||The Old City Center
Notre Dame, Palais de Justice, Conciergerie, Hotel de Ville, Place des Vosges, Bastille, Ile Saint Louis
(About 4.5 km)
The Ile de la Cité is a good starting point for many promenades in the historic heart of Paris, especially since the city originated on this island when it was settled by the Parisii tribe, and later became the Gallo-Roman Lutetia (Lutèce).
Built on the site of an old Merovingian church, the great cathedral church of Notre Dame is a landmark known for its history and architecture. Building of the cathedral was started in 1163 thanks to the determination of Maurice de Sully, the bishop of Paris and regent while Louis VII was fighting the second crusade, with Pope Alexander III laying the foundation stone. Building was essentially finished 90 years later, but not completely finished until about 1340, and the spires on top of the western towers were never made as were probably planned (most likely in the style of Notre Dame in Senlis, started ten years earlier). The style is pure Gothic a style invented in nearby Saint-Denis with the choir of the abbey church (now famous for the relic of the heart of young Louis XVII). Yet the contrast between these buildings, just 20 years apart, is quite striking; in Saint Denis the style is in transition from the Romanesque, whereas Notre Dame in Paris is the first wholly Gothic conception, reaching new heights in harmony between structure and aesthetics, especially with the elegance of the flying buttresses that allowed more light to penetrate inside, and the roof to be higher than ever before (the nave vaulting is 107 feet, or 33 meters high). Its wide western façade is one of the finest and most characteristic of French Gothic a mix of grandeur and elegance that served as a model for many later churches throughout France. The floor plan was also innovative, using an almost central transept that became a visual center of balance. The original church had no surrounding chapels; these were added between the lower flying buttresses between 1296 and 1325. During and after the Revolution, the church suffered a lot until 1845 when Viollet-le-Duc started a detailed restoration (and modification, including the central ‘flèche’ erected at the crossing of the nave and the transepts, as well as the gargoyles or rain-water spouts) to the condition we see it in today.
Notre Dame has been closely linked to the key events and ceremonies of Paris, and even of France, including coronations and marriages. The young king of England, Henry VI was crowned king of France here in 1430. Napoleon was made emperor here in 1804, and on 26 August 1944 General De Gaulle escaped his first assassination attempt here during a religious celebration after the liberation of Paris.
Most people start their visit at the western façade, where they can admire the rose window and mediaeval sculptures around the three portals, standing back on the 'parvis' (which was cluttered with buildings and narrow streets in the Middle Ages until Baron Haussmann entered the scene, but compensates for the raising of the ground level that eliminated the steps in front of the cathedral). To the left of the façade many people often line up to climb to the top of the towers, where they can get a fantastic view of Paris and admire the 19th century gargoyles. Others who are interested in the archeology and history of the old city (from 1 BC to the middle ages) can visit the crypt under the parvis.
To see the cathedral at its finest, cross the ‘Pont au Double’ to the Left Bank, and walk along the embankment lined with open-air book stalls (quai de Montebello) to the ‘Pont de l’Archeveché’, or walk through the garden behind the cathedral to the same bridge, or even to the embankment below Quai Montebello or Quai de la Tournelle, and you’ll see the eastern view of the cathedral from where so many picture postcards and films were made not to mention the art work that is often in progress or on sale near here.
Going back to the parvis, you can walk along the rue de la Cité and take a left along rue de Lutèce to see the Palais de Justice on the Boulevard du Palais. This complex, built on the site where the Roman governors probably lived and where the Merovingian, Carolingian (when, as emperors of the West, they weren't in Aachen or Rome), and the Capetian kings of France used to live up to the time of Charles V (despite the construction of the Louvre, which was just a fortress in the defensive city wall at the time). It now houses the law courts and also a very interesting church, the Sainte-Chapelle. This collegiate church was built just after Notre Dame to house religious relics collected by Louis IX, and it is famous for its huge and finely decorated stained glass nave windows and rose window, as well as its equally finely decorated lower chapel.
Continuing along the Boulevard du Palais to the north, you reach a tower (tour de l'Horloge) at the corner with the Quai de l’Horloge, in which you can see the oldest clock in Paris (installed by Charles V in 1370, and still working until its mutilation during the Revolution). Continuing around the corner you reach the Conciergerie, a palace built on a former Roman site in 987. It was used for law courts and a barracks for security forces ('gens d'armes' or, in modern French, 'gendarmes') until 1400 when the whole ground floor became a prison in particular during the Revolution, when over 2,700 people were kept prisoner awaiting execution, notably Marie-Antoinette, Danton and Robespierre.
