The Place de l’Etoile is the center of twelve avenues, spokes to its hub, all of them well built and modern. Three arrondissements meet here, the 8th, the 16th, and the 17th.
A little less than five miles away to the east, and in an almost perfectly straight line, is the Place de la Nation, which is another hub to another twelve streets, less fashionable but no less interesting. Here too, three arrondissements meet : the 11th, the 12th, and the 20th.
Few persons, I am sure, have ever taken the trouble, have ever even had the impulse, to cover the five miles between these two points on foot, traversing a cross-section of Paris which is not set down in any guide-book, even though all the elements of it find their individual places there.
Your point of departure is the largest stone arch in the world; it needs no publicity. It was begun as an arch of triumph by Napoleon in 1806, when he announced that his plans for beautifying Paris were to keep sculptors busy for twenty years. But he was mistaken; by his own defeat he managed to stop that work in eight short years.
It went forward in 1825, to be halted by a revolution in 1830. Nevertheless in 1836 it was finished, having cost what was a tremendous sum for that time, two million dollars. Its dedication read: “To all the French armies since 1792” which made it a logical place for the burial of the “Unknown Soldier”; it has had, since the war, more visitors than any other monument in the world.
The Arc de Triomphe is 167 feet high, 147 feet wide, and 73 feet deep. As a symbol of Napoleon, it is perfect. As the classic embodiment of boastfulness, it has no equal. But the stone, mark you, did not come from the foundations of Paris but from a quarry some significant distance away. The Arc de Triomphe belongs to France and to the world, one of whose crossroads it marks; it is not of the marrow of Paris.
Champs Elysées means Elysian Fields; in that part of it I should say, I suppose, “of them” where the auto-mobile has established itself behind highly polished plate-glass windows, you are still in the shadow of the triumphal arch. Further down, where the frenzy of fashion has cooled enough to allow trees to take root, you might believe that commerce had no place.
You are wrong. Consider those chairs, piled lugubriously together on rainy days, but holding at other times their hundreds and thousands. You may already have discovered that they have to be paid for; that only the benches along here are free.
Why this distinction? The city owns the benches; they represent municipal hospitality. The chairs are the property of a concessionnaire. His name is Silly. I believe him shrewd. He admits a modest possession of sixty thousand chairs; several hundred thousand are more likely. That many are needed for the six hundred acres of parks, squares, and public gardens in Paris; six hundred acres! And you will find Monsieur Silly’s chairs thick upon all of them.
You were brought up to believe that the “Farmers-General,” the men who got concessions from the kings of France and milked the people for their own benefit, were responsible for the Revolution of 1789; all good histories teach us in our youth that they were justly hung for their exploitation of the people.
But consider these chairs; the French have preserved the principle of “farming out,” and they still use the same word for it. Monsieur Silly, who provides these chairs for your use, is a Fermier-Général and has never been hung although a woman did sue him because she tore her dress on a chair. You pay more for one with arms than without; the woman whom you pay has an eye like an eagle’s because she gets a small percentage of all that she collects. Another percentage goes to the city, and, after the overhead is paid, M. Silly gets the rest. I have seen somewhere, but I cannot remember where, the large building which is his permanent garage and repair shop. Municipal practices are the same the world over.
So far the only public buildings you have passed are the Grand and the Petit Palais; they were put up in 1900 for the World’s Fair; they have housed all sorts of exhibits ever since: art, industrial, domestic, agricultural, and the annual horse show.
The Place de la Concorde, even at its emptiest, is so full of history that it is just as well not to try to set it down here. The Revolution, after beginning its manifestations in the Palais Royal, carried them on here in the shadow of the guillotine. Until recently the “concord” seemed assured for the place, even though the Chamber of Deputies is over there, across the Seine. It is in a Bourbon palace that the people’s representatives there are six hundred and twelve of them have their seats, under a system which allows of a more rapid change of government than with us.
The French very frequently take advantage of that system. When, as in the early winter of 1934, the representatives seem to hesitate to do the public will, the crowds take possession of the Place de la Concorde and do their best to express their feeling, even to the point of demanding immediate change.
