The Place du Chatelet is not exactly a square that one would go out of the way to see on a visit to Paris, and I mention it here only as a compass point or a convenient entry point into the Cite. The Cite, as you will soon learn, is that comparatively small, but historically rich land area around which the Seine flows in two arms to form an island. This island is known as the Ile de la Cite, or the Island of the City, and upon it was built the original city of Paris when it was still known as Lutetia. There is another but slightly smaller island ahead of this one which is known as the Ile Saint Louis and the two are connected by a foot bridge. However, the fact that some of the most important historical sites in Paris are located either on the Cite or within easy walking distance from it makes the Place du Chatelet a convenient starting point for the tourist who wishes to do at least part of his sight-seeing on foot.
As a bit of preliminary orientation I might mention that the Place du Chatelet is located at the end of the long Boulevard de Sebastopol. This wide and busy boulevard starts at the Boulevard St. Denis-which is a section of the Grand Boulevards-and being one of Baron Haussmann’s creations, runs straight as an arrow all the way to the Seine, crossing the Rue de Rivoli as it does so.
However, this distance would be much too great to do on foot, and to get to this point I certainly would suggest a taxi. In any case, there wouldn’t be much to see on the Boulevard de Sebastopol even though the Rue St. Denis runs irregularly parallel to it and this street, too, is one of the oldest streets in Paris. It was down the Rue St. Denis that the ancient French kings made their entry into Paris and it was up this street that their bodies were carried to their royal sepulchres at the little town of St. Denis.
From the Place du Chatelet the traffic from the Boulevard de Sebastopol continues over the Pont-au-Change into the Cit6, and after traversing that, leaves it by the Pont Saint-Michel. After we have crossed the Pont Saint-Michel we will be on the Place St. Michel and at the beginning of another famous boulevard, the Boulevard St. Michel, commonly known as the “Boul Mich.” This boulevard is also one of Baron Haussmam’s creations and it also runs straight as an arrow right through the middle of the Latin Quarter. And now, something about the Place du Chatelet. I will tell you a little later what points of interest you can reach from it.
Many hundred years ago when Paris was still a walled city, the Pont-au-Change was one of the principal points of entry into the Cit6. It was then, as all bridges were in Paris, a wooden bridge, and as space in the city was scarce, houses were built right on top of it. Because money changers used to have their booths on this bridge it became known as the Pont-au-Change, a name by which it still goes today. The entrance to the bridge was guarded by a huge fortress, and this was known as the Grand Ch$telet. Being a fortress, the Grand Chatelet was also a prison. Moliere was lodged here for a while after his candlemaker had him arrested for non-payment of debt. So was the notorious bandit Cartouche who, with his band of thieves, both male and female, terrorized Paris at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Cartouche, about whom a good many legends have come down, seems to have been somewhat of a Robin Hood, for he often gave to the poor what he stole from the rich. However, this fact was not taken into consideration when he was apprehended at the age ,of only tveny-eight. He was condemned to death and broken alive on the wheel in front of the Hotel de Ville. On the other side of the island but not in line, there was another combination entrance gate and fortress and that was known as the Petit Chatelet. However, both of these fortresses have long since been torn down. In fact, with the exception of Notre-Dame, the Conciergerie and Sainte Chapelle, there is very little left on the Ile de la Cite as it was a hundred years ago.
On the Place de Chatelet there isn’t anything left from former times either. “There is the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt on one side of it and the Theatre du Chatelet on the other both of them dating from the year 1862. The latter happens to be the largest theatre in Paris, with a seating capacity of three thousand. On account of their shape, the Parisians sometimes refer to these two theatres as the two trunks. In the middle of the square is the so-called Fountain of the Palms, which was ordered by Napoleon to ,commemorate his victories in Egypt. And that is about all there is to it. But as I have said, we did not come here to look at the square, we came here to observe what we could see from it. And now, let us take a seat at one of the sidewalk tables of the cafe which is part of the Chatelet Theater and have a look around.