You can then continue along the Quai de l’Horloge or through the beautiful Place Dauphine to the famous Pont Neuf (which means 'new bridge', but is now one of the oldest bridges in Paris, built under the reigns of Henry III and IV, and finished in 1609). It is notable for the introduction of sidewalks and also the absence of buildings on the bridge for the first time in Paris (the king didn't want his view from the Louvre spoiled). In fact it comprises two bridges that meet at the middle in the small square ‘Place du Pont Neuf’ with an equestrian statue of Henry IV (known as 'Vert Galant'). This square was joined by means of a landfill with the rest of the Ile de la Cité at the same time as the bridge was being finished (end of XVIth century). Some steps lead down from this square to a small triangular park which ends in the western point of the island and indicates its general level before it was elevated 7 meters. The level was raised in order to avoid occasional flooding, but it had the effect of eliminating the steps that used to lead up to Notre Dame and that used to make it look even more imposing.
You can cross the Pont Neuf to the Right Bank or, better still, cross to the Left Bank and follow the embankment to the Passerelle des Arts. As you cross this footbridge you can take in a delightful view of the Institute of France, the Louvre, the river and the Ile de la Cité. Then you can walk back along the stall-lined Quai de la Megisserie to the Place du Chatelet. As you reach the Pont au Change, look out over the river to see a wonderful view of the end of the Ile de la Cité, the Pont Neuf and the Pont des Arts, as well as the right embankment (voie Georges Pompidou) that on Sundays is invaded by roller bladers and cyclists. Looking north across the Place du Chatelet from the end of the Pont au Change, you can see another of Haussmann’s famous vistas up the Boulevard de Sebastopol (the corner with rue de Rivoli is the focal point of Haussmann's east-west and north-south axes). On the left of this square is the Chatelet theater and on the right the Théâtre de la Ville. And just behind the latter, on Avenue Victoria, is the Tour Saint-Jacques, all that remains of the most important church of Paris in the XIIth Century the starting point for pilgrims to Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle that was destroyed during the Revolution (it's just off the rue Saint-Martin, which follows the path of what used to be the main north-south axis of ancient Lutetia near the 'châtelet', or barbican, that guarded the bridge).
A little further along Avenue Victoria you’ll see a large square and the imposing City Hall building the Hôtel de Ville. This square, formerly known as the 'place de Grève', has always been at the heart of Paris life and death it used to be beside the ‘Strand’ on the north bank of the Seine that was used to offload cargo for the city, and it attracted unemployed workmen as well as crowds of spectators to public executions (the guillotine was inaugurated here in 1792). The original pure Italian Renaissance City Hall was burnt down during the Communard uprising in 1871 (like the Tuileries Palace, a symbol of the unpopular Napoleon III régime', but also because it was Haussmann's palace). However, it was rebuilt in 1883, and the current building, although supposedly using the same romantic Renaissance inspiration, is less pure in style and adds numerous rich neo-classical details.
Behind the Hôtel de Ville is the square and church of Saint-Gervais-Saint Protais, built on the site of a 6th century basilica over a period of two centuries, as witness the difference in styles of the classical façade (the first example of classical revival in French Renaissance with a church facade), the superb Renaissance stained-glass windows and Gothic nave. Behind the church is a charming view from the steps of the rue des Barres. You are now in the area known as the Marais where you can see numerous Rennaissance ‘Hôtels’ (not to be mistaken for places where tourists stay; they can be likened to fashionable aristocratic mansions or ‘town houses’ of the 15th - 17th century, i.e. before the move to Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Versailles). Take rue François-Miron and stop at No. 68 to admire the Hôtel de Beauvais, built for the Baronne de Beauvais in 1655. Crossing the rue de Rivoli, you can follow rue Pavée to No. 24, where you’ll see the Hôtel Lamoignon built in 1548. Continuing two small blocks along the rue de Rivoli, turn up rue de Sévigné, where you’ll find the most famous, and oldest of the Marais Hôtels at No. 23: Hôtel Carnavalet, built in the 16th century and renovated in the 17th century, and now a superb museum of Paris history where you can see so many things, ranging from Neolithic canoes (between 4,000 and 6,000 years old), the Declaration of the Rights of Man (inspired by the theories of Rousseau and the American Declaration of Independence just one month after the storming of the Bastille in 1789), to the original keys to the Bastille, and even Rousseau's inkpot. The southern wall of the Carnavalet compound, on rue des Francs Boureois, includes an interesting portal known as the 'Arc de Nazareth'. It used to be on the Ile de la Cité near the Palais de Justice, but it was transferred here in the 19th century rather than destroyed during reconstruction work following the Communard riots.
