Île de la Cité

It became apparent, not long after my brother, sister and I exited our plane in Paris, that we are not now the force we used to be. Particularly as it pertains to mobility, we just don’t get around like in the days of yore. And one thing to be said about Paris, it is HUGE, as are most of the things in it. And, while we could get to those things, pacing was the name of the game.

So, on our first full day in Paris we decided to begin with a small geographical area to test our stamina. For this, there is no better place than the Île de la Cité. This is an island in the Seine (rhymes with Ben) that has been continuously occupied since before the Romans, and now is the site of Notre Dame Cathedral, Saint-Chappelle, and the Conciergerie. With all these attractions on one island, it would be easy to get around.

One other thing about three people sharing one bathroom, is that we don’t typically get out at the butt crack of dawn. By the time showers have been taken and coffee and pastries purchased we are lucky to hit the trains by noon. Which is what vacations are all about, except that it does cut into some touring time. Not a problem.

So, we boarded the train headed for the Île de la Cité, which took us under the river and dropped us off at a station called Chatelet, one of the main downtown stations. One thing I did before we came to town was to plot out all the trains we would take to various destinations and put them on a spreadsheet. It was worth the effort. We knew what trains to get on, the direction they were headed and, if needed, the stations to get off and change to another train. This saved a great deal of time and anxiety. But there are multitudes of steps on the different layers of the metro and precious few escalators. So, we took our time. I tried to keep ahead to make sure we were going down or up the right stairs to get us to the right train. Mostly I got it right. Soon, we were back up in the fresh air looking across the Seine at Île de la Cité.



La Conciergerie

The castle-like structure is the foreground is La Conciergerie, a former royal palace and, later, infamous prison. This was the first place we came to when we crossed the bridge to the island.

Now, I have to confess that my knowledge of the French Revolution is mostly limited to: the obvious fate of Louis and Marie, the musical Le Miserable, and Dicken’s “A Tale of Two Cities”. It was, however, in effect, a French Civil War and a confused one at that. At its heart was the conflict between the wealthy elite, and the poor, who would have been happy to eat cake if they could find any. But, of course it was not as neat and clean as all that. Particularly among the poor and working class there were various factions, the most notable being the Sans-Cullotes (literally “without breeches”) which was a militant radical group representing the poor, and the Jacobins, or the “Society of the Friends of the Constitution” who were even more radical and ruthless than the other guys. Then there were the Royalists and the Girondins who initially threw in with the Jacobins, but found them to be too radical. If you want the details you can look all this stuff up, but to get the point and the role of La Conciergerie: the Jacobins prevailed under the leadership of Maximillien Robespierre. In 1793, the National Convention passed the “Law of Suspects”, the first time that the use of terror was codified into law. It decreed that those “notoriously suspected of aristocracy and bad citizenship” should be arrested. Well, as you might imagine, lots of fingers were being pointed and lots of people were being arrested. They had to be put somewhere and, in Paris, La Conciergerie was the perfect place! A kangaroo court was quickly established under the auspices of The Committee of Public Safety (a good lesson: Beware of grand titles) to deal with the “suspects” and soon heads were rolling all over town.

In all 2,639 people were executed in Paris. Most would have passed through La Conciergerie. 16,594, were executed across France. The French kept meticulous records. The Reign of Terror ended in 1794 when Robespierre’s own head was detached. The revolution ended with the rise of Napoleon that same year. He went on to kill millions.


The lines weren’t too long.

When you get inside you are in this room, where, in the 1300’s, soldiers worked out of here. The wooden trough is a work of art that takes water from the Seine and pumps it into a waterfall, visible outside.


This section of the soldier’s quarters has been turned into a book store.


Roughly 4,000 people were imprisoned at La Conciergerie during the revolution. Not all were executed. The name of each one was recorded in this office.


This is the prisoners registry.


In this room prisoners were given a haircut and allowed to freshen up prior to execution. Executions did not take place at La Conciergerie. Instead, prisoner were hauled off in wooden carts to several places, most notably Place de la Concorde, north of the Tulleries, near the big Ferris wheel.


This is the restored cell of Marie Antoinette, which was off limits to us. Thanks to André Lage Freitas for this photo.


Commoners were thrown into cells with straw covered floors. The wealthier could buy more comfortable accommodations, paying a large monthly sum to the jailers. Sometimes their stay was cut short, so to speak,  in which case the jailers re-sold the room for greater profit.

