For years I resisted going to Paris for a very silly reason. Everyone told me how wonderful it was – magical, superb and nearly as essential as Italy. But I hadn’t been there either so I saw no reason to follow the crowd. Then Tex went without me, with Mel, so I decided to go at last, and then returned, and can’t wait to visit yet again. Everything they say is true – the streetscape, Montmartre, art, cafes, wine, markets, Notre Dame, history revealed and hidden both, the shopping, the parks, the Seine, the ghosts of writers and revolutionaries.
So much has been written over the centuries and everyone thinks they already know it all, so yet another travel blog is of no consequence. I’ll just mention a few personal highlights, starting with the Catacombes. These are underground stacks of bones, a labyrinth beneath Paris created in the galleries of the quarries whose stone was used to build the capital. Quite spooky and thought provoking. Six million people were interred here from 1786 till 1892, mainly transferred from other cemeteries that were closed due to health concerns, or because the land was too valuable. They include Rabelais, La Fontaine, Perrault, all great names in French culture who now have no headstone because their bones just lie amongst all the others.
During the Revolution, people were buried directly in the Catacombs, including members of the Swiss Guard killed in the storming of the Tuileries palace on 10 August 1792 and victims of the Terror in September 1793. The remains of victims of the guillotine transferred there from their original burial pits include Lavoisier, Louis XVI’s sister Madame Elisabeth, Camille and Lucile Desmoulins, Danton and Robespierre.
Revolutionaries sought refuge here when the Commune fell to the Royalists in May 1871 and many reputedly suffocated or starved beneath the earth. The Catacombes are just around the corner from Montparnasse Cemetery, although the last of the Communards were actually shot at Pere Lachaise across the Seine to the north. It’s hard to locate accurate information about the Commune in Paris, as if it’s something they want to forget about. This website gives a nice potted history and this one explores the politics in more depth.
On Montmartre there’s a relic in the form of a street sign commemorating Jean-Baptiste Clement, a surviving leader who wrote the famous song Les Temps des Cerises – Cherry Season. The “Time of Cherries” is a metaphor for life after the revolution had changed social and economic conditions. It was sung wistfully in memory of the martyrs and the death of the dream.
As with the memory of the commune, there are few memorials to the Great Revolution itself, nor to subsequent uprisings like 1848 or 1968. In fact I went looking in the Place de la Bastille and found a huge column commemorating . . . the restoration of the monarchy after the 1830 Revolution!
There are a few remnants of the Bastille stonework nearby beside the river, and in the Pont de la Concorde, and you can still see its perimeter outlined in paving stones in the street.
During excavations for the Paris Metro in 1899 stones from one of the eight towers were discovered and later moved to Square Henri Galli for display. Of course I went there and took a selfie.
If the French establishment doesn’t commemorate revolution, it doesn’t really value history either. There’s very little to find about Charlemagne for example, and only a more about the Romans. Charlemagne’s capital was of course at Aachen, but he was a child of Paris after all. There is a street named after him.
Beneath Notre Dame there’s a fascinating archeological display of the Roman port constructed along the river, as they used the islands as a safe haven. Most of the Roman city was on today’s Left Bank as the northern side of the Seine was marshy and hard to either build on or defend.
Then there’s the Roman amphitheatre “Arènes de Lutèce” which dates from the first century CE and was largely destroyed during the barbarian invasions of the 3rd century. The Romans had retreated to the Île de la Cité and re-used most of the stone material there. The arena’s location was unknown till 1858 and fully uncovered during demotion work in 1869. It was restored in 1917 – during the World War! It’s now a park surrounded by leafy gardens, used for impromptu soccer, picnics and students making movies. The afternoon we visited it was nearly deserted.
This was just a tiny part of the Paris we found as we wandered in search of history. Of course there’s so much more to discover and the city is constantly changing. We were confronted and confused by all the black and Arab faces in some districts. At the entrance to some Metro stations Algerian or Moroccan youths try to sell you fake tickets at half or even quarter price. Many are selling but few are buying. Parisians just walk past with a shrug. Black kids jump the barriers to ride for free and not a cop in sight.
In the rich districts, the Marais and the 8th Arrondissement, rich Saudis park their BMWs and Mercs on the footpath or block one way streets. Letting us know that THEY own the place now.
So will we ever go back to this city? We hope so. There’s so much to find and too much to remember. Making connections and taking away some meaning is all we can hope for, really.