Friday, April 10, 2009

Paris Monuments - The Conciergerie

Spring has sprung in Paris, and so has tourist season. Trees are blooming, lines are growing, and the sound of French is muted among myriad other languages. Today, as I walked across the Pont au Change in the direction of Ile de la Cité, my ears pricked up at the words of a US mid-western male just behind me.

“I wonder where the Chatelet is. And what it is,” he said.

I couldn’t help myself. I turned around and told him - and his wife and two young sons, aged approximately 8 and 10 – that the Chatelet no longer existed. It had been a medieval fortress that became an evil, hated prison, and Napoleon Bonaparte had it destroyed in 1808. I pointed out where it once stood, at the site of Bonaparte’s Palmier Fountain and the twin Palladian-style theatres, the Théâtre de la Ville and Théâtre du Chatelet.

We continued on, all five of us, in the direction we’d been going, toward the imposing four-towered medieval structure that stretches along the Seine on the Ile de la Cité. One of Paris’ few surviving medieval buildings, the Conciergerie makes an arresting impression.
“That was also a prison.” I said. “It’s called the Conciergerie. During the French Revolution prisoners at the Conciergerie only came out to get their heads chopped off at the guillotine,” I drew my hand across my throat. “And they had to pay for their stay there!”

The boys both stared up at me, rapt. They appeared to want more. So I told them that the Conciergerie was once part of the royal palace of the earliest Kings of France, the Palais de la Cité. (This was before King Charles V moved the royal residence to the Louvre in 1364, turning the Palais de la Cité into the Palais de Justice, which it remains today.) I pointed to the round towers of the Conciergerie and explained that in the days of kings each one had a different purpose. The Tour d’Argent, center-right, was where the kings kept their guarded royal treasure. At the far-right, the Tour Bonbec, was where they tortured their prisoners. Tour means ‘tower’; Bonbec means ‘good beak’. When the torturer applied his instruments, the victim’s beak, or mouth, gave up the “good” things the torturer wanted to hear.

“And that tower,” I said, indicating the left-most tower, “That’s the Tour Horloge, the clock tower. Follow me.” And the whole family, mom, dad, and both little boys skittered right along beside me. We crossed the street and looked up at the colorful clock decorated with images symbolizing law and justice high up on the turreted, corner structure. The clock there now dates to 1585, though its predecessor was installed around 1350. In medieval times, it was the only clock in Paris. It told time for the entire city back when Paris comprised only the islands, the Latin Quarter, and a bit of the Right Bank. The bells of the Tour Horloge tolled every hour to mark the passing of the day.

“You can visit the Conciergerie,” I said to the boys. “Before it was a prison, it was a hang-out for knights and royal policeman. You can even see a slab of the table where they ate.”

As the boys clung to mid-western-Dad’s arm, begging to go to the Conciergerie, mid-western-Mom sidled up to me. “Thank you,” she said. “They haven’t been this engaged since we arrived.”

History. It’s all in the context.

Horne, Alistair, Seven Ages of Paris. London: Pan Books, 2002.
The Conciergerie, Palais de la Cité. Monum, Editions du Patrimoine, 2003.

Photo of tourist boat on the river Seine alongside the Conciergerie, courtesy of Milvus and Wikimedia Commons.
Engraving of the Chatelet Fortress, by Dupré, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of the Conciergerie, courtesy of Beckstet and Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of the Palais de Justice by Adrien Dauzats, 1858, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of the Tour Horloge, courtesy of CaptainHaddock and Wikimedia Commons.

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