0001 - the Palace Quarter

Authour's note: The term 'Saint-Etienne' has been highlighted.
HISTORICAL DIVISION 01 – L'île de la Cité


Paris Historical Subdivision 01 - Introduction

Paris' ile de la Cité is the very reason this city exists where it does today. In the days of early man, the river flowing around us was much wider, a formidable swath of water that was a barrier to any hoping to cross it; in all the region the river was no narrower than in the straits to each side of this island. As a crossroads between the beaten path that developed there and the merchant highway that became the river to the region's first Celtic tribes, the ile de la Cité became a village inhabited by one of these, the Parisii. In them and their name, meaning "river boat" you have the origins of this city's name.

The Romans who conquered the above tribe to claim these lands from 52BC preferred the Left Bank as their place of habitation, but the ile de la Cite would be occupied once again from the fourth century when it became a naturally moated fort against the attacks of wesward-migrating Germanic tribes. The victorious leader of these, Clovis, would make Paris his capital and the island's roman residences his own. All of France's rulers from then until the mid-fourteenth century would have their palaces to the island's western end.

As for the rest of the island, if its centre had since even its origins had been a town proper and marketplace, its eastern end, beginning with a Roman temple to Jupiter, was concecrated to religion. Beginning with a third-century chapel dedicated to Saint-Etienne, the land to the east of today's petit-pont was filled with monestaries, churches and chapels, and by the twelfth century had become a walled village in itself called the "cloitre Notre-Dame". The island itself was connected to the mainland through two bridges: the first and most-used was the Petit-Pont spanning the southern Seine to the Rive Gauche, and the second, built over the centuries in two locations, was the Grand-Pont, a much longer connection to the rive droite.

In the mid fourteenth century the crown abandoned the island's palaces(island, abandon)) for the newer Louvre castle, leaving these to the royal Judicial and administative services. The next major changes here would be the transformations wrought by a certain Baron Haussmann (of who you will hear much of in these pages), his destruction of Paris' oldest existing city centre in the land between today's boulevard du Palais and rue d'Arcole. The same had reserved the same fate for the cloitre Notre-Dame to the north of the cathedral, but thanks to his early departure there are still some buildings there today that give us some idea of what middle-ages Paris looked like.

PROMENADE 0001: l'Ile de la Cité – Part I


Depart – Square de Vert-Galant

We are looking downriver from the western tip of the Ile de la Cité, watching the river's quiet flow away from us. To our right, and to the right of the path of the river's current, is the part of the city that we will often refer to as its Rive Droite, to our left Paris' opposing Rive Gauche and in front of we see the spans of the city's many bridges across the river. This spot is peaceful as the sounds of shore traffic is far from this point, and that crossing the island behind us is dampened by the greenery of the park we are at the tip of.

To get here we had to walk down a good flight of stairs. This spot is the only in Paris to retain its original elevation: this was once the tip of two parallel islets extending from what could be considered to be the ile de la Cité mainland, and remained uninhabitable until the construction of the Pont-Neuf. The rest of the island, from its original sandy shores, began to rise above the water from the time it became inhabited; upon the construction of its first sixteenth century quays and the ensuing masonry walls that would decide its final elevation, the ile de la Cité had risen more than seven metres above the water in places. The rise in the land came about because of many demographical reasons, but the largest was because of the landfill and refuse of human habitation.

This park is charming but little visited at this time of the year. Called the square du Vert-Galante, its name is the same given as a nickname to the King Henri IV for his love for flirting and silkworm culture (today's "Vert" (green) is a transformaion of "Ver" meaning "worm") – and these gardens were once a choice quiet spot for lovers promenading on the bridge above.

The wind over the water is sharp here at the point of the island; let us walk back towards the stairs from where we came so we can get a closer look at the bridge we see there. Aside from the architectural scenery along the shorelines and the interesting perspective our low altitude gives to our view of Paris' bridges, there is little to note on our way there. Yet as we near our destination we see a line of contorted faces looming down upon us…


The Pont-Neuf

This is perhaps Paris' most famous bridge. Called quite blatantly the "new bridge" at its time of construction, it has retained the same name ever since. In terms of location it was Paris' fourth bridge, and the third to be built in stone. Built from 1578 on the orders of Henri III and Catherine de Medecis as their connection between the ile de la Cité, Rive Gauche and the royal palace that was the Louvre then. It was also the first bridge to be unadorned with houses as was the custom then; instead, upon its completion in 1607, its walkways were lined with the boutiques and stands of merchants and offerers of services or cures. The Pont Neuf of those times had a reputation comparable to today's Champs Elysees. The faces we see above are the creations of the bridge's architect, Baptiste Androuet du Cerceau, and number 385 in all. Today the Pont Neuf is Paris' oldest bridge, as the two others existing then have since been carried away or destroyed by either flood, age or fire.

