The Bastille and the Marais
By Jerry Marterer
Many Americans are aware of “Bastille Day,” or Le Quatorze Juillet (July 14), in France. On that day in 1789, the storming of this fortified city gate in Paris began the overthrow of the French monarchy. The French now call it La Fête Nationale. Military units from all service branches, including the French Foreign Legion and a horse-mounted band of the Republican Guard, march from the Arc de Triumph down the Champs Elysées. Fighter jets lay blue, white and red contrails above the parade. They all pass in review at the Place de la Concorde.
The Bastille (pronounced “Bass-tee”) was a fortification (“bastion”) guarding the Porte Saint-Antoine, the last gate of Charles V’s wall. It was built in the 1400s. Three hundred years later, during the reign of Louis XVI, its eight towers came in handy for political prisoners and out-of-favor royalty. Just outside the city walls was the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, a volatile working-class neighborhood, where there were shops for making furniture, tapestry looms and a paper factory. Furniture makers still dot the neighborhood.
Much has been written about Louis XVI and the basis for the French Revolution. Paris was tense during the summer of 1789. The previous year’s harvest was poor and the winter especially severe. Louis was disliked by some of the Paris nobility, who fomented rebellion as well as by the bourgeoisie and the poor. The first riots occurred earlier in the spring in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine as rumors of forced wage cuts at the paper factory swept the district. The factory was burned and looted. Troops arrived and shot many of the rioters while the mill owner fled to the safety of the Bastille. Then on July 14, the mob began looking for arms from city arsenals and, joined by mutinous soldiers, broke in to the Hôtel des Invalides on the other side of the city, taking cannon and muskets. The Bastille was a symbol of repression as well as the only such fortress remaining in Paris at the time so that is where the mob went. The commander of the Bastille surrendered it to the mob on the condition that he and his men would be spared. They were executed shortly after by the revolutionaries who put their heads on pikes. After the sacking of the fortress, all of Paris seemed to join in the wanton spree of death and destruction that lasted for several years. Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined in 1793 at what is now the place de la Concorde.
By the end of 1789, the Bastille had been demolished. Today, the outlines of the fortress are marked by special paving stones in the street. In 1793 a fountain was installed, and it formally became the Place de la Bastille. Napoléon proposed a giant bronze elephant on the site. The project only got as far as a plaster copy that deteriorated and was eventually removed as an eyesore. The present July Column was inaugurated in 1840, although not to celebrate July 14 but to mark the three-day July revolution of 1830 that deposed Charles X. It is topped by a bronze, torch-bearing winged statue called the Spirit of Liberty. The Place de la Bastille is served by the 1, 5 and 8 Metros, and the 69, 86 and 87 Buses.
At the southern end of the place, there is a large marina that comes off the Seine known as the Arsenal. You may see a boat disappearing under the square. This is the beginning of the Canal Saint-Martin. Half of its route was paved over in the 1960s. It runs under the boulevard Richard Lenoir for about a mile, then opens on a nice promenade. There is a canal boat tour from the Seine marina operated by Canauxrama.
The Opéra Bastille was built on the site of the old Bastille rail station in 1989. Walk down the street that goes along the right side of the building, the rue de Lyon, bearing left on the avenue Daumesnil. There is a series of brick archways under a bridge that carried the now-abandoned railway. The viaduct was renovated in the 1980s to become an elevated park, called the Promenade Plantée, where one can walk for miles among shrubs and flowers without descending to the street. On the ground level it is called the Viaduc des Arts, for the shops installed in the arches below. Preference was given to artisans, such as luthiers, rug weavers and art restorers. Beneath one arch is the Viaduc Café, a pleasant stop for coffee or lunch. This conversion of an elevated railway to a promenade was a prototype for other cities, most recently the High Line walkway in New York City.
The best way to see the area’s magnificent attractions is to walk westerly along the rue Saint-Antoine through the Marais, an ancient neighborhood whose name means “swamp” or “marsh,” its condition before it was settled in the 13th century. During the next 400 years, it would become the most fashionable quarter in Paris before falling into decay and then rescued again in the 1960s and designated a protected area. It has evolved since then from a starving artist kind of place to a bohemian-chic, sought-after quarter. It has been called “the left bank of the right bank.”
Rue de Birague — Place des Vosges
Take the first street on the right, the rue de Birague, a one-block street. Just ahead is the entrance to the place des Vosges, thought by many to be the most beautiful square in Paris. It was a jousting ground near a royal residence under King Henri II, who met an untimely end when he was struck in the eye and killed by a broken lance during a competition in 1559. The area sat abandoned until the beginning of the 17th century, when Henri IV began building the square to house aristocrats and high-end artisanal workshops for crafts like silk making. When Henri IV was assassinated in 1610, it fell to his successor, Louis XIII, to complete the square, and his statue is in its center. The square became the first known luxury condo development.
Today there are galleries and restaurants in the covered walks around the square. Across the square directly opposite the rue de Birague, the rue de Béarn exits the square. If it’s time for lunch, take the first right onto the rue Roger-Verlomme. At the end of the block under the green-striped awning sits the delightful Chez Janou, a neighborhood restaurant that evokes Provence and the Mediterranean. Tapenade, ratatouille, fresh fish and dozens of flavors of pastis all make for a taste of summer year-round. On warm evenings the square in front fills with waiting diners enjoying aperitifs.
Now go back through the place des Vosges to the rue Saint-Antoine and continue to walk west. You will come across an imposing entrance to an authentic 17th century “hôtel particulier” or private home of the aristocrat Duke de Sully, the finance minister of Henri IV. Pass into the courtyard to view a château-like residence. Continue through the home into the gardens and the orangerie to find the “secret” door that leads right back into the Place des Vosges. The Marais quarter is full of once-abandoned private mansions like this one that have been restored and are open to the public. If time permits, devote a whole day to this remarkable quarter.
A little farther up the rue Saint-Antoine, turn right on the rue Caron, another one-block street. At the end is the place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, the site of an old market near a former convent of the same name. The tiny square is edged in mulberry trees and lined with outdoor cafés. It has the feel of a provincial town square miles away from Paris. This is a good spot for a coffee or an aperitif.
Continue to walk the short distance along the rue Saint-Antoine to the Baroque church of Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis completed in 1641. The building was cleaned in 2012 and the flamboyant clock on the façade restored. It is worth going inside just to gaze up at the central dome. The network of streets behind the church is known as the Village Saint-Paul. It is not a village in the traditional sense but a series of small cobblestoned courtyards lined with antique dealers and cafés. Interspersed around the neighborhood are remnants of the 13th-century city wall from the reign of Philip II Augustus. One span backs up to a school playground.
The number 69 bus continues along the rue Saint-Antoine back to the École Militaire.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.