Oldest Buildings Still Standing In Paris
Reflecting on his time in Paris, Thomas Jefferson mused that a “walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” For tourists and residents alike, this statement still holds true three hundred years later. While many marvel at the beauty found in the uniformity of the architecture of the Second Empire, wandering through the streets of the oldest parts of Paris reveals treasures of centuries and millennia past, offering viewers glimpses into breathtakingly scandalous and violent history that shaped the city
Once centered around the Ile-de-Cité and spilling over onto the Left Bank, the Roman city of Lutetia has all but disappeared. However, if you find yourself wandering through the 5th arrondissement on a nice sunny day around lunch time, why not stop by a boulangerie for a sandwich and make your way over the Arènes de Lutèce. Built during the first century, this modest former Roman amphitheater, which once had seating for 15,000-17,000 people, was one of the largest structures in Roman Gaul. Built in the Greek circular style (versus the Roman semi-circle), the open-air theater was the site for where the public came together to enjoy bloody gladiatorial games, as well as theatrical performances. After it was completed in the first century AD, the theater continued to host games until the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire in the third century AD. Over the next few centuries, the once majestic arena was gradually forgotten, serving as a cemetery, before it was filled in to make way for the new fortified city walls of the thirteenth century.
Although forgotten, the arena was not lost. As Paris underwent its magnificent transformation in the nineteenth century, the arena was rediscovered during the building of Rue Monge. Seeking to save the historical treasure from its intended fate as a tramway depot, Victor Hugo and a close group of friends and intellectuals rallied together and formed the Société des Amis des Arènes (The Society of Friends of the Arena). This group spearheaded the efforts to save the historic site, which was first opened to the public in 1896. Today, only a small portion of the original structure remains, with remnants of the stage and various niches and grilled cages in the walls visible from the center of the arena. The stepped terraces, although not original, make the perfect picnic spot, where one can watch as the squabbles between the different generations of the neighborhood as soccer balls bounce in and disrupt highly competitive games of pétanque.
Having finished your picnic, head up the hill towards the Pantheon via Rue Clovis. While there, take a moment to stop and appreciate the remnants of the vast medieval wall of King Philippe Auguste. Started in 1190 as a way to protect the city from Norman and English invasion, the massive wall took nearly 20 years to complete. The walls surrounding the city stood between 18 to 24 feet (6 to 8 meters) high and were 12 to 18 feet (4 to 6 meters) thick. They were quiet the formidable foe for any invading enemy of the era. Be on the lookout while wandering around the medieval center of Paris for other sections of the wall, hidden in plain sight as foundations and walls for newer buildings from centuries past.
Continuing your stroll down towards the river, you will eventually come to the wide Boulevard Saint-Germain filled with cafes, shops, and chocolatiers. As you wander westward admiring the boulevard’s nineteenth century architecture, the medieval Musée national du Moyen Age, also known as the Musée Cluny, is a welcome surprise. Walking around the exterior, you will be able to glance down into the remains of the ancient Roman baths. The building itself a blend of ancient, medieval, renaissance, and contemporary architecture with the completion of the new visitor entrance in 2018. The Hôtel de Cluny, as it was known, originally served as a welcome house for the abbots of the Cluny order of monks and other dignitaries. The young Marie Tudor and her cousin James V of Scotland were both guests here before and after their marriages to members of the French royal family. The hôtel has likewise been home to a number of astronomers (who converted the tower into an observatory), as well as the printing press of the Queen in the eighteenth century. Today the Hôtel serves as a museum to France’s ancient and medieval history with over 23,000 artifacts spanning the centuries. If you have some time, stop in to see the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, the crowns of the Visigoth kings, stained glass windows and statues of saints saved from the destruction of the Revolution, and much, much more.
Further along, just outside the former ring of King Philippe Auguste’s wall, stands the Abbey of Saint-Germain-de-Près. Considered to be one of the earliest of places used for Christian worship that is still standing today, the Abbey was founded in the sixth century by the son of King Clovis I, the first King of the Franks, as place to house the many holy relics the Crown had obtained. The storage of these holy relics and the Abbey’s original use as the burial place of the Merovingian kings, resulted in the Abbey becoming one of the richest in France. This richness, however, combined with its location in the middle of meadows outside the defensive walls, made it a frequent target of Viking raids. Throughout the ninth century, the Abbey was repeatedly pillaged and set on fire. However, the faithful members of the Abbey endured, and rebuilt the Church, whose current Romanesque façade dates from 1014. The name of Saint-Germain-de-Près was given to the church in honor of Saint Germain (who had dedicated the first church in 558) following its rededication in 1163 by Pope Alexander.
In the centuries that followed, the Abbey became a focal point for learning, as the Abbey donated a portion of its lands to the buildings for the University of Paris, eventually giving its name to the quartier itself. In fact, until the late seventeenth century most of the land in the sixth arrondissement belonged to and was administered by the Abbey. This all changed with the rise of Bourbons, who made the district of Saint-Germain one of the most desirable locations for a pied-a-terre away from the court at Versailles. Margaret of Valois, Queen Consort of France 1589-1599, started this trend when she pressured the abbey to donate lands to her. Her palace, located at 2-10 rue de Seine, became a haven of intellectual and political debate, while theatrical and ballet performances delighted guests. Following her lead, many other nobles of the court built sumptuous getaways behind large stone walls throughout Saint-Germain, making it the chicest quartier of the era. Sadly, as with many of the churches in France, the Abbey was not immune to the destruction of the Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century. The church was closed in 1792 and the other religious buildings, along with its collection of priceless medieval illuminated manuscripts, sold off. The church itself was used as coal storage site. On August 19, 1794, a massive explosion ripped through the church, destroying much of the historical art and architectural pieces. Thankfully, the church survived, and massive restoration works began in the mid-nineteenth century. The restoration work continues today, with the medieval painted interiors being restored their former glory. Make sure you stop by the tomb of René Descartes and thank (or curse) him for his creation of analytic geometry and other mathematical concepts which allowed for the development of calculus, as well as the use of reason in science