through the Palais Royal today, with locals sat reading around the fountain and children chasing pigeons past games of pétanque, you’d be forgiven for assuming it’d always been so tranquil and dignified. There’s little to remind us that the opposite is true, that it was in fact an adult playground of debauchery and misbehavior.
But isn’t that what makes Paris so powerful? You can admire its prettiness and move on, quite content, or you can dig deeper if the moods grabs you. Whether aware of it or not, you become a distant character in these extraordinary events. And all that’s required of you is to take a stroll through a garden on a winter’s afternoon.
Interested in exploring the Palais Royal or other parts of the city? Request a walking tour with me by clicking on Tour Paris With the French Frye at the top of the page!