Among the conducted city tours which the tourist who visits Paris for the first time will probably take is the tour called “Unusual Paris.” This is a highly educational tour and includes the Conciergerie, the Cluny Museum, the Gobelin Manufactures, and the Carnavalet Museum. A)1 of these places can, of course, also be visited on your own, but in the case of the Conciergerie, there is a decided advantage in visiting this place with a conducted tour, and that for the simple reason that one is not admitted to this building except with a guide. There are guides on the site who will take you through those parts of the building which are open to the public but, and that is a big but, these guides speak French only. Of course, even if you do not speak French, there is no reason why you should not trail along, especially if you already know something about its history.
As we already had a view of these buildings from across the river when we sat at our sidewalk table at the Place du Chatelet, I am going to take you to the Cite over the Pont-Neuf, over which you will want to walk before you leave Paris anyway. In order to reach this bridge, we are going to take a taxi again and tell the driver to take us to the Pant des Arts and the Quai du Louvre, and from there we will walk the short distance to the Pont-Neuf. This bridge, it might interest you to know, was the first of the modern bridges in Paris that was built without houses on top of it. It was also the first bridge to be paved and to have sidewalks. The name Pont-Neuf is, therefore, somewhat of a misnomer for it is actually the oldest bridge in Paris. It was started in 1578 and took twenty-six years to complete, but being a novelty in those days it was always referred to as the “New” bridge, a name which has stuck to it to this day.
Because the Ile de la Cite comes to a sharp point at this end, both ends of this bridge go by the same name. At the point where the first section touches the island there is a small plaza that extends out from the bridge in the direction of the Square du Vert-Galant. It is on this plaza that the equestrian statue of Henry IV is located, facing up-stream. After we have paid our respect to Henry, we will then have to try to cross over to the up-stream side of the bridge, from which a short street will lead us into the Place Dauphine. This is the square I mentioned in my previous letter as being just about the only spot on the island that has not been completely rebuilt. When we come to the end of this square, we will be right up against the rear of the Palace of justice and, turning toward our left, the adjacent Conciergerie.
The chief claim to fame of the Conciergerie-if fame it can be called-is, of course, the fact that it served as a prison during the French Revolution and is, therefore, more closely associated with these turbulent times than any other building in Paris. It obtains its name from the fact that it was that part of the early French King’s Palace, in which the master of the King’s household, that is to say, the Concierge, had his quarters. The Conciergerie part of the palace is the side facing the Pont au-Change, and can be identified readily by the three sinister-looking round towers which look like salt and pepper shakers. However, this entire huge group of buildings, which here extend from one side of the island clear across the other, has been added to, rebuilt, and modified so many times since the Romans established their first administrative center here that nobody can tell today just when certain parts were built.
As we follow the Palace of justice around to our left, the first of these towers, at the very corner of the building, is called the Tour Banbec and was built by Saint Louis (1226-1270). It has a rather sinister history because it was at one time used as a torture chamber; the second is called the Tour d’Argent from the fact that it was in this tower that Saint Louis kept the Royal Treasure; and the third is called the Tour de Cesar because it is believed to stand on the site formerly occupied by a tower built by the Romans. However, none of these towers is open to the public. There is still another tower, but a square one this time, at the Boulevard du Palais end of the building. This tower is known as the Tour d’Horloge and is said to have been built by Philippe le Bel (1285-1314), but the very ornamental clock on it, which happens to be the first public clock in Paris, was not added until 1334. It is from this tower that the Quai d’Horloge, along which we have all this time been walking, derives its name.
The entrance to that part of the Conciergerie which is open to the public is through a narrow archway a little past the Tour de Cesar. When you step through this archway, you will first come into a little court, and from there a few steps down will take you into the so-called guard room, or the Salle des Gardes. Originally, the floor of this guard room was on a level with the ground outside, but when the quais were built, it, and the rest of the first floors of the Conciergerie, became a sort of sub-basement. If you are on your own, this is where you will purchase your tickets for the locally conducted tours, which start out in groups of twenty or twenty-five about .every twenty minutes. This is also the place where you purchase your souvenirs. If you are on a group tour, your American Express Company guide will purchase your ticket for you, and you start at once.
When you leave the Salle des Gardes, the first part of the former prison you will come to will be the so-called Rue de Paris, which is, in reality, nothing more than a raised passage at the end of a huge hall, known as the Salle des Gens d’Armes, and separated from it by an iron grating. This corridor obtains its name from the public executor, Sanson, whom the Parisians had nicknamed Monsieur de Paris, and who used to walk up and down here while waiting for the victims to be selected for his .day’s work. During the days of the early French Kings, the Salle des Gens d’Armes was the refectory of the King’s household. This hall, which is said to be the largest single room in Paris, is two hundred twenty-six feet long, eighty-nine feet wide and twenty-six feet high. At one time it must have been a very well lit hall, for in addition to the four large windows at its far end, it also had windows along the side which faces the Cour du Mai. But when the palace was enlarged, it was left with only the four windows at its end. It was in this room that the prisoners who could not afford to pay for anything better, sometimes two thousand at a time, were kept, bedded on straw, before they went before their “judges” and thence to the guillotine. At the far end of the hall, but on a higher level, are the so-called kitchens of Saint Louis, with four huge fireplaces in each of the four ,corners. These kitchens, we are told, could feed as many as three thousand people at one time, but if this sounds-. fantastic, you must not forget that in those days the “solid” part of a meal consisted almost exclusively of meats roasted on spits. Immediately above this hall is the famous Salle des Pas-Perdus, which means the Hall of the Lost Footsteps, where the prisoners were tried. This hall is still used as the law courts of Paris. It is open to the public and can be reached by the broad stairway which leads up to it from the Cour de Mai. However, I am not going to take you into it.
