Historic Paris Walk
|Ile de la Cité.|
Part 1: Ile de la Cité
By Rick Steves
- This tour is available as one of the Rick Steves Audio Walking Tours of Paris
Paris has been the cultural capital of Europe for centuries. We'll start where it did, on Ile de la Cité, with a foray onto the Left Bank, on a walk that laces together 80 generations of history: from Celtic fishing village to Roman city, bustling medieval capital, birthplace of the Revolution, bohemian haunt of the 1920s café scene, and the working world of modern Paris.
Notre-Dame and Nearby
Start at the Notre-Dame Cathedral on the island in the River Seine, the physical and historic bullseye of your Paris map.
The closest Metro stops are Cité, Hôtel de Ville, and St-Michel, each requiring a short walk. On the square in front of the cathedral, stand far enough back to take in the whole facade. Find the circular window in the center.
For centuries, the main figure in the Christian "pantheon" has been Mary, the mother of Jesus. Catholics petition her in times of trouble to gain comfort, and to ask her to convince God to be compassionate with them. The church is dedicated to "Our Lady" (Notre Dame), and there she is, cradling God, right in the heart of the facade, surrounded by the halo of the rose window. Though the church is massive and imposing, it has always stood for the grace and compassion of Mary, the "mother of God."
Imagine the faith of the people who built this cathedral. They broke ground in 1163 with the hope that someday their great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren might attend the dedication Mass two centuries later, in 1345. Look up the 200-foot-tall bell towers and imagine a tiny medieval community mustering the money and energy for construction. Master masons supervised, but the people did much of the grunt work themselves for free — hauling the huge stones from distant quarries, digging a 30-foot-deep trench to lay the foundation, and treading like rats on a wheel designed to lift the stones up, one by one. This kind of backbreaking, arduous manual labor created the real hunchbacks of Notre-Dame.
"Walk this way" toward the cathedral, and view it from the bronze plaque on the ground (30 yards from the central doorway) marked...
You're standing at the center of France, the point from which all distances are measured. It was also the center of Paris 2,300 years ago, when the Parisii tribe fished where the east-west river crossed a north-south road. The Romans conquered the Parisii and built their Temple of Jupiter where Notre-Dame stands today (52 b.c.). When Rome fell, the Germanic Franks sealed their victory by replacing the temple with the Christian church of St. Etienne in the sixth century. See the outlines of the former church in the pavement (in smaller gray stones), showing former walls and columns, angling out from Notre-Dame to Point Zero.
The grand equestrian statue (to your right, as you face the church) is of Charlemagne ("Charles the Great," 742–814), King of the Franks, whose reign marked the birth of modern France. He briefly united Europe and was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800, but after his death, the kingdom was divided into what would become modern France and Germany.
Before its renovation 150 years ago, this square was much smaller, a characteristic medieval shambles facing a rundown church, surrounded by winding streets and higgledy-piggledy buildings. (Yellowed bricks in the pavement show the medieval street plan and even identify some of the buildings.) The church's huge bell towers rose above this tangle of smaller buildings, inspiring Victor Hugo's story of a deformed bell-ringer who could look down on all of Paris.
Looking two-thirds of the way up Notre-Dame's left tower, those with binoculars or good eyes can find Paris' most photographed gargoyle. Propped on his elbows on the balcony rail, he watches all the tourists in line.
Much of Paris' history is right under your feet. Some may consider visiting it in the...
Two thousand years of dirt and debris have raised the city's altitude. In the crypt (entrance 100 yards in front of Notre-Dame's entrance), you can see cellars and foundations from many layers of Paris: a Roman building with central heating; a wall that didn't keep the Franks out; the main medieval road that once led grandly up the square to Notre-Dame; and even (wow) a 19th-century sewer.
Now turn your attention to the church facade. Look at the left doorway (the Portal of Mary) and, to the left of the door, find the statue with his head in his hands.
When Christianity began making converts in Roman Paris, the bishop of Paris (St. Denis) was beheaded as a warning to those forsaking the Roman gods. But those early Christians were hard to keep down. St. Denis got up, tucked his head under his arm, headed north, paused at a fountain to wash it off, and continued until he found just the right place to meet his maker. The Parisians were convinced by this miracle, Christianity gained ground, and a church soon replaced the pagan temple.
By the way, Montmartre (the one hill overlooking Paris) is named for this martyr. Denis eventually died on the edge of town where the church of St. Denis was built (famous in history books as the first Gothic church, but not much to see today).
Above the central doorway, you'll find scenes from the Last Judgment.
