Bastille, Paris, France
Once again, welcome to Historic America & UCPlaces’ audio biking tour of revolutionary Paris. We’re glad you could join us! I’m Aaron, your guide (but I also respond to professional history nerd). This is the part of the tour where I fit in my shameless plug for our websites (.historicamerica.org &.ucplaces.com) and invite you to use #historicamericatours on social media while traveling alongside us today. Let’s begin the journey.
First thing’s first – unless you brought a bike with you, you’re gonna have to rent one at this Velib station. Don’t worry. It’s super easy because there are only a couple of steps in the rental process. First, you need to choose and purchase an access pass using the multilingual interactive panel on site OR utilize the downloadable Velib app on your smartphone. Then select the bike you want to ride, key in your code, and … you’re off!
You’ll likely have the choice between a regular OR electric bike. It’s up to you.
I suggest you get an all day or multi-day pass. During the course of our tour, this pass will give you the flexibility to dock your bike at any of the many stations along our route. You are free at any time to explore the sites more thoroughly on foot - or maybe you’d like to take a break to grab an espresso or snack. Then – whenever you're ready – your day pass allows you to unlock another bike and continue our tour. In essence you can make this ride as long or short as you like. I’m here to guide you from point to point and give you some great stories along the way.
Now that I’ve explained myself, get a bike in hand, and proceed to the northern edge of the Place de la Bastille to trigger the first true point of interest on tour.
Oh – one final note – don’t worry if there aren’t enough bikes available at this Velib station. There are other stations nearby. Just use your phone to locate them.
Bastille, Paris, France
You are now in the Place de la Bastille – the Parisian plaza where the infamous Bastille Prison once stood – that is, until it was destroyed during the first French Revolution of 1789. If you’d like to know the spot, just locate the massive pillar dominating the square. This is the July Column and it was erected decades later atop the former location of the Bastille. The column commemorates ANOTHER French Revolution which took place in 1830 and saw Louis Phillipe’s so called ‘July Monarchy’ overthrow the last Bourbon king of France – Charles X.
The column is over 150 feet high and topped with the shining, gilded representation of liberty. The names of those who died during the Revolution of 1830 are engraved on the column in gold lettering.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. “How many revolutions has France had, anyway?”
Well first, let’s define our terms. In the context of this tour, a revolution is when a country’s sitting government is forcibly overthrown and a new governmental system is implemented. The generally accepted answer to the “how many revolutions in France" question is 3; a trio of major revolutions in 1789, 1830, and 1848 interspersed with a number of uprisings and violent seizures of power which occurred throughout the 1800s. The saga of revolutionary France is fascinating, interconnected and very complex. Honestly, if we were to visit every revolution-related site in Paris, it’d take days – and your legs would give out from all the peddling. On this tour, we’ll stick to the highlights and give you a good overview. Let’s start at the beginning with the storming of the Bastille.
On July 14th, 1789 long simmering tensions boiled over in a fit violence as hundreds of French civilians – fed up with the rule of the Bourbon monarchy — became revolutionaries and stormed the Bastille fortress which stood on this very spot. The event was the beginning of the revolutionary era of French history.
Although originally built to protect the city of Paris from foreign invasion, by the time of Louis XVI the Bastille was a prison for political dissidents and a symbol of the French monarchy’s oppression. It was an imposing building — see if you can envision it.
Eight rugged stone towers linked by curtain walls created a stout castle approximately 220 feet long, 120 feet thick, and 80 feet high. Now envision that same castle being overwhelmed by a churning mob of angry Parisians wielding muskets, swords and an assortment of cruel, makeshift weapons. Swarming the fortress’s outer courtyard, the rioters forced open the prison drawbridge amidst a hail of bullets fired at them from the defending garrison. Eventually the revolutionaries compelled the defenders to surrender. Shortly thereafter, they cut off the head of the garrison’s commander and paraded it around the city on a stick. Over a hundred Frenchmen died. Their eyes stung by smoke, their ears ringing with gunfire and the sound of angry men, the smell of powder in their nostrils and the metallic taste of blood in their mouths.
And this is just the first stop on our tour!
The storming of the Bastille is generally regarded as the beginning of the Revolution of 1789 – the granddaddy of French Revolutions – and the date, July 14th 1789 – has ever after been commemorated as a national holiday, Bastille Day.
To get to our next stop, take the Rue de Rivoli westward toward the Hotel DeVille. I’ll join you along the way.
12 Rue Saint-Antoine, 75004 Paris, France
You’re on the right track. Keep heading in this direction and I’ll give you more background for the story.
From the 1500s through 1700s, a royal family named the Bourbons ruled the kingdom of France. Under Bourbon leadership, the French monarchy ascended to new heights of power & prestige – BUT the kingdom also groaned underneath the strain of increasing tension; tension between France’s social classes, tension between internal French political factions, and tension between France and other European nations.
During the reign of Louis XVI (beginning in 1774 and lasting until 1793) two main questions came into focus —
First the political question – should the government of France remain a monarchy or transition into some form of constitutional democracy?
Second the social question — why were the social classes of France so unequal and what was to be done about it?
I’ll tell you about the types of people who wrestled with these questions – and with each other – further down the road.
2 Rue de Rivoli, 75004 Paris, France
Let me tell you a bit more as we keep heading westward along the Rue de Rivoli. When it comes to revolutions, there are generally three types of participants – to remember the types just remember your R(s).