There is a general belief that the sixth of February, 1934, marks a new epoch in France. Time will tell. In passing it is not amiss to note that there have been here more automobile accidents in which diplomats figured than anywhere else in Paris, which is strangely significant when one is studying the European situation.
The American embassy has already become a landmark, and it is in perfect harmony with the structures done by Gabriel, the great French architect (whose parents were not afraid to name him Ange, Angel). These two structures were erected in the reign of Louis XV for the reception of visiting ambassadors and notables; the one is now used by the Hotel Crillon, whose list of guests reads like an Almanac de Gotha; and by an American bank. The other is the Ministry of the Marine.
The story of the Egyptian obelisk will be found elsewhere; it is six feet taller than its companion at London.
The buildings upon the terrace before you are the Orangerie and the Jeu de Paume of royal days, now used for art exhibits. The terrace belongs to the Gardens which took their name from the “tileries” (Tuileries) of the Middle Ages. A queen conceived the idea of a palace here; it was built and lasted until 1871, when the people of Paris burned it to show their feeling about palaces in general.
On the other side of you are the arcades ordered by Napoleon in 1802; they were cut ruthlessly through all the old convents which had housed the National Assembly in 1789, when it came into town from Versailles with Lafayette and his national guards. Fine old gardens had to give way, too. Napoleon had the proper spirit; he did not want to see about him anything which suggested the period of liberty, fraternity, and equality. He meant to be emperor !
Today this whole arcade is the alphabet of de luxe commerce in some of its simpler forms: bookshops, tea-shops, hotel entrances are sandwiched in and repeat them-selves as far as the Palais Royal Square, where the Louvre begins as the Tuileries leaves off.
The first entrance in the big building on the rue de Rivoli is that which lets you into a museum of rare interest, the museum of the Decorative Arts’ History of France; there is, besides, a remarkably good library for students of these arts. Anyone may enter this to study if he is willing to sign his name when he gets inside.
The next entrance, with the flag, is that of the Ministry of Finance. Across the way is the State Council in the Palais Royal, the old palace of the Duc d’Orléans. The famous garden is not visible from here, and we have no time for detours. Richelieu built the place and then had the good taste to leave it to the royal family, through whom he had come into power.
As you pass the Magasins du Louvre, note its conformity to the rules of the arcades; the building was the last one in this plan and was put up as a sumptuous hotel for the first French World’s Fair in 1855.
To your left you will see the first group of truly old buildings that have yet appeared along the line of our march. They were built not long after the Palais Royal itself, some perhaps even before, in the 16th century. And before that this Square was known, from its condition in the 12th century, as “Rotten Field” (Champ-pourri).
The arcade passes from the Magasins du Louvre in front of a church, now Protestant, called the Oratoire; just under it you could find the foundations of the first wall which was built about Paris on this, the Right Bank, in 1180. So far, we have been walking outside of what was Paris at that date. Philip Augustus, who built the wall nine and a half centuries ago, excluded his own feudal château, the Louvre, which was then a place of towers and walls, a fortress.
To your right now is the church of St Germain-l’Auxenrois, whose story is one to raise your hair; for a time they performed black magic there against Henry III; and it was this bell which rang out for the massacre of the Protestants on St Bartholomew’s day in August, 1572. One of the victims was Coligny, whose statue is in front of the Oratoire.
The rue de Rivoli from here on was designed as a piece of strategy and was cut in the reign of Napoleon III (1865) to the very Hôtel de Ville, to promote, in times of rebellion, the swift arrival of royal troops to that point in case the citizens should take it as they so often did for military headquarters. Narrow and crooked streets lent themselves too easily to the throwing up of barricades; they still do.
Here is the Tour St Jacques, all that is left of a church built and worshiped in for several centuries by the richest of the Corporations, that of the Paris butchers. In-deed they were so powerful that they refused to come into the Federation of trade-guilds but held their own against bourgeois and noble and, at times, the king himself. There is something sinister in their living on the rue St Antoine, where all revolutions have started; and that it was a butcher who put the Republican bonnet upon the head of Louis XVI is a bit of that symbolism which makes history, in spite of its seeming confusion, coherent even to its details.
This tower was used by Pascal, priest and scientist, in studying gravitation; it was used, too, for making lead bullets, and more recently in meteorological service. The square in which it stands covers the site of a cemetery and of cloisters; it is the oldest public square of the municipality of Paris.