It's the end of the world, and Christ sits on the throne of judgment (just under the arches, holding both hands up). Below him, an angel and a demon weigh souls in the balance; the demon cheats by pressing down. The good people stand to the left, gazing up to heaven. The naughty ones to the right are chained up and led off to a six-hour tour of the Louvre on a hot day. Notice the crazy sculpted demons to the right, at the base of the arch. Find the flaming cauldron with the sinner diving into it headfirst. The lower panel shows Judgment Day, as angels with trumpets remind worshippers that all social classes will be judged — clergy, nobility, army, and peasants. Below that, Jesus stands between the 12 apostles — each barefoot and with his ID symbol (such as Peter with his keys).
Take 10 paces back. Above the arches is a row of 28 statues, known as...
The Kings of Judah
In the days of the French Revolution (1789–1799), these Biblical kings were mistaken for the hated French kings, and Notre-Dame represented the oppressive Catholic hierarchy. The citizens stormed the church, crying, "Off with their heads!" Plop, they lopped off the crowned heads of these kings with glee, creating a row of St. Denises that wasn't repaired for decades.
But the story doesn't end there. A schoolteacher who lived nearby collected the heads and buried them in his backyard for safekeeping. There they slept until 1977, when they were accidentally unearthed. Today, you can stare into the eyes of the original kings in the Cluny Museum, a few blocks away.
Enter the church at the right doorway (the Portal of St. Anne) and find a spot where you can view the long, high central aisle. (Be careful: Pickpockets attend church here religiously.)
Remove your metaphorical hat and become a simple bareheaded peasant, entering the dim medieval light of the church. Take a minute to let your pupils dilate, then take in the subtle, mysterious light show that God beams through the stained-glass windows. Follow the slender columns up 10 stories to the praying-hands arches of the ceiling, and contemplate the heavens. Let's say it's dedication day for this great stone wonder. The priest intones the words of the Mass that echo through the hall: "Terribilis est locus iste" — "This place is terribilis," meaning awe-inspiring or even terrifying. It's a huge, dark, earthly cavern lit with an unearthly light.
This is Gothic. Taller and filled with light, this was a major improvement over the earlier Romanesque style. Gothic architects needed only a few structural columns, topped by crisscrossing pointed arches, to support the weight of the roof. This let them build higher than ever, freeing up the walls for windows.
Notre-Dame has the typical basilica floor plan shared by so many Catholic churches: with a long central nave lined with columns and flanked by side aisles. It's designed in the shape of a cross, with the altar placed where the crossbeam intersects. The church can hold up to 10,000 faithful. And it's probably buzzing with visitors now, just as it was 800 years ago. The quiet, deserted churches we see elsewhere are in stark contrast to the busy, center-of-life places they were in the Middle Ages.
Walk up to the main altar.
This marks the place where Mass is said and the bread and wine of Communion are blessed and distributed. In olden days, there were no chairs. This was the holy spot for Romans, Christians...and even atheists. When the Revolutionaries stormed the church, they gutted it and turned it into a "Temple of Reason." A woman dressed like the Statue of Liberty held court at the altar as a symbol of the divinity of Man. France today, while nominally Catholic, remains aloof from Vatican dogmatism. Instead of traditional wooden confessional booths, notice the inviting glass-walled room (right aisle) where modern sinners seek counseling as much as forgiveness.
Just past the altar are the walls of the so-called "choir," the area where more intimate services can be held in this spacious building. Looking past the altar to the far end of the choir, you'll see a fine 17th-century pietà flanked by two kneeling kings: Louis XIII (1601–1643, not so famous) and his son Louis XIV (1638–1715, very famous, also known as the Sun King).
Right Transept (and Beyond)
A statue of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc, 1412–1431), dressed in armor and praying, honors the French teenager who rallied French soldiers to try to drive English invaders from Paris before being burned at the stake for claiming to hear heavenly voices. Almost immediately, Parisians rallied to condemn Joan's execution, and finally, in 1909, here in Notre-Dame, the former "witch" was beatified.
Join the statue in gazing up to the blue-and-purple, rose-shaped window in the opposite transept — with teeny green Mary and baby Jesus in the center — the only one of the three rose windows still with its original medieval glass.
A large painting back down to your right shows portly Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) teaching, while his students drink from the fountain of knowledge. This Italian monk did undergrad and master's work at the multicultural University of Paris, then taught there for several years while writing his theological works. His "scholasticism" used Aristotle's logic to examine the Christian universe, aiming to fuse faith and reason.