On one end of the spectrum you have the first R … Reactionaries & Royalists. Absolute monarchy and the current societal structure was working just fine for them – that’s why they got the name Royalist.
If you can liken France to a castle; these people were traditionalists who wanted to keep the French castle intact and in-place.
Also, the royalists' decisions were often made in reaction to the movements of their enemies on the other side of the spectrum; the second R … Radicals & Revolutionaries. These were the folks who wanted to tear the French castle down and start from scratch – ditch the monarchy and create an entirely new system which stood society on its head and was infused with enlightenment ideals.
Then – in the center – you had the third R … Reformers. These people acknowledged the need for change, but tried to steer a middle course between the extremes; one where the castle would be redesigned and remodeled, but not torn down to its very foundations.
Like a thrill ride at an unregulated amusement park, revolutions can also be wildly unpredictable, and at various times, different groups held the advantage – like the storming of the Bastille; that was a big win for the radicals. But winds shift, and before long a royal Emperor Napoleon rules with an iron fist. What a rollercoaster! Meanwhile, along the way, people switched positions all the time – reformers became revolutionaries, royalists became reformers, and losers wound up exiled, in jail, or dead.
Up ahead, I’d like to show you a place in Paris where many important figures of the French Revolutionary era came into conflict and connection with one another.
Hôtel de Ville, 75004 Paris, France
We’re nearing our next point of interest. As you continue heading west, you’ll see an impressive, richly ornamented building on your left side fronted by a large plaza. This is Paris’ City Hall - the Hotel de Ville. When you reach the plaza, pull over and take a beat to admire your surroundings and stand in front of the building. If you’d like to park your bike and walk around for a bit longer – there’s a velib docking station on the plaza’s northwest corner.
The first Mayor of Paris moved into the Hotel DeVille way back in 1357 and today the building represents the enduring order and administration of the Paris city government. During the era of our story, however, the Hotel de Ville was a headquarters for revolutionaries.
During the first French Revolution, the radicals who stormed the Bastille went onto capture the Hotel De Ville and used it as a command post throughout the ensuing years of struggle and upheaval. Ultimately, France’s most infamous revolutionary leader – Maximilian Robespierre – was overthrown in a coup which took place here at the Hotel. Once the power mad Robespierre knew he was done for, he took out a pistol and tried committing suicide, but only succeeded in blowing off his jaw. Ouch. He remained in agony until being decapitated several hours later.
Decades after that, in 1830, reformers who wished to restructure the monarchy, ditched Bourbon rule once-and-for-all by staging another coup which culminated in the new non Bourbon King – Louis-Philippe – appearing on the Hôtel de Ville’s balcony to embrace the revolutionary crowd below where you now stand (that’s what the July column was all about, remember?).
By now you should be in a position to look at the building itself. What you see before you is a reconstruction of the original building, gutted by fire in 1871. How did that fire start? A revolutionary blaze of course!
When the government of France fell into chaos following a devastating war defeat at the hands of Prussia, a band of socialist radicals called the Paris Commune took control of the Hotel de Ville and used it as their headquarters – just like their revolutionary predecessors. Eventually, they were defeated, but before the end, they torched the building and destroyed all the precious archival records and historic library kept within. Mon dieu!
Anyway, take time to notice the beautiful renaissance style exterior – particularly the clock. Weighing a ton and a half, the tough time piece miraculously survived the fire and destruction of the Paris Commune.
And how about all those sculptures adorning the exterior! My favorite are the two allegorical figures who flank the front door at plaza level below the clock. They’re named Art & Science. See if you can figure out which is which.
To decorate the building facades, some 230 sculptors were commissioned to produce 338 individual figures of famous Parisians along with lions and other features.
The plaza itself is a noted Parisian landmark – and Paris' oldest city square. Come back during the winter time for the annual Christmas village and skating rink.
When you’re done here, remount your bike and meet me at the northwest corner of the plaza where the Rue de Rivoli and Rue de Coutellerie meet.
31 Pl. de l'Hôtel de Ville, 75004 Paris, France
From here, merge onto the Rue de Coutellerie and follow it to the southwest where it joins the Avenue Victoria. Crossover the Avenue Victoria and take the Rue Saint-Martin south toward the River Seine.
4 Rue Saint-Martin, 75004 Paris, France
Follow the Rue Saint-Martin south toward the Seine and cross the river via the Pont Notre Dame. Here’s something to think about while you do …
The Seine is the third longest River in France, extending 485 miles from Dijon, France until emptying into the English Channel. It supplies about half of the water used in Paris, and is synonymous with the city and its history. Feel free to stop for a picture on the bridgespan should you get the chance! There are many beautiful bridges vaulting the river and the Pont Notre Dame is one of the most historic as there has been a bridge (in some form) existent on this spot ever since Roman times.
1 Rue de la Cité, 75004 Paris, France
Turn right immediately upon crossing the river and follow the Quai de la Corse one block west toward our next point of interest – the Conciergerie. Stop when you get there.
1 Quai de la Corse, 75004 Paris, France
Stop at this crossroads and position yourself so you can get a better view of the Conciergerie – the white building with a dark gray, turreted roof on the southwest corner of the intersection immediately opposite the river.
A quick note about the neighborhood we’re in – it’s actually a river island in the middle of the Seine named the Île de la Cité (which literally translates to City Island). People have lived here ever since the fourth century BC. Needless to say, it’s an area with lots of stories to tell, and the Conciergerie plays an important role in our revolutionary saga.