Actually, much of La Conciergerie is closed off to the public as many of the rooms are part of the modern day Palace of Justice, a far better justice than was experienced during the revolution.


In medieval times, when La Conciergerie was the royal palace, one of the kings, Louis IX, ordered a chapel to be built on the palace grounds. But this was not to be an ordinary chapel because it was being built for an extraordinary purpose: to house the crown of thorns and other relics Louis had acquired. It seems that the crown had been in the possession Baldwin II, the Latin Emperor at Constantinople. However, by the time Louis was ready to cough up a whoppin’ 135,000 livres, it seems that Balwin, being a little financially strapped,  had hocked them to some guys in Venice. Louis, instead, paid the pawnbrokers and brought the relics to France. To house them, he paid another 100,000 livres for a silver chest, the Grand-Chasse, to be built. Then he ordered the construction of Sainte-Chapelle to be their permanent home. The entire cost of construction, including the stained glass, was 40,000 livres, so that just goes to show how pricey authentic Christian relics can be!

Construction of Sainte-Chapelle took only seven years, warp speed back in those days. It opened in 1248. By that time, Louis had also acquired a piece of the actual cross to put into the box as well! (I am reminded of the time when the great Jackie Gleason spent a fortune on a box of ectoplasm, which he could never open or else it would escape!)

So, did we see these relics at Sainte-Chapelle? No. The reason being, that during the French Revolution much of the chapel was destroyed. What we visit today is largely a re-construction. About two-thirds of the stained glass panels are original. The Grand-Chasse was melted down and the relics dispersed throughout France. A few have been recovered and are now housed at Notre Dame. The chapel has undergone years of restoration, which was only competed three years ago.

So, here is where the tour begins:




The entrance is on the ground floor, already not too shabby:



The chapel is on the second floor, accessible only by a stone circular staircase, not our favorite thing. But once you get up there:

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The chapel opens onto a balcony which features hundreds of intricate carvings:





This is one of those places to which pictures will never do justice. There is no substitute for being there.

Well, it had already been quite a day! Time to head over next door to one of the many cafe’s in the area.


This sandwich is the Croque Madame, a ham, cheese and egg delight available throughout Paris and very yummy. You can also get the Croque Monsieur, which is the same thing without the egg.


Here is a perfect example of family humor:


Notre Dame de Paris

After a fine feast at the cafe, we were off to Notre Dame.


Unlike Saint-Chappelle, Notre Dame took the customary hundreds of years to build, starting in 1163 and wrapping up in 1345. Unfortunately, what it has in common with Saint-Chappelle is that it too was badly damaged during the French Revolution. So much so, that for many years thereafter it was used as a warehouse. It was not until 1845 that restoration actually began. During the second world war stray bullets broke many of the stained glass panels, but they were later replaced as well. Notre Dame does not belong to the Catholic Church. It belongs to the French State who leases it for the exclusive use of the Church providing that the Church operates it, pays salaries, and makes it available for free to the public.

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Some of the interesting things that have happened here:

-Henry VI of England was crowned king of France

-James V of Scotland married Madeline

-Mary, Queen of Scots, married Dauphin Francis, who later became king of France

-The coronation of Napoleon

And lots of other things, too! After Saint-Chappelle was trashed, eventually Notre Dame became the repository, and still is, of the Crown of Thorns, the piece of the cross, and, a later addition: one of the Holy Nails. These are not on display.

Rich and I had both been here before, but one thing we had not done is to visit the Treasure Room, so we ponied up 5 euro and here is a SMALL sampling of what we saw:




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Here are some scenes from the Cathedral itself:






The outside is also spectacular:



Originally all these figures and the cathedral itself, were painted. Obviously, it wore off. During the French Revolution many such figures on the west side of the Cathedral were removed and beheaded. Many of the heads were found in 1977 during an excavation nearby, and are on display at the Cluny museum.



Notre Dame Cathedral was one of the first buildings to incorporate the use of flying buttresses. If you build thing walls too high, they cannot support themselves. You can either brace them from inside, which looks tacky and takes up space, or, you can support them from outside and do it quite beautifully as well!

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Behind the Cathedral is a very pleasant little garden.


After a nice time there, we left Ile de la Cite, looking back on the other big island in the Seine, Ile St. Lois, which now is occupied by a bunch of cheap apartments.


A little stroll up the Right Bank and we were soon at the Hotel D’Ville:


Another cheap joint. That was enough sightseeing for the day. We were soon back on the train headed for Rue Vandrazzane and the comforts of home and the Pub De La Butte!