Continue toward the far end of the church, pausing at the top of the three-stair step.
Circling the Choir
The back side of the choir walls features scenes of the resurrected Jesus (c. 1350) appearing to his followers, starting with Mary Magdalene. Their starry robes still gleam, thanks to a 19th-century renovation. The niches below these carvings mark the tombs of centuries of archbishops. Just ahead on the right is the Treasury. It contains lavish robes and golden reliquaries, but lacks English explanations and probably isn't worth the small entry fee. Surrounding the choir are chapels, each dedicated to a particular saint and funded by a particular guild. The faithful can pause at their favorite, light a candle as an offering, and meditate in the cool light of the stained glass.
Amble around the ambulatory, spill back outside, and make a slow U-turn left. Enter the park through the iron gates along the riverside..
Notre-Dame Side View
Along the side of the church, you'll notice the flying buttresses. These 50-foot stone "beams" that stick out of the church were the key to the complex Gothic architecture. The pointed arches we saw inside caused the weight of the roof to push outward rather than downward. The "flying" buttresses support the roof by pushing back inward. Gothic architects were masters at playing architectural forces against each other to build loftier and loftier churches, with walls opened up for stained-glass windows.
Picture Quasimodo (the fictional hunchback) limping around along the railed balcony at the base of the roof among the "gargoyles." These grotesque beasts sticking out from pillars and buttresses represent souls caught between heaven and earth. They also function as rainspouts (from the same French root as "gargle") when there are no evil spirits to battle.
The neo-Gothic 300-foot spire is a product of the 1860 reconstruction of the dilapidated old church. Victor Hugo's book The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) inspired a young architecture student named Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc to dedicate his career to a major renovation in Gothic style. Find Viollet-le-Duc himself at the base of the spire among the green apostles and evangelists (visible as you approach the back end of the church). The apostles look outward, blessing the city, while the architect (at top) looks up the spire, marveling at his fine work.
Behind Notre-Dame, cross the street and enter the iron gate into the park at the tip of the island.
Deportation Memorial ("Mémorial de la Déportation")
This memorial to the 200,000 French victims of the Nazi concentration camps (1940–1945) draws you into their experience. France was quickly overrun by Nazi Germany, and Paris spent the war years under Nazi occupation. Jews and dissidents were rounded up and deported — many never returned.
As you descend the steps, the city around you disappears. Surrounded by walls, you have become a prisoner. Your only freedom is your view of the sky and the tiny glimpse of the river below. Enter the dark, single-file chamber up ahead. Inside, the circular plaque in the floor reads, "They went to the end of the earth and did not return."
The hallway stretching in front of you is lined with 200,000 lighted crystals, one for each French citizen who died. Flickering at the far end is the eternal flame of hope. The tomb of the unknown deportee lies at your feet. Above, the inscription reads, "Dedicated to the living memory of the 200,000 French deportees sleeping in the night and the fog, exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps." The side rooms are filled with triangles — reminiscent of the identification patches inmates were forced to wear — each bearing the name of a concentration camp. Above the exit as you leave is the message you'll find at all Nazi sites: "Forgive, but never forget."
Back on street level, look (north) across the river to the Ile St. Louis. If the Ile de la Cité is a tug laden with the history of Paris, it's towing this classy little residential dinghy, laden only with high-rent apartments, boutiques, characteristic restaurants, and famous sorbet shops.
This island wasn't developed until much later than the Ile de la Cité (17th century). What was a swampy mess is now harmonious Parisian architecture and one of Paris' most exclusive neighborhoods. Its uppity residents complain that the three local Berthillon ice cream shops draw crowds until late into the night (one is at 31 rue St. Louis-en-l'Ile, another is across the street, and there's one more around the corner on rue Bellay). Gelato lovers head instead to Amorino Gelati (47 rue St. Louis-en-l'Ile).
Now look upstream (east) to the bridge that links the Ile St. Louis with the Left Bank (which is now on your right). Where the bridge meets the Left Bank, you'll find one of Paris' most exclusive restaurants, La Tour d'Argent. Because the top floor has floor-to-ceiling windows, your evening meal comes with glittering views — and a golden price (allow €200 minimum, though you get a free photo of yourself dining elegantly with Notre-Dame floodlit in the background).
From the Deportation Memorial, cross over to the Left Bank and turn right (west). Walk along the river, toward the front end of Notre-Dame. Stairs detour down to the riverbank if you need a place to picnic. This side view of the church from across the river is one of Europe's great sights and is best from river level.