Dating back to the 11th century, the Conciergerie was originally built as a royal palace, but by the time of the 1789 Revolution, it was repurposed into a courthouse and prison. During the course of the revolution nearly 3,000 people were imprisoned, tried and sentenced at the Conciergerie – most notably French Queen Marie Antoinette.
The Conciergerie became particularly infamous during the so called “Reign of Terror” – the period of time during the 1789 revolution when the radicals in charge outran their onetime noble goals and chose instead to institute a policy of state-sanctioned violence, show trials, and mass executions targeting anyone deemed to be an enemy of the new revolutionary state. Take Queen Marie Antoinette for instance – her trial lasted only two days and her defense lawyers were given just a few hours to prepare their case. Everyone knew the verdict would be guilty before the deliberations commenced. After receiving a sentence of death for high treason, inside her Conciergerie cell the Queen was forced to undress in front of her guards and have her hair shorn. Her hands were then bound behind her back and she was hauled by rope leash onto the open air cart which awaited her. Along the route to the site of her execution at the Place de La Concorde (which we’ll see at the end of the tour) thousands of angry onlookers heaped scorn and mockery upon her head – a head which was soon to be removed from her shoulders by the blade of madame la guillotine.
Only a few weeks before she had almost been able to avoid her grisly fate. While still imprisoned inside the Conciergerie, a sympathetic royalist named Alexandre de Rougeville, paid her a visit and dropped a carnation at the queen’s feet. When she picked it up, the Queen discovered a note hidden amongst the petals. The note detailed a rescue mission which was in the works – a plot to liberate her and her family and spirit them away via carriage to Germany. But, the Carnation Plot (or so it was called) was given away by one of the queen’s guards – a man likely complicit in the affair before his courage failed him.
If you’d like to see something fascinating on the outside of the building – take note of the gilded second story clock facing the intersection. It is roughly 700 years old, and considered the first public clock in French history. A translation of the clock’s latin inscription reads, “This mechanism which divides time into perfectly equal twelve hours helps you to protect justice and defend the law”. Little good the clock did Marie Antoinette.
The building itself is open to the public and well worth a visit. If you’d like to find a docking station here on the Île de la Cité (there’s one on the center of the island near Notre Dame) you could come back here for an interior tour. Inside you’ll climb medieval staircases, see recreated cells (including the one which held Marie Antoinette), and explore fascinating exhibits which take you inside the prison’s role in revolutionary history.
From here turn left onto the Boulevard du Palais and go to the other side of the island. Along the way look to your right to see the gothic church of San Chapel – home to arguably the most beautiful stained glass windows in the world.
Île de la Cité, 75004 Paris, France
53 Petit Pont - Cardinal Lustiger, 75004 Paris, France
From here you should be able to clearly see the famed cathedral of Notre Dame – one of Paris’ best loved landmarks and a building known the world over. Navigate the traffic so you can get closer to the front of the cathedral. I’d like to tell you more about it.
The name, “Notre Dame” translates to “Our Lady” and references Mary, mother of Christ. You might remember in 2019 when the old gal’s roof caught fire during a restoration project. The building sustained massive damage but remained intact. This is indeed a blessing as this venerable house of worship dates back to the 1100s. Notre Dame’s destruction would be a loss not just to France, but to humankind.
During the 1789 Revolution, Notre Dame fell into similar danger as anti-Christian radicals attempted to destroy the building and all it stood for.
In the centuries leading up to the revolution the state religion of France was Catholicism. The power of France’s divine right monarchs and the authority of the church were inextricably entwined. Once the monarchy was deposed, the removal of the church from French society was the next logical step for many of the revolutionary leaders who fetishized the ideals of the enlightenment and sought to make the pursuit of reason & logic a new civic religion. Church property was confiscated, clergy were put on trial and Notre Dame itself was looted of everything except the bells.
The greatest indignity the church suffered was in October of 1793 – the same month Marie Antoinette was beheaded. The mob was hungry for even more royal heads and came here to Notre Dame’s west facade to target the building’s statuary. They decapitated 21 of the 28 statues on the building front depicting biblical kings. Shortly thereafter, the cathedral became the site of the Festival of Reason, a revolutionary and anti-religious festival that both mocked Catholicism and suggested that French people should worship Enlightenment principles instead of the Christian God. The atheist revelers went so far as to have an actress portray a new goddess – the goddess of Reason – whom they glorified atop a fake mountain inside the sanctuary. Notre Dame was rechristened “The Temple of Reason” while thousands of other churches across France were repurposed for non-religious use.
Eventually, the mad anti-religious overreaction subsided and within a decade Napoleon was on the throne and had himself crowned emperor of France inside the sanctuary of the – once again – Catholic house of worship. New heads were put back on the statues and (in a funny postscript) the original royal noggins were found 200 years later … safely tucked away in a forgotten building site.
If you’d like to linger longer here on the Île de la Cité, feel free. Once you’re ready to remount your bike – cross over the Seine once more using the nearby Petit Pont. From here it’s a straight shot up the Rue Saint Jacques to our next stop, the Pantheon.
22 Rue de la Cité, 75005 Paris, France
The Pantheon is still a ways distant up the Rue Saint Jacques. So how about a little music to keep you company while you ride? I can think of nothing better than the French National Anthem – La Marseillaise – a melody which pairs well with our tour since it was born during the 1789 Revolution when France went to war with Austria.