Now that we are at the eastern end of the square, we can get a closer look at the abovementioned bridge: the gradation you see engraved into the prow of one of its pillars is quite evidently there to mark the hight of the river – but perhaps it should be noted that Paris has no living evidence of any flood worse than that of 1910 and this is still today used as a point of reference for any modern crues.

After another look around the bridge's foundations and perhaps a closer look at some of those sometimes disturbing sculptured masks above us, let us make our way towards the double-archway wee see at the top of the monumental stairs before us. I can't help but note that those openings look like coffins. Between the two you can read of the demise of the last official leader of the Templars in 1314: More than likely in the goal of imparing the Templar's vast riches and landholdings, Templar leader Jaques Molay had been convicted by the king Philippe IV (le Bel) of crimes from heresy to buggery and burned at the stake here. All this of course happened at a time when this place was but an islet.

Once through one of the rather ominous archways we find ourselves in a narrow trench with a choice of two opposing staircases. Taking the one to the left we will make our way to the street above and find ourselves, after being confronted with the hulking Sameritaine department store across the river, we find ourselves in the north-west corner of the…


Place du Pont-Neuf

This flagstoned square is an integral part of the Pont Neuf, but the statue in its centre has a story of its own. We'll get to that in a second, but let us first have a look back at the park and over the river from this new higher perspective.

Of the horsebacked statue which is this place's centrepeice, only the marble pedestal is of origin as the the original statue topping it was toppled and melted down in the years following France's 1789 revolution. In thinking of the original statue, one could even say that the horse in front of us has a longer history than its rider: originally created as a mount for an eventual statue of the Grand-Duke of Tuscany (a project dampened by the death of the Duke) the riderless bronze horse was given as a gift to Marie de Medecis. Still riderless, the statue was mounted here in 1614 as the first known statue of a subject purely equestrial. Louis XIII had the statue topped with another of his father (Henri IV) from 1635, and as an addition celebrating military victories, bas-reliefs to the pedestal and statues of chained slaves at the same's four corners. The pedestal remained empty until Louis XVIII had had a statue of Napoleon (formerly topping the place Vendome column) melted down for a new effigy of Henri IV. This last version, dating from 1818, is the same that we see before us. One detail of note, though: The new statue's sculptor, a fervent Bonapartist, had enclosed a statuette of Napolean to its inside along with texts by Voltaire, and there they stayed until the only recent (2004) renovation of the statue and its pedestal.

If you turn and take a closer look at what seems to be but a pair of quite quaint but normal brick apartment buildings behind you, you'll see something more if you'd care to draw nearer: from the point in front of our statue they hide a triangular block of similar buildings behind them and, now to think of it, the rest of the ile de la Cité as well. Let's walk over to the Rive Gauche side of the island to get a closer look at the outward-facing façade of…


La Place Dauphine

This is one of two areas of the ile de la Cité to avoid escape Haussmann's destruction/reconstruction campaigns. The riverside façade you see before you along the quai des Orfevres, though fairly uniform today, was even more so upon the construction of this place at the beginning of the 17th century, as all of the buildings resembled those you saw from the place du Pont-Neuf. Quite a few of them were either destroyed or renovated beyond recognition, but as you will see later, there are still a few blocks that have retained their original form.

As already mentioned, this land was once two islets at the western tip of the ile de la Cité joined to their larger neighbour upon the construction of the Pont Neuf. Upon the bridge's completion, the unused land to its east was given to the Parliment President Achille de Harlay] on the condition that he build a uniform block of buildings whose style would resemble those of the place Royale (today's place des Vosges) being built then. Probably in honor of the king's gift, the President Harlay named his place for the king's eldest son, the young dauphin and future King Louis XIII (le Juste).

As we make our way along the quai des Orfèvres ("quay of the goldsmiths") you may want to have a look at the river below; where there are stone quays today, much of the Seine's banks were but steep and sandy escarpments dotted with and watermills until well into the 19th century. This quay in particular was completed in 1807.

We are now at the eastern end of the Place Dauphine. If we look to the east of the rue Harlay we can see the reason this place was to be destroyed: the largest of Haussmann's four major architecture additions to the island, the Palais de justice covers the ile de la Cité shore to shore from here to the boulevard du Palais. It is presently being renovated so I've taken no pictures to show you here – check perhaps again in the coming months.

The building in front of us, probably the ugliest renovation of the lot, is a prime example of this square's disfiguration by time and speculation. The whole west side of the rue Harlay was once a solid block of buildings like the other two, but centred with a monumental archway – all of this was destroyed in 1874. The façade at 2 rue Harlay is still intact though, and is today protected from further modification by very strict patrimonial laws.