The rue de Rivoli then changes name to rue Saint-Antoine, which you can follow to No. 62 to see the Hôtel de Sully (built by the architect Jean Androuet du Cerceau in 1624, and bought in 1634 by the former minister of Henry IV, but well restored since).
A little further along rue Saint-Antoine is the rue de Birague which leads to the famous Place des Vosges. This square was built on the site of the former 'Hôtel Royal des Tournelles', torn down by Catherine de' Medici in 1559 after the ill-fated tournament where her husband Henri II was killed. It doesn’t seem to have changed much since 1612 when it was inaugurated as the Place Royale by Henry IV. He planned it with uniform houses on all four sides, faced with a harmonious juxtaposition of light-red brick and sandstone, two stories above a street-level arcade, except for a 'pavillon du Roi' rising above the middle of the south side and 'pavillon de la Reine' opposite. The disciplined regularity and architectural unity of the Place Royal (renamed as the Place des Vosges after the Revolution in 1800) were something new for Paris at the time, and this harmony clearly served as a model for the mercantile galleries behind the Palais Royal in the 1780's, and perhaps too as an inspiration for Haussmann in the latter half of the 19th century. Although neither the king nor the queen ever lived there, it was popular amongst the bourgeois, and number 6 houses the museum of Victor Hugo, a resident from 1832-1848. It also became a popular place for duels, well after they were outlawed in 1547. In the middle of the square amongst the trees an equestrian statue in white marble of Louis XIII, that Hugo likened to a large white phantom, is an 1829 copy of the gilt bronze statue that Richelieu set up in 1639 but was overturned during the Revolution.
There are so many interesting places to see in the Marais, but since you’ve come this far you only have to continue along rue Saint-Antoine another couple of small blocks and you’ll reach the Place de la Bastille. Everyone knows the story of the storming of the Bastille, the 14th Century fortress that only housed 7 prisoners (including four forgers and two lunatics), but that was such a symbol of the injustice of the ‘ancien régime’ that it marked the beginning of the 1789 Revolution and had to be destroyed. Moreover, the stones from this fortress were used to build the Pont de la Concorde so that the people could continually stamp on this detested symbol of the deposed royalty. With hindsight we know that the Revolution was really the result of dearth and worsening economic conditions caused not so much by the extravagance of the Royal family as by several poor harvests, the costs of continual wars abroad (in particular, spending on the war of American independence) and the firing of the popular Director General of Finances, Jacques Necker. But the common perception was that of blatant extravagance of royalty, nobility and aristocratic clergy in the face of the common man's misery, especially after Marie Antoinette's assumed guilt in the 'Diamond Necklace' affair of 1785-86. So, the Bastille square has remained a symbol of popular political movement, as befits the ‘July Column’ in the middle of the square commemorating the 1830 uprising that forced the resignation of Charles X and led to the constitutional monarchy with Louis Philippe, the Duke of Orleans as king. This square is also the focal point of several Haussmann avenues, one of which the Boulevard Henri IV will lead you to the second island on the seine: the Ile Saint-Louis.
Comprising three small islands until the 16th century, and still two separate undeveloped islands belonging to the Notre Dame cathedral at the beginning of the 17th century, the Ile Saint-Louis was developed from 1613 when Cardinal Richelieu gave the go-ahead to the engineer Christophe Marie to join the islands and link them to the left and right banks with a bridge. The Pont Marie was initially covered with houses until a flood in 1658 carried away half the bridge and most of the houses on it. Most of the buildings on the Ile Saint-Louis date from the mid 17th century, and while there used to be some housing for tradesmen and artists, it is now almost entirely an elegant residential area. And it makes a superb finale to any promenade, for example by taking the Quai d'Anjou and rue des Deux Ponts. For tennis fans, you might want to stop on the central Rue Saint-Louis-en-L'Ile at No. 54 to see a building called 'Jeu de Paume', where the indoor ancestor of tennis was popular until the Revolution. And at No. 51 you can see one of the most magnificent ornamental façades in Paris (doorway and balcony of the Hôtel Chenizot dating from around 1726). Continuing along rue des Deux Ponts and turning right on the Quai d’Orleans, you can enjoy one of the most picturesque views walking towards the Ile de la Cité, with Notre Dame beautifully framed ahead by the trees beside the river.