You see, the fall of the French monarchy sent shockwaves throughout Europe, and the other royal houses became fearful that the contagion of revolution would spread within their borders – so they decided to gang up on the French radicals and re-install the deposed King Louis the XVI and his aforementioned wife Marie Antoinette (who was born an Austrian noble). Once war was declared, a composer named Rouget was tasked with writing a new French national anthem which would quote, “rally our soldiers from all over to defend their homeland that is under threat.” The song acquired its nickname – La Marseillaise – after being sung by patriotic volunteers from the region of Marseille who were marching to defend the nation’s capital city – Paris.
Anyway – enough talk. Enjoy the ride and music mon ami.
Panthéon, 75005 Paris, France
Pause your journey here at the intersection of the Rue Saint Jacques and the Rue Soufflot. To the east, a block away, you should clearly see the Pantheon – an impressive classical building fronted by large Corinthian columns and topped with a stately gray dome. This is our next point of interest. Peddle over to take a closer look at the building exterior from the plaza in front. If you wish to venture inside for a closer look, there’s a nearby Velib dock on the Rue Valette just north of the Pantheon.
When the Panthéon was initially designed, it was commissioned by King Louis the XV to be a church built in honor of St. Genevieve, a saint who is said to have saved Paris from destruction through the power of prayer. By the time of the 1789 Revolution, the building exterior was complete; only the finishing decorative touches on the interior were left. That is, until the new radical government – the same folks who rechristened Notre Dame – decided to repurpose the church as temple to Liberty and use it as a grand Mausoleum to bury French notables who embodied the revolutionary spirit in life. It was renamed the Panthéon and a new text over the entrance was approved which read, "A grateful nation honors its great men."
Now take a look at that grand entrance and start at the top, with the grand dome. Made entirely of stone, the Pantheon’s dome was built to rival the other great domed churches of the western world – notably St. Paul’s Cathedral in London & St. Peter’s in Rome. What you cannot see from here is that it is actually three domes, one inside the other. If you venture inside the building, you’ll see the ornate painted ceiling of the second dome. The exterior of the dome is topped with a cross – since the building was initially conceived as a church – but the revolutionary government wanted to replace it with a statue representing France. As you can see, the plan never materialized, although the cross was replaced with a red flag during the Paris Commune by the same communard zealots who burned the Hotel de Ville.
Take a look at the triangular sculptural area above the columns. This is called the pediment, and it depicts, "The Nation distributing crowns to great men, civil and military, while history inscribes their names". To the left are intellectuals, statesmen, and scientists including Rousseau, Voltaire, Lafayette, and Bichat. To the right is Napoleon Bonaparte, along with soldiers from each military service.
Although many French notables are buried inside, the three I’d like to mention are connected with our revolutionary story.
The first is Jean Jacques Rousseau. His political philosophy had a massive impact on French revolutionary ideology. He believed that in humankind’s original state of nature, we were born morally pure, but that the development of corrupt governmental and societal structures enslaved us – hence his famous quote, “Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains.” Fueled by Rousseau’s ideas, the revolutionaries sought to tear down these supposed constraints and build the perfect system from scratch – one that would place sovereignty in the hands of the people.
The next is Voltaire, the prolific writer, historian and philosopher who advocated the advancement of civil liberties and employed his devastating wit to criticize organized religious dogma. He died in 1778, roughly a decade before the revolution, and was denied a Christian burial inside Paris because of his Deist views. However, in 1791 the ascendant revolutionary government relocated him to the Pantheon in a massive ceremony as a veneration of his role as a herald of the revolution’s coming (a sort of John the Baptist to the Revolution’s Jesus, if you’ll pardon the analogy).
And finally, there’s Victor Hugo – one of the greatest author’s in history best known for his works The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the sweeping saga Les Miserables which chronicles the story of hero Jean Valjean and yet ANOTHER revolutionary uprising in Paris during 1832 – the June Rebellion – when dissatisfied students attempted to overthrow the government of Louis Phillipe (he of July Column fame). Although their effort failed, Hugo wrote admiringly of their Quixotic struggle and his 1862 novel became a worldwide phenomenon and eventually spawned a stage musical and films that are widely beloved. You probably know a few words yourself.
“You can hear the people sing, singing the songs of angry men …”
Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. Feel free to venture inside and pay your respect to these venerable revolutionaries along with other famous French folk including Alexandre Dumas, Emile Zolas and Marie Curie.
When you’re done, hop aboard the bike and head away from the Pantheon westward along the Rue Soufflot until you reach the traffic circle and Boulevard Saint Michel.
93 Pl. Edmond Rostand, 75005 Paris, France
Turn northwards at this roundabout and head back toward the river via the Boulevard Saint Michel. This area of Paris is known as the Latin Quarter, and it has long been a hotbed of student activism since it is home to the city’s well known Sorbonne University, whose buildings are off on your right side as you travel along the boulevard. It’s also known for its many bookstores and cafes. If you see anything that appeals to you, feel free to make a pit stop. Perhaps a cafe au lait and a few chapters of Les Mis would help to break up the day.
25 Bd Saint-Michel, 75005 Paris, France
15 Rue de l'École de Médecine, 75006 Paris, France
87 Bd Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris, France
101 Bd Saint-Germain, 75006 Paris, France
Turn right on the Carr de l’Odeon and cross the Boulevard Saint Germain. Midway down the block just past the boulevard, you'll encounter our next stop – Le Procope – on the right.
