There are two islands in the Seine: the Cité, and the Ile St Louis, which was made to order, as it were, and converted into a residential section in the 17th century. If you like quiet streets and quays, and old houses in a row, walk on the Ile St Louis at dusk. It is better than a book upon “Paris in the 17th and 18th centuries”; it is full of romance.
Little of the past remains upon the streets of the Cité in the way of ancient dwellings. But the oldest building upon the island, the Palais de Justice, looks fairly modern; it has been rebuilt in part. To get an interesting first impression of it, cross to the Cité by the bridge called the Pont Neuf (New Bridge), which is the oldest one in Paris. Henry IV, whose statue ornaments it, rode across it for the first time in 1603; it used to have little shops in those semi-circular juttings in the parapets.
You come into the Place Dauphine, which was created, by order of this same king, by joining to the Cité a small island. Then when he wanted to cut the rue Dauphine, he had to threaten to shoot through the convent wall which obstructed it; the Augustine Monks (for whom the Left Bank quay here is named) had refused to have a thoroughfare through their grounds. But they gave in.
The houses on the Place Dauphine are of the period; and the triangular plot between the two rows used to have another row of houses at its upper end. They were destroyed to make place for the approach to the stone staircase of the Palais de Justice; which was a pity! In that row lived the two jewelers who sold the necklace of diamonds which was to make the scandal at the court of Marie Antoinette. Here, too, was a man whose name is still used for the brilliant colored glass imitations of precious stones : Stras. And up in one of the attics the first Paris newspaper was published in 1631 by Renaudot, whose statue you will find around the corner in front of the Prefecture of Police.
To visit the Palais de Justice you must pass along its north wall on the Quai de l’Horloge (Quay of the Clock). And here you will see the towers whose silhouette as pepper pots gives this island its medieval look from the Right Bank. These towers have their old names: Caesar’s Tower, Tour d’Argent (Silver Tower), and Bon-bec. They were built in the 13th century, perhaps rebuilt then; for neither fires nor destruction of any sort, ever snuffed out the Cité; the foundations of the Palais today are, in places, those of the palace when the Romans lived in it!
After the invasions of the Barbarians began, the Cité was considered the safest place to dwell. In the 3rd century there was a high wall about the island, and even today, whenever they are digging here, they come upon part of its foundations. The wall was made from what was left of the massive Roman buildings on the Left Bank which had been destroyed by the invaders. What other stones they needed they had no time to quarry were taken from the tombs in the Roman burying grounds. Whenever any of these are discovered they are taken over to the Carnavalet Museum, where you may find them less gloomy than most, knowing how useful they were in their time.
Consider this that for seven centuries the city of Lutetia, as Paris was then called, was crammed within this wall from the beginning of the 13th century down to our own although the Romans had long since given way to the conquering Franks, who took up their royal residence in this Palace, as pleased as children. They passed it on to the next line of kings; and finally it be-longed to Philip Augustus and his grandson, Louis IX; and then to Philip the Fair, famous for his destruction of the Order of the Knights Templar. They had their revenge on the royal family when, in their “Temple,” left standing, Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, and the Dauphine awaited their deaths in 1792.
You will find the entrance to the Palais in this north wall, and then you will be in the hands of the guide, for you are not allowed to wander at will. He will show you the great room with its Gothic vaulting in which Louis IX gave a banquet to his uncle, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire; its huge fireplaces and spiral stair-case belong to the 13th century, even though they have been redone since then.
The dungeons of the Conciergerie, as it was called, which they show to visitors are the sad connecting links between the palace this once was and the Court of Justice it now is; yet it was Louis IX himself who set apart certain rooms for the judges’ use. And for fifteen centuries this building, so indifferent in its appearance, has been in many instances the most important public edifice in France; today the Court of Appeals, the Court of Cassation, it was once the stronghold of the Parliament which Louis XIV, riding-whip in hand, insulted, an incident which marked the end of an epoch in which the people of France had dignity and power.
