22 November 2014
On Saturday there was a plan, of sorts. This involved finding our way across the city armed only with a map and three separate objectives. We emerged from the hotel to wet streets and sunshine, it had obviously been raining at some point but the sky looked reassuringly blue. We got off to a good start, we knew which direction to go to start out.
From Rue La Fayette we turned onto Boulevard de Magenta and in no time at all the Église Saint-Laurent had captured my attention. The pale stones blackened with age served to make the bright mural above the door stand out. In the sixth century a chapel stood on this spot but building of the present church didn’t begin until 1492 and wasn’t actually finished until the nineteenth century. Obviously there was no hurry. The beautiful doorway was one of the last things to be reconstructed when the boulevard we walked on was built.
This was our cue to turn onto Boulevard de Strasbourg. Taking our life in our hands, we crossed the busy intersection. Crossing French streets always feels like dicing with death, being English we are conditioned to look the wrong way and to expect cars to stop on crossings. French drivers see a pedestrian crossing as a challenge and the rules about who has right of way are hazy to say the least. Once we were across we were heading in a straight line towards the Seine.
An archway with the words Passage du Desir above intrigued me but the gate was locked which seemed a shame. I’d have liked to have seen where that led. Google tells me this little cut way is a dead end that holds nothing but apartments. It was called Aisle Well until the residents changed the name in 1789. No one seems to know why but it made me smile.
Once we’d crossed Boulevard St Martin the road name changed to Boulevard de Sebastopol which was slightly confusing because, as far as I could see, were were on the same straight road. The next landmark came when we crossed Rue de Rivoli. On the corner, silhouetted against a blue sky criss crossed with vapour trails, was a very unusual looking tower. This was Tour Saint-Jacques, once part of the sixteenth century Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie (Saint James of the butchery).
The church was flattened not long after the French Revolution and the stones used as building materials but the tower was left as a landmark. Built between 1509 and 1523 by Jean de Felin, Julien Ménart and Jean de Revier, the tower was a marker for pilgrims on the way to Santiago de Compostela.
Once I’d found a gate I wandered into the pretty little park, designed by architect Théodore Ballu. I wanted a better look at the strange sculptures on the top of the tower but the trees made this difficult. One is a statue of the saint standing with a staff in his hand each of the other corners has a different sculpture representing the four evangelists, a lion, a bull and a man.
When Commando finally dragged me away from the park there was one more scary junction to negotiate, across Avenue Victoria. Now the River Seine was in sight. We crossed Quai de Gesvres and we were on Pont au Change. Looking down the road we had our first view of the Eiffel Tower, hazy in the distance, and in front of us was Quai de l’Horloge (quay of the clock), dominated by the Conciergerie.
Part of the Royal Palace, the Conciergerie was once a prison, known during the French Revolution as the antechamber to the guillotine. In the ten months of the Reign of Terror more than forty thousand people were executed or died from the terrible conditions of imprisonment. The Conciergerie was the final home to more than two thousand seven hundred of them including Marie Antoinette. Wealth determined whether a prisoner spent their final days in the dank dungeons or the beautiful palace above but it couldn’t save those deemed to be enemies of the republic from Madame La Guillotine.
Despite the blue sky the Seine looked green and murky when we finally got to it. A tourist filled Bateau Mouche sailed past. Looking upstream we could see people and cars streaming across Pont Notre-Dame and across the road the arch of Pont Neuf spanned the river. We strolled across to Île de la Cité drinking in all the sights and sounds.
On the corner of Boulevard du Palais is the clock tower housing the famous and beautifully ornate 1370 clock. This was the first public clock in Paris and was designed by Henri de Vic. Amongst all the blue and gold decorations the figures of Justice and Piety, designed by Germain Pilon are almost lost. In fact these are just copies of the originals as is the clock which was replaced under the reign of Henri III and restarted in 1852.
Behind the Conciergerie, set back a little from the road behind ornate wrought iron railings and gates decorated with gold is the Palais de Justice. Built by Robert II this was the home of the first French royal family until Charles V moved the royal palaces to Marais in 1358. Several fires along with the revolution took a toll on the building and in 1868 it was torn down and rebuilt under the Third Republic. These days it is the first chamber of the High Court.
As we approached Pont Saint-Michel a pretty little dark green drinking fountain caught my eye. It seem far too beautiful to be something so mundane. In fact these fountains were donated by Sir Richard Wallace and can be found all over Paris, there is even one in London, outside the Wallace Collection. During the siege of Paris many of the city aqueducts were destroyed. Water was drawn from the Seine, despite the sewers draining into it, and sold at prices the poor couldn’t afford. Wallace aimed to add beauty to the city while solving the problem. The fountains, designed by Charles-Auguste Lebourg, with four female forms supporting an ornate roof from which water trickles to the basin beneath certainly fulfil his wishes.
On the other side of the river we joined Boulevard Saint-Michel, according to the map we were close to our destination but the enormous fountain taking up a whole wall of the building in front of us couldn’t be ignored. The Fontaine Saint-Michel was designed by Gabriel Davioud as part of the reconstruction of Paris in the late seventeenth century. His original plan was to have the fountain in the centre of the square but the authorities wanted it to hide the end wall of the building so he adapted his plan to suit them and the building.
The fountain opened in 1860 and represents a triumphal arch. The water tumbles over a rock on which Saint Michael stands over a defeated devil. Unlike the critics I like the coloured columns and the contrast of the verdigris on the bronze dragons at either side. It was well worth crossing the road for.
Although we were almost in sight of our first objective, when we spotted a Starbucks, we couldn’t pass by without grabbing a takeaway coffee. There was no problem making myself understood until the barista asked me for my name to write on the cup. As my name is French I’d expected this to be the least of my problems but I ended up having to spell it. Obviously my accent is rubbish.
Armed with our skinny lattes we walked the last few yards to Le Jardin Du Luxembourg, our first stop of the day. Commando had read about this runners paradise in his running magazine and wanted to check it out with a view to coming back for a Sunday morning run. It was certainly a pretty park and quite large. We found a place to sit close to a bandstand and a café and drank our coffee looking out over some formal gardens and an artificial lake. Parisians were strolling about in the sun or sitting on benches enjoying a perfect autumn Saturday morning.
Close to us a man was playing football with his two young sons, the youngest was too small to really understand the game and we smiled as he kept picking up the ball and toddling off with it. We’d been walking for a little under two and a half hours and the rest was welcome. Of course we could easily have completed the journey in minutes on the metro but then we’d have missed so much of the city.
While we sipped our drinks we consulted the map looking for our second objective.