13 Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, 75006 Paris, France
On your right is the oldest cafe in Paris – Le Procope. Founded all the way back in the 1600s by an Italian restaurateur named Procopio Pruto, this legendary spot has been an informal meeting place for some of the greatest minds in Western history hailing from both within and without France (men like Voltaire, Diderot, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin). The cafe then became a hub of revolutionary leadership activity during the era of our story … a sort of Parisian Cheers for the radical, intellectual set.
As you’ve no doubt learned by glancing around, cafe culture in Paris still thrives and from the city’s early days, cafes served as a platform for discussion groups to meet for friendly debate, the exchange of views, and the positing of ideas … not to mention the drinking of coffee (Voltaire was said to consume over 40 cups a day … small cups that he mixed heavily with chocolate, otherwise he was liable to explode).
During the pre-revolution era, Cafe Procope was the premier location in Paris where intellectuals concerned with the enlightenment could gather and discuss the currents of thought which were reshaping western civilization – they talked about the importance of scientific inquiry, the differences subjects and citizens, the relationship between church and state, the best recipe for quiche, and a myriad of other topics – all underpinned by the enlightenment proposition that human reason was important above all else, and authority which could not be justified by reason, must be rejected. These were inherently radical ideas, and their open discussion was tolerated by the monarchy as long as such discussions were held quietly.
For centuries, the predominant European view was that a human being's proper role was that of an obedient subject serving at the bottom rung of a societal hierarchy – a hierarchy which extended upward toward the figure who embodied the kingdom – the absolute monarch. The monarch derived his or her power & authority from God, and was answerable to no one except God. The throne upon which they sat was inherited through hereditary succession. The Bourbons were such a line – centuries old, and unquestioned in their right to rule. That is until their profligate spending and mismanagement drove the kingdom into bankruptcy and their subjects into starvation & poverty. The failures of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette raised these formerly hushed political and social questions to the level of shouts and spawned still more dangerous inquiries such as, “Why doesn’t the king have to abide by law? Why can’t we have a constitution to limit the power of government? What if the king doesn’t rule by divine right and what if instead of living under a king inside a kingdom, we build a nation where the people are sovereign and united not by royal family, but instead by common language, culture, and history? And what’s the best flavor of ice cream and why isn't it illegal (actually, Voltaire did want an answer to that one)?”
Once the revolution broke out, radicals like Robespierre, Danton, Marat, Saint-Just, and David used the cafe as their Central Perk hangout and it was here that the notable revolutionary headpiece – the soft, conical Phyrgian cap, first came into vogue. It was also here where the radicals talked themselves into wild, violent excesses that resulted in the reign of terror, drowning out the voices of reformers who wanted incremental change, and prophetically warned against tearing down all the guardrails of society, lest tyranny and chaos rush in to fill the vacuum.
And Cafe Procope was also in the heart of the theater district – so everyone could go catch a show when they were done!
Feel free to grab a bite and drink while you’re here. Otherwise, let’s move along. Continue north along the Rue l’Ancienne Comedie until you reach our next waypoint.
72 Rue Saint-André des Arts, 75006 Paris, France
Bear a slight right at the intersection and merge onto the Rue Dauphine. Continue until you reach the river. Once there, turn left and travel along the Seine to our next waypoint.
Also, here’s something else to keep in mind as we continue along the journey.
The Paris you see today was much different during the Paris of the revolutionary era. Once the revolutionary era had – for the most part – drawn to a close, it was decided by then Emperor Napoleon III in the 1850s that the rabbit warren of medieval neighborhoods which covered the city had become overcrowded and unhealthy. Also, the narrow Parisian streets had – for far too long – proven inordinately useful to revolutionaries who liked to tear up the cobblestones and build barricades in order to create bottlenecks which slowed troop movement; always a problem when you need the army units to put down an uprising. All this meant that it was time to build wide avenues; new parks and squares and construct new sewers, fountains and aqueducts. The city planner who diagramed it all was named Georges Eugenes Haussman and – like a TLC home improvement guru – the center city you see today is largely his design brainchild.
How do you think he did?
1 Rue Dauphine, 75006 Paris, France
23 Quai de Conti, 75006 Paris, France
9 Pl. Justin Godart, 75006 Paris, France
Pont du Carrousel - Quai Voltaire, Paris, France
The bridge you’re turning onto is called the Pont du Carrousel because it leads you to the Place du Carrousel – the plaza which contains the entrance to the Louvre museum. I’m a sucker for good statuary and the four corners of this bridge have some cool allegorical ladies. On the near side of the bridge (where you are) a female figure pours water out of a jug to your left – she represents the River Seine. To your right is a crowned figure, she represents the city of Paris.
As you cross over the bridgespan, it might comfort you to know that the bridge is sturdily built and was heightened in the 1930s to help the flow of boat traffic underneath – so there'll be no banging of heads underneath you. On the far side of the bridge (otherwise known as the right bank of the Seine) the two female figures are industry (wielding a hammer to your right) and abundance (holding a horn of plenty to your left).
As Shakespeare said, parting is such sweet sorrow, and, “sorry doll, I gotta go” so you must leave these lovely ladies behind and continue on to the Pont Du Carrousel and Louvre museum entrance.
2S Pl. du Carrousel, 75001 Paris, France
You are now entering a traffic plaza known as the Place du Carrousel. Tto the east of the plaza sits the iconic glass pyramid which leads into the Louvre Museum’s visitor center. To the west is a victory arch topped with an equestrian statue, behind which lies the Tuileries Garden. Find a place where you stop and admire both sides of the plaza simultaneously.