To the left of the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, rising above the tree tops of a little park alongside the Rue de Rivoli, is the beautiful Gothic Tower of Saint Jacques with its two slender gargoyles at each of its four corners, so slender that you wonder how they ever support their weight. This tower is all that is left of the Church of St. Jacques la Boucherie and was built between the years 1515-1547 and, as the name implies, was the church of the butchers. In those days the slaughter houses as well as the tanneries were all located in about the area where we are now sitting, and this was their church. For the same reason the nearby QIIai de la Megisserie, which means the Quai of the Leather Dressers, still goes by the name of these tanneries. Unfortunately, the Church of the Butchers fell a victim to the French Revolution, but somehow its beautiful tower was left standing. It is one of the landmarks of Paris today and all conducted bus tours will take you by it sooner or later. This tower was used by Pascal for his experiments in atmospheric pressure and you will find a statue of him just inside the tower. The tower itself, however, is not open to the public.
If we now turn our eyes to our right our view will’ take in a great deal more because we are now looking across the open spaces of the Seine. The first thing that will strike our eye as we look across the Pont-au-Change will be that tremendous expanse of buildings known as, the Palace of justice and its associated Conciergerie, the former residence of the first French kings. If you are a reader of history, you will not have to be told that this. conciergerie is more closely associated with the French Revolution than any other building in Paris, for it was from this building that thousands of unfortunate victims were carted off to the guillotine. But about that I will tell you some other day. Rising above this huge expanse of buildings, which occupy about one quarter of the Cite, and somewhat off to one side, you will see a slender spire which, if you have been to Paris before you will at once identify as the fleche of Sainte-Chapelle, that gem of Gothic architecture built by Saint Louis as a repository for the crown of thorns. And then, also on our right, but a little farther upstream, you will see rising ~ above the roof tops the magnificent twin towers of another church of which, even if you have never been to Paris, I am sure I do not have to tell you the name–it is Notre-Dame.
This just about concludes our picture of what we can see from the sidewalk cafe at the corner of the Place du Chatelet and the Quai de la Megisserie. But there is something else here without which Paris would not be Paris and that is our first view of the bookstalls-the bouquinistes along the parapet of the quai. But this still is only a beginning, for other places of interest can be reached easily from this square. The Hotel de Ville, the City Hall of Paris, is only two short blocks behind the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt. Also the Hotel de Sens, one of the two oldest private residences in Paris, the other one being the Cluny Museum, is a little distance down the quais, opposite the Ile St. Louis. Both of them were built during the fifteenth century and are still standing. The Place de la Bastille and the Place des Vosges, where we have already been, would be a little beyond that but some distance in from the river. All of these places are still on the Right Bank of the Seine, that is to say, on the same .side on which the Opera is located.
Crossing the Pont-au-Change and then the Pont SaintMichel-a matter of a twenty minute walk if we can keep ourselves from loitering on these bridges-would bring us to the Left Bank of the Seine and the Place St. Michel. From this point numerous other points of interest can be reached again. The Rue de la Huchette, which was the setting for Elliot Paul’s famous best-seller The Last Time I Saw Paris, starts from the Place St. Michel, one block in from the Seine at your left. From the Rue de la Huchette it is only a stone’s throw to the Church of Saint Julienle-Pauvre, one of the oldest churches in Paris, whose foundations date from the sixth century; and when we are at this church we are also in the immediate vicinity of the Church of Saint Severin’s. And when we are at the Church of Saint Severin we can almost see the Cluny Museum where, I am sure, you will want to go sooner or later. From the Cauny Museum again, it is not too far to the Sorbonne, and when you are at the Sorbonne you are also at the Pantheon and not more than a five minute walk from the Luxembourg Gardens. As you may have noted, all of these points of interest are located along a straight line and are never more than two or three short blocks, in from it. Nevertheless, I would not suggest that you try to do all this on one tour, but it certainly would be no hardship on the foot traveler to take in two or three of these places in one day.
In my next article we shall have a quick look at the Paris City Hall and then we shall see what there is to see on the Cite and after that we shall cross over to the Left Bank of the Seine or the Rive Gauche.