And in the very same room the Revolutionary Tribunal passed sentence of death upon Marie Antoinette. Her cell and those of the other noble prisoners of the Conciergerie are shown today with so much sentiment in favor of those condemned here that you wonder that the words of the Revolution, “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity,” are still left on the walls.
Merchants, too, had their headquarters here from the early Middle Ages; and one of the two long vestibules is called “Galerie Marchande” because the richest of the importers had a permanent showing of their wares in it. But the most perfect thing in the enclosure of the Palais is the Sainte Chapelle (Holy Chapel), built by order of Louis IX to receive the Crown of Thorns sent him from Venice, which he revered as authentic. Pierre de Montereau was the architect. Without any knowledge of steel or of modern construction, the work was achieved in three years (1245-48). The stones were quarried somewhere along the Left Bank. Each course of stone was bound by cramp-irons, cast in lead; they still hold!
We are looking up at the thirteenth, the great Gothic century! And these windows are the same through which the light filtered in purple, red, and blue, the day of the consecration, when the King and all his court came here to place the Crown in its châsse.
Then there is the Clock-tower, built into the structure in 1298, where the clock was installed in 1370. The clock, repaired but never replaced entirely, is still up here. From those narrow windows of the tower, many a royal person-age looked out across the Seine to what of Paris lay there in his day.
Much of it is still there for you to see, even though you are not allowed to mount the staircase in this tower. Stand with your back to it and look from left to right: the impressive bulk of the Louvre; the department stores upon the Quai de la Mégisserie (leather-finishing) are “past and present” in a straight line. The little shops have been on that quay since the quay existed, renewed as to their façades but holding their own since the days when salt and grain were first unloaded here. The farmers from what is still called the Ile de France came here then for seed, poultry, and garden tools. They still do.
The two goggle-eyed and, unlovely buildings are theaters: the “Châtelet” and the “Sarah Bernhardt.” The column in the center, with its open-mouthed sphinxes and Victory aloft or Glory dates from 1806; the fountain only from 1858.
The bridge to the east of the Pont-au-Change is the Pont Notre-Dame which connects the Cité with what was the great medieval artery of trade, the rue St Martin. And it was this bridge which, in 1436, first had its houses numbered and an official sidewalk. Had you ever considered why and when houses were first numbered?
In line with the Pont Notre-Dame you will see the St Jacques Tower and the old church of St Merri. And far to your right, as counterpoise to the Louvre, the mass of the Hôtel de Ville, with the church of St Gervais showing a little beyond, near the river.
This is just one sweep of vision ! Parts of old Paris imbedded in the new.
Before you turn away from the Palais de Justice, impress yourself with its size, as it shows along this Quai de l’Horloge, and in a straight line to the quay on the other side of the island (that of the Orfèvres or Gold-smiths) ; this longest side is 600 feet. And within this place the Salle des Pas-Perdus (Lost Footsteps), which is one of the largest rooms in existence, is 250 feet long, 90 feet wide, and 35 feet high.
The massive official buildings of the Cité give the old island an air of solemnity. Across from the Palais is the Tribunal of Commerce, built only in the last century; and beyond is the headquarters of the Paris Fire Department; brass helmets enliven the doorway. Between these two entrances is that of the Council of the Department of the Seine, where state (Departmental) affairs are discussed.
Across the broad street, the rue de Lutèce, is the Prefecture of Police, whose archway is of colossal proportions; the other enormous block of buildings is the Hospital, which originally was called “Hôtel de Dieu” (God’s Hotel), founded in 660 and probably the oldest institution of the sort in the world. The present building was put up in 1868.
You visit the Cathedral now and you must visit, as well, the bird and flower market and look for old houses upon the side streets. When I tell you that the city fathers of Paris let a department store put up a cheap stable and garage over the oldest church crypt in the city, you will realize that “ward heelers” exist here as elsewhere, and that there are some French citizens as indifferent to the antique as we are supposed to be upon our new continent.
You may wonder, too, why some enterprising person does not open in this medieval setting a tea or coffee-room where one could sit and rest and think of how little we know of the past, even here in its stronghold.