If you stood here during the revolutionary era, you would have been smack dab in between two royal palaces – one of which still stands today, while the other exists only in history books. I bet you can figure out which is which.
The intact palace is the Louvre which – over the course of its lifespan – transitioned into the world’s foremost art museum … also called the Louvre. What are the odds? The palace is the older building surrounding the glass pyramid like a rich renaissance hug.
Originally built in the 1100s as a fortress to protect the city, by the 1300s the Louvre was converted into a royal residence by King Charles V. Over the ensuing years, an assortment of monarchs and royal architects added progressively more decorative elements within and without the palace – such as tapestries, sculpture, and iron work. By the time of the renaissance, the residence was in full bloom as an unparalleled showcase for the king’s wealth.
As the reign of the Bourbon monarchy wore on, however, the rulers of France transitioned their court outside the city to the palace of Versailles and relocated their Paris residence into the Tuileries Palace which stood across the way from the Louvre.
Now a vanished royal residence, the Tuileries Palace stood behind the victory arch off to the west.
In one of the first French Revolution’s most dramatic moments, the radicals demanded that King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette leave Versailles under the threat of mob violence and relocate to the Tuileries so that the revolutionary leadership could keep a closer watch over them inside the radical stronghold of Paris. The royal couple assented in order to avoid bloodshed – namely their own. Inside the Tuileries they lived under virtual house arrest. While still nominally the King of France, Louis knew that the people of Paris were particularly antagonistic toward him and his family. In these streets, revolutionary sentiment ran high.
The situation became so unbearable that the royal family attempted a risky nighttime escape known as, “The Flight to Varennes”. The plan was for Louis to join his royalist allies in the French countryside and initiate a counter revolution which would defeat the Parisian radicals. Unfortunately for the royalist cause, the none-to-clever royal family chose a heavy, conspicuous carriage as their getaway vehicle and an overall lack of secrecy and poor timing resulted in their downfall. When Louis and his family were apprehended outside the city, the revolutionaries labeled them traitors and threw them back under house arrest. The monarchy had been given a fatal blow as the king had been openly caught attempting to undermine the revolutionary government.
The Tuileries palace however, survived; that is, until it was destroyed a few generations later by the Paris Communards in 1871 using their favorite method – fire.
A few things to notice while you’re here. The lone arch topped with the equestrian statue is called the Arc de Triomphe du Carousel – and like it’s more famous cousin the Arc de Triomphe found on the Champs-Elysess – it too was built by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte to commemorate his victories in battle. Additionally, if you care to visit the Louvre Museum during your stay in Paris, make sure to look for the famous revolutionary painting by Delacroix – Liberty Leading the People; the famous canvas which depicts a bare breasted personification of liberty holding aloft the French revolutionary flag as she urges the people onward to victory over their oppressors.
As we continue onward, remount your bike and head northward toward the Palais Royale. Do keep your breasts covered, though. You’re liable to cause a traffic accident.
2 Rue de Rohan, 75001 Paris, France
As you reach the Rue Saint Honore, notice the small plaza bordered by a columned arcade on the opposite side of the roadway. Enter this plaza and walk your bike toward the entrance for the Palais Royale (or feel free to deposit your bike in the velib dock found just off the nearby intersection).
4 Gal de Nemours, 75001 Paris, France
As you enter the northeast corner of the plaza, you’ll notice the many fine shops along the arcade. More on these later. For now, find the arch which leads into the interior courtyard. Enter that courtyard and I’ll tell you more about the spot you’re in – the Palais Royale. Stop when you reach the grid of black and white columns.
This palace was originally named the Palais Cardinal after the man for whom it was built – Cardinal Richeleu of France (you might remember him as the bad guy from the Three Musketeers). After the Cardinal’s time, the palais became a home to members of the French nobility from the House of Orleans. The most famous member of the House of Orleans was Louis Phillipe, whom we’ve mentioned before in our tour. He fits into the revolutionary timeline in this order …
Don’t worry if you can’t keep it all straight – I study this stuff and it’s hard for me sometimes.
Louis Phillipe would move out of this pile of bricks and into the king’s residence, but he kept his art collection here. Now, one revolution we haven’t spoken that much about yet is the revolution of 1848. That’s the one which results in the overthrow of Louis Phillipe. Irate Parisians, angry with Louis & the House of Orleans, stormed the Palais Royale and targeted the king's art. They burned and lacerated the many canvases of the royal collection and hurled paintings and priceless sculpture out of the windows and sent them crashing to the courtyard of honor below – where you now stand.
“Look Out!” Just kidding.
As if this weren’t enough indignity, when the fire-happy Paris Communards took control of the city in 1871, guess what they did to the Palais Royal? Surprisingly nothing.
Nope, I’m just kidding about that too. They torched the place.
Eventually, the palace became a governmental building and home to the French Ministry of culture. In the 20th century a parking lot for the ministry was placed here. But since this is the ministry of culture, they decided they wanted something nicer. So in the 1980s French artist Daniel Buren was commissioned to fill the space with an art installation. Entitled, “The Two Plateaus” it’s a conceptual checkerboard pattern overlaid atop the courtyard, whose intersections are marked by candy-striped black-and-white columns of varying heights jutting up from the courtyard's floor like zebra legs. Perhaps it’s worth a picture.