The Hôtel de Ville, the City Hall of Paris, is linked to our patriotic pride because it was upon this balcony that Lindbergh’s appearance roused such tremendous ovations! That balcony has held many celebrities since it was built, to resemble as nearly as possible although on a larger scale the one upon the same site which was burned in 1871. Before that Renaissance structure was here, the houses about the enormous Square were gabled and timbered in medieval fashion, and the place more homelike. Official proclamations of King or Prefect were read first of all in front of the Town Hall before they were carried to other squares and street corners to be read. This was the center of the greatest excitement when any public question was up for discussion, when war threatened, or revolt menaced.
A little beyond the Hôtel de Ville, you enter the rue St Antoine which continues the rue de Rivoli. Not one of the houses along here but has had its adventures. For the rue St Antoine was always the scene of disturbances and barricades; down this street rushed the first revolutionary crowd between the two rows of butcher shops which lined it then, and which still hold their own today in greater numbers than anywhere else in Paris.
Notice the clock on your right, that of St Paul and St Louis; it has been going more or less regularly since 1627. St Paul does not need to be introduced, but it may be well to say that St Louis was Louis IX, who played his royal part in the 13th century; he had one of his palaces near here, with gardens for which certain streets have been named. He was good and deserved being made a saint.
The Lycée Charlemagne, alongside the church, was a famous Jesuit College in the 17th century. The house at No. 62 belonged to a King’s councillor, Sully a man who was strong for the rôle which the farmer played in the economic situation of a country a rôle of as great importance today.
Further on, the mildly amused man on a pedestal is Beaumarchais, who wrote operas and dabbled in high finance; his story is connected with our Revolution of 1776; he was instrumental in sending us arms.
When you reach the Place de la Bastille you may be disappointed; it seems to lack something the Bastille, I suppose. That column in the center was built as a tomb-stone for “the defenders of Liberty” in the revolution of 1830.
When the Bastille was here you had to go through a gate to reach the faubourg St Antoine. This is one of the least interesting of old streets as far as looks go; but upon it furniture has been made for seven centuries! Think what that means! It is not picturesque, but it is Paris.
Straight on, and we arrive at the Place de la Nation, for which we set out. It was originally called Place du Trône (Throne) ; and there was another of those huge celebrations here in 1662 for Louis XIV just as there was at the Place du Carrousel.
On the spot corresponding to that occupied by the Arc de Triomphe, is a fountain representing the Republic. What the crocodiles which guard her chariot represent, I do not know but it is here that the Communists fore-gather in opposition to the ceremonial gatherings at the Etoile.
Across from you are two toll-houses of the sixty built about Paris as a customs wall in 1784. The two columns, nearly a hundred feet tall, are surmounted by two kings: St Louis (12151270) and Philip Augustus, his grand-father, builder of that first wall about Paris in 1180. They guard the spirit of old Paris, even though at first sight that spirit does not seem to be in this rather empty circular place. But here they stand, two constructive French kings. Five miles back is the arch of Napoleon.
And in between, commerce, industry, strategy, municipal affairs, church-towers, and the Bastille column! Seven and a half centuries of life-through which you have been passing as people have passed in all their daily activities, in their processions, in their revolutions, and their revolts.
Is there a better introduction to Paris?
But if I am writing this book as a sort of informal introduction to Paris, it is always with the underlying pleasure which I take myself in the thought that a city can go through so many transformations and retain something of each one in so complete a form that were it not for the diabolic taxis, the modern traffic, we could close our eyes upon one century and open them upon another with out walking more than a block.
And each one of these old buildings meant the life of an active, constructive period; architect and contractor, carpenter and stone-mason, plasterer and cabinet-maker they mean more today perhaps than the man who lived in the building, were he even a king. For what they did remains, proof of honest work, of building.
They were known all over Europe for their work, these builders. In 1287, an old document in existence shows, the master stone-cutter, Estienne de Bonneuil of Paris, took ten “companions” and ten “bachelors” (workers) with him to build a church at Upsala in Sweden. He signed this document before the Provost of Paris as a promise to bring them back.