Today’s walk in Paris takes us through a section of the right bank of the Seine, mainly in the Marais District. We start at the Place de la Bastille which is the famous square that played a huge part in the story of the French Revolution. For those familiar with the famous Charles Dickens’ novel, ‘A Tale of Two Cities, (one of the best-selling novels of all times!), the plot begins with the release of Dr Manette from the Bastille Prison where he has spent the last 18 years learning to make shoes. The Bastille was built in the late 14th century as a castle to defend the approach to Paris during the 100 Years War with England. It was subsequently used in later centuries as a state prison where French Kings and their administration held political or religious prisoners. By the time of the French revolution, it came to represent the worst features of the ‘Ancien Regime’ of the French monarchy. On the left below is an historical reconstruction of the Bastille with it moat and city gate in 1420. On the right is a painting depicting the 14th July 1789 storming of the Bastille by French citizens.
Nothing of the original Bastille Prison is left today except a few sections of its foundations that have been dug up by later projects such as the Paris Metro. The area of the Bastille was turned into a square celebrating liberty in 1792 and a column was promised for the centre. My favourite idea for a memorial in the centre of this square was of course that of Napoleon’s who wanted a monument in the shape of an Elephant constructed here. It was designed and was meant to be cast in bronze. A plaster monument was created but the new government was not interested in Napoleon’s curious idea of the ‘Elephant of the Bastille’. The centre of the square today is dominated by the ‘July Column’ which was finished by 1840.
It is of course a fascinating place to have a walk around, particularly to check out the Bastille Opera. Come on a Thursday and there is an open air market here. There is also a remnant of the old city walls moat that today is a marina, connected still to the River Seine.
Place des Vosges
However our walk today takes us away from the Seine into the heart of the Marais District. Our next destination is another famous ‘Square’ in the history of Paris, but not for the unfortunate reasons of Place de la Bastille. This one is Place des Vosges and is reached by walking down Rue St Antoine and turning right at Rue de Birague. It is the oldest planned square in Paris and was very fashionable for the rich and famous back in the 17th/18th centuries. In the 16th century there were tournament grounds here where the French King of the time, Henry II, met his death from a badly aimed jousting pole by his opponent. (Rule 1 of Jousting: Let the King win!)
Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642), famous for his role as power broker in the early 17th century to King Louis XIII lived for 12 years here at No. 21, Place des Vosges, between 1615-27. One of his contributions to the square is the statue on the right below of Louis XIII that still stands in the centre of the square today.
One of the tourist sites just over the street from Place des Vosges is the house of the famous French author, Victor Hugo. He is celebrated in the image on the left on a 5 France note printed in 1959 with the Place des Vosges in the background. His fame has continued to rise in the wider world as the author of the famous novel, Les Miserables that has been turned into a very popular musical in the late 20th century.
Hotel de Ville
It is a long walk to our next site down Rue de Rivoli, the Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) of Paris. Of course you could walk back to the Place de la Bastille metro station and catch a train to the hotel de Ville Metro stop.
If one looks at the map of Paris, it is easy to notice that the Hotel de Ville is just a little up river on the right bank from Ile de La Cite, almost the middle of the city. It is, like all other town halls, the centre of the city’s administration and has been so since 1357 when the first building housing the city’s administration was erected on the sloping shingle beach which was the city’s river port. It was called the Maison aux Piliers (House of Pillars) and was used by the community from 1357 to 1533. The Hotel de Ville illustrates what happens to old buildings in old cities…they don’t last as many centuries as the builders and architects hoped. The second Hotel de Ville built on this site lasted until 1871 but was the centre of the cyclones of the 1789, 1830, 1848 revolutions and the Commune of Paris in 1871; the Commune set fire to its own building rather than hand it over to approaching soldiers and all the archives stored in this building went up in flames.
The old photo above captures what was left of the Hotel de Ville after the Commune fire destroyed much of the interior. The building was reconstructed within the still standing walls from 1873 to 1892 and remains standing today. In 1944 when Paris was liberated, it was from the balcony of this building that General Charles De Gaulle appeared to receive the acclaim of the crowd.
There are many things to admire about this building if you have the time to take your visit slowly. The restored exterior of the building is 16th century French Renaissance architecture and there are 338 individual statues of famous Parisians in niches around the building.