When you return to the street to find your bike, you’ll notice those fine shops in the arcade. I mention these again, because those arcade shops represent one of the world’s first shopping malls - dating all the way back to the 1600s. During the revolution of 1789, the most famous shopping trip in the arcade’s history occurred when a radical named Charlotte Cordray went looking for a knife. Her deadly purchase in hand, she turned toward the home of her target – the powerful French newspaperman Jean Paul Marat. The two were from rival political factions within the revolutionary movement, and Cordray wanted to see that the influential Marat was dealt with. Using her guile and good looks, she gained access to Marat’s bath chamber and confronted the radical while he was taking a soak, whereupon she stabbed him in the heart. From that moment it was clear that Charlotte would be unable to return the knife to the palais royale arcade shop, because it had been used. Plus she failed to keep her receipt.
When you’re done here, remount your bike and head north, up the Avenue de L’Opera.
159 Rue Saint-Honoré, 75001 Paris, France
Continue north on the Avenue de L’Opera until you reach the Rue Danielle Casanova, where you’ll turn left.
As we ride on, it occurs to me that we’ve seen lots of royal palaces today. This should give you an idea of the exalted fashion in which the pre revolution French nobility lived. While the upper classes were more than comfortable, the era of French feudalism had been hard on the common people of France, consigned to no rights of citizenship and grinding poverty to boot. Although the revolutionaries had their inexcusable excesses, the axe they had to grind was real. So the American author Mark Twain observed when he wrote,
“THERE were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror—that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.”
Food for thought. I’ll see you up ahead.
28 Av. de l'Opéra, 75002 Paris, France
28 Pl. Vendôme, 75001 Paris, France
28 Pl. Vendôme, 75001 Paris, France
You are now in Place Vendome. The mighty column at the center of the plaza was erected in honor of French general and dictator, Napoleon Bonaparte to commemorate arguably his greatest battlefield victory – Austerlitz, where he defeated the rival European emperors of Austria & Russia in one fell swoop. The column itself is made from the melted metal of approximately 180 captured enemy cannon and features 425 separate carvings depicting the scenes of Napoleon’s victory. The column is approximately 144 feet tall and topped with the statue of Napoleon. The statue you see today depicts Napoleon in his traditional battlefield gear of boots, frock coat and captain crunch hat. The original statue, however, showed Napoleon dressed as a toga wearing Caesar-esque Emperor – that is until it was removed in 1816 and melted down by the restored Bourbon monarchy to make a new statue elsewhere in the city. It took some effort to pull Napoleon’s likeness off the column. At first he wouldn’t budge. One onlooking woman quipped, "If the Emperor is as solid on his throne as this statue is on its column, he's nowhere near descending the throne"
So who was Napoleon anyway? Remember when I played you La Marseillaise earlier and you learned about its origin story as a patriotic song to inspire the army as the other European monarchies ganged up on the Radical French Republic in an attempt to save Louis XVI? Napoleon rose to prominence as a soldier and general of France in those wars. He became so prominent, and so powerful that he was able to install himself as dictator of France – eventually crowning himself emperor.
This is a great irony, because although the wars were initially fought to preserve France’s experiment in republican governance, they resulted in the rise of a homegrown strongman who seized absolute power from within. This is why many consider the elevation of Napoleon to be the end of the first French Revolution.
It must be said that Napoleon was truly a great general and one of the most brilliant military tacticians ever to have lived. During the years of his reign, the wars continued and through force and coercion, the French Empire expanded over an area containing 90 million people and a European landmass that included Germany, Italy, Spain, Poland and countless kingdoms and principalities. During that time, he was also able to create a new system of laws for the French people dubbed the Napoleonic Code. But he met his Waterloo in 1815 and all those years of bloodshed had a staggeringly high human cost.
Bonaparte was sent into exile, paving the way for the European powers to reinstall the Bourbons so that everything could go back to the way it was before this whole revolutionary kerfuffle got started.
And they all lived happily ever right?
Well, not exactly. Like I said, the Revolutionary Era is complicated. Napoleon’s descendants kept the Bonaparte legend alive and what followed were decades of churn within French government & society. After Napoleon, the Bourbons were overthrown (again), then the Orleans took over under Louis Phillippe, then he was overthrown by another group of radicals and a second French republic was born. It ran the show until Napoleon’s nephew (Napoleon III) took control and created the second French empire – which was, in turn, destroyed by the Prussians in the Franco Prussian war which led directly to the chaos of the Paris Commune when those fire happy socialists took control of the city and tore down the Vendome column before you. Don’t worry, it was put back in 1874.
I know … it’s enough to make your head spin. Let’s keep your wheels spinning as we exit the Place Vendome to the south and head toward the Tuileries.
360 Rue Saint-Honoré, 75001 Paris, France
2 Rue de Castiglione, 75001 Paris, France
Navigate the traffic so you can cross the Rue de Rivoli and wheel your bike into the Tuileries Gardens for our second-to-last stop. Once you’re in the garden, take a brief pause and I’ll tell you the story.
Remember when I showed you where the Tuileries Palace once stood, well you’re now in the famous Tuileries gardens which sat just behind the palace. Today, these gardens constitute Paris’ most famous public park – which is kinda funny, because they were initially built exclusively for use by the French monarchy. Before they were dethroned, it was from here that King Louis XVI and his buddies saw the first flight of a manned balloon lift off the ground in 1783. If only Louis knew and had hopped aboard himself and kept going, he might have kept his head; because you know what event opened Tuileries up for the masses? That’s right … the French Revolution of 1789.
