History

Spooky

At the corner of rue de Turenne and rue St Antoine, I decide to head south on rue St Paul. This looks like a nice little street, but for no reason, as I walk along I begin to feel sad. A deep, unexplainable melancholy overcomes me until I reach quai des Celestins. I turn right, going toward a bridge to cross the Seine and I begin to feel better.

It absolutely creeps me out later, when I read about the area between rue St Paul and rue Beautreillis. It was the official burial ground for Paris from the year 600 AD, during the reign of King Dagobert, until it overflowed, and countless bones had to be transported to the Catacombs in the 1700s. This area was a place of grief in Paris throughout the Medieval Era and the Renaissance!  My guidebook tells me that rue St Paul is a delightful street for shopping.

So I do not believe that I felt the mourning of souls throughout the ages — because that would be spooky!

 

 

Return

 

I walk just a few steps away from Notre Dame, then notice beneath my feet a burnished brass star set in the pavement—Le Point Zero des Routes de France. This spot has been the beginning point for the measurement of all distances from Paris to all other cities since the 1100s.

Point Zero

Point Zero

They say if you touch the star, you will return to France one day. So, like millions have done before me, I lean down and rub the star.

 

 

 

 

Communication

Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Now I’m on rue de la Cité, a street that runs across this island in the Seine River. I’m walking along, my head down, when I realize there is an open area to my left. I look up and there, about five hundred yards away, stands beautiful Notre Dame, her two massive towers jutting into the sky, and three huge doors set into an intricately carved façade.

It’s Sunday afternoon and the parvis, the broad plaza in front of Notre Dame, is humming with activity. Some people are staring up with mouths open, awestruck. Some are laughing and hugging.

I walk across the parvis carefully because of the rough, irregular stones. I look down and take notice of the street names on the ground in front of Notre Dame; streets that were once here three hundred years ago, like rue de Venise, but the entire area was cleared to create this wide-open plaza. I imagine the barking dogs, noisy children, shouting merchants and the lovers who once lived their lives on rue de Venise, but now all that remains is a line of white stones in the pavement.

I sit down on the concrete bench amid the manicured hedges and I watch the old man who lets the birds perch all over him. Tourists take their photos with him and he asks for a coin.  To my right, a Japanese family is happily jabbering away and taking photos. To my left, a man is kissing a woman.

Just then a girl, with a skinny boyfriend wrapped around her, walks right up to me as if someone sent her to me.

“Bon jewer,” she says.

I look at her in shock. I’m surprised she took notice of me, and I have no idea what she just said to me.

“Oo ehst luh con sear garee?” she reads from her phrasebook. I realize she’s saying “Where is the Conciergerie?” in French and I detect the long vowel sounds of an American. Then it dawns on me that she thinks I’m French, which is even more shocking.

“You speak English?” I ask, standing up.

“Yes,” she says.

“Ok, you go this way, and then turn right at the first street,” I say, pointing with authority and feeling like a tour guide. “You’ll walk a few hundred yards, then it’ll be on your left-hand-side.”

“Is it very far away?” he asks.

“Well, no, not really. Hope you have fun,” I say, wondering if they ever unravel themselves from each other.

“Thanks!” they say, in unison as they turn and walk away in tandem.

 

 

 

Rebuilding

I walk onto the bridge that’s called Pont Notre Dame. The dark waters of the Seine roll beneath me. And there before me lies the heart of Paris. My eyes follow the massive Conciergerie that dominates the bank of the river, the Palais de Justice, and the delicate filigree spires of the medieval Sainte-Chapelle. I stare at the scene that has enchanted so many for hundreds of years, but I feel nothing.

La Conciergerie

La Conciergerie

I can’t believe it. I came here to soak in the beauty of Paris, and let Paris make me feel alive again.

My eyes are drawn to the three circular towers further down the river. In the Middle Ages, those towers stood as lone sentries on this riverbank—the Tour Bonbec was built in 1250 as a prison; Tour Cesar and Tour d’Argent were built by King Phillipe le Bel in the 1300s. The black pointed roofs, which look like witches’ hats, were added during the Renaissance era.

This was the site of power in the beginning of Paris. If I were standing here in the fourth century after Christ, I would have seen the Roman palace of Emperor Julian spreading along the riverbank instead of the Conciergerie. After the fall of the Roman Empire, King Clovis, the first king of the Franks, lived there. Years later, after the royal palace fell into ruins, the stones were taken away to build Paris.

The Conciergerie was built in the 1300s, but what we see today is refurbished because, after imprisoning Marie Antoinette and King Louis XVI, and enduring the tumult of the 1700s, it was rebuilt.

It isn’t by chance that Paris is beautiful today. If she had not renewed herself after each tragedy, Paris would look like a bombed-out wasteland today.

And standing there, I realize I haven’t rebuilt.