George Pompidou Centre
The area of the Marais further on from the Hotel de Ville has been the subject of intense discussion and development over the last fifty years. At the end of this walk through the Marais at the Fontaine des Innocents, the visitor can stroll a little further to the Les Halles district of Paris. This was the central fresh food market of Paris up until 1971 when it was demolished and a new underground shopping centre was constructed. It was a by-product of the government level discussion about what to do with Les Halles that the idea of a large multicultural complex should be developed and the Pompidou Centre resulted, being opened in 1977. It contains a large public library for Paris, the Musee National d’Art Moderne (the largest in Europe) and a centre for music and acoustic research.
The architecture of this new multicultural centre that caused both great acclaim and controversy. It is described as an ‘inside-out’ building with all the structural and mechanical systems being exposed on the outside of the building. These systems were colour-coded for the public to have some idea of what they were looking at. The building continued to be renovated and updated and there are further plans for more significant renovations.
Curiously the Pompidou Centre building became hugely popular with locals and tourists. It was intended to handle 8000 visitors a day but in its first 20 years it received five times that number of visitors. On the day we strolled along to visit, the sight of the queue going round the block was enough for us to decide we would add a visit to the centre on our next visit to Paris. We turned around and headed back towards the Seine and visit the curious tower that stands in its own open-air park beside the river.
Tour de St Jacques
The sight of what is clearly an old church bell tower standing on the edge of a river without an accompanying church poses a lot of questions. The fact that it is a strikingly beautiful tower adds to the puzzle. Who knocks down a medieval church leaving the tower behind? Knowing the history of Paris, a simple answer leaps to the mind; the church must have been a victim, like so many other religious institutions, of the French Revolution. After being damaged by the revolutionaries, the church was sold and demolished in 1797 and its stone was reused as building materials elsewhere in the city leaving the tower to stand forlorn on the river bank.
The original church was built by wealthy butchers from the nearby Les Halles markets. It was named after St James and so became a meeting place for pilgrims setting out on the ‘Chemin de Compostelle’, the pilgrim route to Santiago in Northern Spain.
The photo of the Tour de St Jacques on the right is from 1863. A lot of restoration of the tower is clearly evident as the City of Paris repurchased the tower in 1836 and declared it a Histrique Monument in 1862. Significant restoration continued into the 1870s.
By the new millennium, further restoration became paramount as there was evidence of significant cracking in the stone work. From 2007 for some years the tower was swathed in sheeting and scaffolding while this restoration took place to ensure that this remnant from the 16th century remained to awe the citizens.
Fontaine des Innocents
Finishing our inspection of the Tour de St Jacques, our last site for this tour involves a walk up the Boulevard de Sebastopol to Place Joachim du Bellay where there is a monumental public fountain called the Fountain of the Nymphs. We have by now walked out of the Marais District into the Les Halles District. The Fountain here is a little like the Tour de Jacques, being an historical remnant that is all that is left of this district given the changes in Paris over the last half a millennium.
Originally on this site stood the Church of the Saints Innocents and its attached cemetery. (Cemeteries were generally moved out of the city in the early 19th century.) The original fountain was part of the usual celebration for a new French Monarch (Henry II, 1547-1559), a monument to greet the new King as he arrived to take possession of his city. The image on the right illustrates the elaborate monument that stood against the side of the Church of the Saints Innocents. The upper storey was used by local notables to greet the new King as he passed by below.
Above left can be seen an image of the Place Joachim du Bellay in 1850 and the last remaining piece of the original fountain structure, centre stage in the middle of the usual market place that squares like this usually became. The photo on the right above is from the late 19th century and illustrates that urban renewal has continued and the fountain is now the centre of a landscaped park, not a market square. In the process of transforming the fountain from a large monument to a civilized gushing fountain, sections of it were removed (see left) but luckily were preserved in the Louvre.
If the traveller has stuck to the itinerary set out in this article, they are probably ready for lunch and a rest followed by some slow time to process what they have seen this morning. There is so much to see in Paris that it is important not to exhaust the mind and brain with too much information. However if you are short of time in the City of Light, you are not far from the First Arrondissement which contains the Louvre, Les Jardins des Tullieries and the Place de la Concorde. Happy sightseeing!