Once the doors were thrown wide, the Tuileries became the site of many notable events during the era of our story. After his failed flight attempt to Varennes, Louis was again placed again under house arrest by the revolutionaries. Shortly thereafter, the military arm of the revolutionary movement, the French National Guard confronted the personal bodyguard of the king – the Swiss Guards – and overwhelmed them in a bloody battle here in the Tuileries. The King now lay completely undefended.
After this, the king was roughly apprehended and thrown into actual jail. Louis’ trial was held inside the Tuileries in a converted horse track known as “Salle du Manege”.
Poor Louis never stood a chance. His judge and jury were the members of France’s new republican legislature – the National Convention. They charged him with 33 counts of treason ranging from ordering the army to march against the citizens of Paris, to bribery, to disgracing the name of France.
In his final defense, Louis himself spoke saying, “I declare that my conscience reproaches me with nothing.”
The question was if the National Convention would find Louis guilty. That was a foregone conclusion. The real issue was whether the legislature would condemn him to death. They put his fate to a vote. Of the 721 total voters, 361 voted for death without conditions.This means that Louis was condemned by a margin of only one vote. At our final stop, we’ll see where this sentence was carried out.
Return to the Rue de Rivoli and head westward toward the Place de la Concorde.
254 Rue de Rivoli, 75001 Paris, France
Concorde, Pl. de la Concorde, 75001 Paris, France
9 Pl. de la Concorde, 75001 Paris, France
We’ve reached the end … for both King Louis and our tour.
This is the Place de la Concorde, the largest square in Paris and site of many notable executions at the hands of the guillotine during the revolutionary era – including Maximilian Robespierre, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. To see the spot where the guillotine stood, just look down. You’re standing on it (historians generally agree that it was right between the entrance to the Tuileries Gardens and the Egyptian obelisk visible to the west).
If France was to become a republic, the revolutionaries who voted for execution knew that the monarch had to be removed – permanently, lest royalist sympathizers attempt to reinstall him at a later date. Exile and imprisonment would not do. The guillotine provided a final solution.
Let’s set the scene. A guillotine is an apparatus designed for efficiently carrying out executions by beheading. The device consists of a tall, upright frame with a weighted and angled blade suspended at the top. At the bottom of the device, the condemned were pilloried through a neck hole which positioned their head directly below the falling blade. A basket was situated to catch the head once the blade dropped through. All of it was mounted atop a great scaffold so thousands of onlookers could see the act of revolutionary justice being carried out against those who threatened the new order – and madame guillotine was a busy lady. During the height of the terror, she was dispatching nearly 300 people a day.
Fans of romance novels like the Scarlet Pimpernel are often under the misapprehension that such revolutionary vengeance was directed solely toward the French aristocracy by the radicalized lower classes. But this is a half truth. Certainly, there were many aristocrats who met their end during the terror, but in actuality no one was safe. Your social status did not determine your fate so much as your loyalty to the revolution. A poor army soldier who fought in defense of the King was as apt to find his head in the basket as was a wealthy royalist. A storekeeper caught hoarding would be condemned alongside a priest who resisted the dismantling of the church.The revolution also ate its own as factions within the revolutionary movement would target each other depending upon who held power at a given moment. Just ask poor, jawless, Robespierre.
The scene of the king’s execution was a memorable one. It was 10am on January 21, 1793 when Louis arrived in his shirtsleeves via horse drawn carriage. Tens of thousands of people were assembled to watch – held back by a throng of National Guardsmen; the professional soldiers whose defection to the revolutionary cause had proved pivotal in securing the king's downfall.
The doomed monarch was granted a confessor to accompany him to the scaffold named Henry Essex who later recounted,
The path leading to the scaffold was extremely rough and difficult to pass; the King was obliged to lean on my arm, and from the slowness with which he proceeded, I feared for a moment that his courage might fail; but what was my astonishment, when arrived at the last step, I felt that he suddenly let go my arm, and I saw him cross with a firm foot the breadth of the whole scaffold; silence, by his look alone, fifteen or twenty drums that were placed opposite to me; and in a voice so loud, that it must have been heard at the Pont Tournant, I heard him pronounce distinctly these memorable words: "I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge; I Pardon those who have occasioned my death; and I pray to God that the blood you are going to shed may never be visited on France."
The king tried to give a longer speech but was then cut off by the drums. The executioners placed his royal neck in the pillory. The blade fell. A great cheer went up from the crowd as the chief executioner grabbed Louis’ severed head out of the basket and exhibited it to the world. Cries of "Vive la Nation! Vive la République!" rent the air.
Although this was but one act during a very long revolutionary saga – nothing could have been more dramatic.
What do you think, did the king have it coming? Were the revolutionaries in the wrong? A bit of column and column perhaps? Do you think you’d like to learn more? Great. Pick up a book, listen to a podcast, or maybe watch a documentary – but when you do, just remember that you saw the places where it all happened on tour with us today.
Thank you for enjoying this historic journey through Revolutionary Paris with me! I hope you join me on another Historic America and UCPlaces audio tour soon. But for now, I’m spent. Let’s grab a nutella crepe!
I’m Aaron Killian and this audio tour is a Historic America and UCPlaces production. To learn more about our trip planning services, public & private tours and digital content make sure to visit us at www.historicamerica.org and to find more audio tours, go to historicamerica.org and UCPlaces.com.