If you can project this façade onto all others in this square you will get a good picture of the beauty this place once had. Let us take a walk around and perhaps a sit if you like – notice the ironwork on number six of this place, and the façade of the building next to it still retains its original stone-spined brickwork. A few others are more or less preserved and protected by the same historical laws as the building above. After we're through here we'll move towards the western end of the place and our already-visited statue of Henri IV.

Let's just take a skip across the street to have a look at the outer place Dauphine from its quai de l'Horloge side – and after progress along the same quay and the Rive Droite side of the island. In passing note a the marble plaque upon the second-floor wall to our right denoting the building it adorns as the birthplace and residence of a certain "Mme. Roland" – this lady was the wife of a certain Roland de la Platiére and known during the revolution for her role as a "Girondin" and her stance against the free bloodletting of the post-revolution "Terror" years. She would be arrested and guillotined with other Girondins, and her husband would commit suicide soon after.

The quai de l'Horloge, completed in 1611, is much older than its counterpart to the opposite side of the island. The reason for its early development becomes clear when we see the stone towers that appear around the curve to our right as we progress forward.


The Ile de la Cité Palaces

As mentioned in the introduction that precedes this chapter (as well as in the "History of Paris – Part I: chapter in the "Paris Generalities" section), this end of the island was reserved for its ruler's residences from around the fourth century, that is to say during the Gallo-Roman era. Only fragments remain of this latter era, but it is known that in Merovingian times (500-751) that the palaces stood to the east of a garden filling the western point of the island. Through centuries of Kings and renovations, each successive version of the royal batiments would grow to the east from there. Robert II ("le Pieux" – 996-1031) would rebuild the probably roman-era residences here into palaces during his reign, and these would be added to and embellished by the other kings of the same Capetian dynasty. Only vestiges of Saint-Louis (Louis XI – 1226-1270) reign onward are still standing today, and the first of these, a tower built around 1250, is the first in the line of four nearing us to our right.

Philippe IV ("le Bel" – 1285-1314) would entirely renovate the palace, extending it, in adding the next two towers ahead, to the today's boulevard du Palais. To the palace's inside, the following halls are of his era: in addition to rebuilding his residences, he added the a new "Grand Salle" (the "salle des Pas-Perdus" today) where he would give justice,. The "Conciergerie" (a building concecrated to the "concierge" or "guardian of the palace") and the "Salle des gens d'armes" (reserved for the palace guardians).

Charles V ("le Sage" - 1364-1380) would bring the palace's last royally-ordained renovations from 1353 with the construction of new kitchens and, most importantly, the tour de l'Horloge that we see ahead. This tower, quite different from the rest in its square construction, is graced with the city's first public clock. The clock itself, now before us, seems in dire need of restoration – it's last major overhaul was in 1848. Adorned with these statues on its (probably dark) blue background, the clock must have been quite remarkable in its heyday. The bell you see above it would chime on all great royal occasions.

If we make our way along the boulevard de palais we will come to a majestic gate; just above it we can only just discern the spire of a cathedral. In crossing to the other side of the street we can get a better view, and at the same time turn back for a better overall view of the tour de l'Horloge.

This chapel, the Sainte-Chapelle, is the palace's second-oldest still-standing structure, built during under the orders of the Saint-Louis. The king had bought saint-relics from the Emperor of Constantinople, and ordered the construction of a building fitting for them. The work of the architect Pierre de Montreuil, this edifice is a church with two levels; the lower was reserved for the court, and the upper for the king and the Saint-relics. Built in the then-perfected flamboyant Gothic style, the use of pillars and ribbing for support instead of the solid walls commonly used till then, its architectural techniques made allowed what is perhaps the city's most majestic stained-glass windows. The inner cathedral, especially the upper level, is an exercise in light and lightness. Everything between the Conciergerie and the Sainte-Chapelle went up in flames in 1776, and the massive grill you see fronting the palace dates from the palace renovations thereafter.


The Marché aux Fleurs

The major monuments of this promenade past us, we have but a short stroll to our next one. While we're here perhaps you'd like to take around the place behind us; not coincidentally, as we are in front of the Prefecture du Police, it is named for a Louis Lépine who served as a quite memorable prêfet from 1893. This place holds one of Paris' last flower markets, and its absolute last bird market on Sundays.

From here we will take the rue de la Cité before us to our next promenade in the eastern part of the ile de la Cité and its cloitre Notre-Dame…

(NEXT PROMENADE: Section 01, promenade 0002 - l'Ile de la Cité – ii)