At the end of the Rue de Paris there is another narrow passage through which one steps into the Gallerie des Prisonniers through which the condemned were led to the Cour du Mai to be loaded into the waiting tumbrils. Before the women prisoners were sent out of this gallery, with their hands already tied behind their back they stopped at a little cubby-hole at the end of the passage to have their hair cut off. And once you reached this point, you knew that there was no longer any hope for you. Just outside this gallery there is a small, completely enclosed court, known as the Cour des Femmes where the women prisoners were allowed to get a little fresh air now and then, and adjacent to it, but separated by an iron fence, is the Cote de.s Douze which, as the name implies, might have held a dozen men prisoners, for the same purpose. On the right-hand end of this gallery is the so-called Chapelle des Girondins, where the twenty-two Girondists were kept prior to their trial, but which was also the cell in which Marie-Antoinette and many other prominentr prisoners awaited their turn on the scaffold. This cell,. has, however, been considerably modified since that time,, and was not originally a chapel at all. One could probably obtain a better picture of what it originally looked like in the scene at the Grevin Museum which shows the Queen in her cell. The designers of these scenes seem to have gone to great lengths to reproduce their scenes with fidelity, for in the scene showing Charlotte Corday and Marat they even have the original bath tub in which he was murdered. In the cell adjacent to this chapel you will find a number of the pitiably few personal effects Marie-Antoilrette was allowed to keep during her imprisonment. Also a knife from the guillotine as well as one of the wooden steps that led up to it. But for all such minutia I would rather that you consult your guide books.
Of all the prisoners who were imprisoned in the Cou,ciergerie, Marie-Antoinette probably stayed here the longest. She was brought here from the Temple Prison at three A.M. on August 2, 1%93, or a little more than six months after the King had been executed. Only don’t ask me why these people always had to choose such ungodly hours. However, she was not tried until the following October. Her trial started at eight A.M. on Monday morning, October 14, and lasted until four A.M. Wednesday morning with but an hour’s interrnission each day. She was executed the same day sentence was pronounced. She was only thirty-eight when she was guillotined and had been Queen of France for nineteen years. If you ever make this tour with a woman guide, you might find her opinicxi of Marie-Antoinette to be a little on the ,cool side-men I have found to be more sympathetic. However, if you are one of those tourists who like to contradict a guide in front of all the other tourists, which 1 am sure you are not, you might remind her just the same that whatever Marie-Antoinette’s shortcomings might have been, the morals of the French Court in those days were not exactly the kind you would want to write to your Aunt Annabelle about.
Nevertheless, Marie-Antoinette was not liked by the French. First of all, the people did not like the idea that she was an Austrian Princess, though they seemed to have had no objection when Napoleon I married Marie Louise, who was also an Austrian Princess, and was, in fact, a niece of Marie-Antoinette’s. But that only shows you how fickle people can sometimes be. And second, her very arrival in Paris was marked by a horrible accident. During a public celebration of her wedding on the Place de la Concorde, then of course still known as the Place Louis XV, some fireworks exploded and caused a panic during which one hundred three people lost their lives. and hundreds more were wounded, and for this calamity the poor girl was held responsible ever after. Then too, Madame Du Barry, who was Louis XV’s mistress, had taken a violent dislike to her almost from the day of her arrival. If this sounds a little confusing, you must not forget that when Marie-Antoinette was married to the Dauphin, she was only a Princess. She did not become Queen of France until Louis XVI became King upon the death of his father four years later. To all this, of course, must also be added her extreme love of pleasure, a fact which may, perhaps, be more easily understood when we consider that she was introduced to this, what certainly could not have been a moral court, at the age of only fifteen. Nevertheless, all accounts are agreed that she conducted herself with great courage and dignity, both during her trial and on that last sad journey to the scaffold. And if one studies the history of those sad times, the same can also be said of Madame Roland, Madame Elizabeth, and Charlotte Corday, who went to her death with a smile. But these, of course, are still only the women.
After the Public Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville had made up his list of people who were to be executed the next day, usually in groups of twenty and even forty at a time, the prisoners were led out through a little passage which opened onto the Cour du Mai, and loaded into tumbrils. These then lumbered over the Pont-au-Change, then left for a short distance down the Quai de la Megisserie, then right along the short Rue de la Monnaie and the Rue du Roule, and then left again down the long stretch of the Rue St. Honore. A little ways past the Church of Saint Roch they would then turn off toward the Place de la Concorde. As you may have read in some of your guide books, it was in front of this church that a woman spat on the Queen. In any case, this journey could not have been a pleasant one.
It was in front of this church also that a young artillery officer by the name of Buonaparte put an end to this fratricidal strife on October 5, 1795, by ordering his can noniers to pepper the rabble with the now famous ” whiff of grapeshot,” and if you will look closely, you can still see the marks left on the walls of this church by this shot. And now, we are going, to go out the way we came in, walk around the corner of the Tour de l’Hor-lodge, and then a few steps down the Boulevard du Palais to that gem of Gothic architecture-Sainte Chapelle.