Cupolas of Paris

There are a number of cupolas in the Paris skyline. In this new series, Cupolas of Paris, we will have a look at the most prominent ones and what is hidden below them:

  • The Dôme des Invalides – 7th arrondissement – built under Sun King Louis XIV in the 17th century
  • The Panthéon – 5th arrondissement – built in the 18th century
  • The Sorbonne – 5th arrondissement – built in the 17th century
  • The Observatory – 14th arrondissement – built under Sun King Louis XIV in the 17th century
  • The Val de Grâce – 5th arrondissement – built under Sun King Louis XIV in the 17th century
  • The Institut de France – 6th arrondissement – built under Sun King Louis XIV in the 17th century
1 Invalides – 2 Panthéon – 3 Sorbonne – 4 Observatory – 5 Val de Grâce – 6 Institut de France
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Denfert-Rochereau intersection

The Denfert-Rochereau intersection in the 14th arrondissement is known by tourists mainly for the entrance to the catacombs and for the departure of the airport buses to Orly airport. There is, however, a whole lot more. Let’s have a look at the intersection.

No fewer than seven streets intersect here. First, the north-south axis:

  • Avenue Denfert Rochereau to the north, it leads to Port Royal.
  • Avenue du Général Leclerc to the south, it leads to Porte d’Orléans (see also La Libération).
  • To the west, rue Froidevaux, which runs alongside Montparnasse cemetery in the direction of Montparnasse.
  • To the east, boulevard Saint Jacques which turns into boulevard Auguste Blanqui and runs towards Place d’Italie, with a partially overground stretch of metro line 6.
  • To the northeast, boulevard Arago, and to the southeast, along the train line, avenue René Coty, leading to the Parc Montsouris.

Now for the intersection itself. At its center thrones the Belfort Lion of Paris (3). It is a one-third size copper replica of the Belfort Lion, both of which were created by Auguste Bartholdi. It looks in the direction of the Statue of Liberty, also created by Bartholdi.
The Belfort Lion in the city of Belfort, in eastern France, is a red sandstone monumental sculpture commemorating the heroic French resistance during the siege of Belfort during the Franco-Prussian war.

A view of the northern side of the intersection

On the east side of the intersection, between Saint Jacques and René Coty, is the Denfert Rochereau station, served by metro lines 4 and 6 and the RER B which leads to both Paris airports, Roissy-Charles de Gaulle in the north and Orly in the south. Outside the station, there’s the Orly airport bus station (4).

Denfert station, currently undergoing works

At the center of the intersection, south of the lion, the lodges of the barrière d’Enfer, an entry point of the General Farmers tax wall house two museums: the Paris catacombs on the east side (2) and the Museum of the liberation of Paris on the west side (1).

Denfert tax lodge with entrance to the Catacombs
Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, tax lodges and Denfert station

The lower part of the Place Denfert was renamed in 2004 to Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy to honor this communist resistant (1908-2002) who led the insurrection of the capital in August 1944 from his command post in the catacombs underneath the intersection.

The Paris Catacombs
Location of the Denfert Rochereau intersection
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209m above Paris

The Montparnasse office tower is the highest building inside the Paris city limits, and for 40 years it was the highest building in France. The tower was built on the site of the old Montparnasse train station. The new Montparnasse station is just behind it, with long-distance trains going to the entire Atlantic coast up to and including Brittany, and commuter trains to the suburbs and Versailles.

The tower is 209m high, with a rooftop terrace on the 59th floor and a restaurant on the 56th, both open to the public for a magnificent view of Paris. The elevator, fastest in the world at the time of construction, only needs 38 seconds to reach the top.
The other floors are mainly occupied by businesses, with 5,000 people working in the tower on a daily basis.

In recent years, major asbestos removal works have been undertaken, as the tower was built during a period when the danger of asbestos was not recognized.

But what is one lonely skyscraper doing in the 15th arrondissement?

The Montparnasse Tower seen from the Eiffel Tower

The tower was subject to controversy before, during and after its construction (1969-1973). In 1975, the city of Paris decided to ban the construction of buildings higher than 7 floors, effectively cutting short any prospects of creating a skyscraper business district within the city limits. But by then, the construction of skyscrapers in the new business district La Défense on the western outskirts was already well under way.

La Défense business district as seen from the Eiffel Tower
Location of the Montparnasse Tower
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Modern Paris city limits

Today, the limits of the city of Paris which is at the same time the département of Paris (n° 75) coincide with the expressway Boulevard Périphérique (“le Périph’” or “BP”), a 35km-long dual carriageway with the particular rule that entrants have priority over those already on the expressway. The speed limit is 70km/h but most of the time traffic jams don’t allow for that speed anyway.
The Périphérique intérieur runs clockwise, the Périphérique extérieur counter-clockwise.

The “Périph” at Porte d’Orléans

The strip between the boulevards des Maréchaux (“les Maréchaux”) and the Périph’ is occupied by social housing, schools, and sports equipment.

Tramway on the Boulevards des Maréchaux

There are three “extensions” to the surface of the city of Paris that lie outside of this limit: the Bois de Boulogne park to the west, the Bois de Vincennes park to the east, and the Paris heliport in the southwest near the Seine river, belonging to the 15th arrondissement.

Current Paris city limits (in red)
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The Adolphe Thiers Wall

The final city wall that was an actual wall was built between 1841 and 1844 on the orders of Adolphe Thiers, President of the Council, a position that corresponded to that of Prime Minister. It ran around the entire city, a space of almost 80km² and followed the boulevards des Maréchaux, a 33,7km-long ring road named after Marshals of the First French Empire that circles Paris and can today be traced by the PC (Petite Ceinture) buses (west) and the tram lines T3A (south and east) and T3B (east and north).

It was destroyed between 1919 and 1929, and only very few short sections remain, such as Bastion 44 in the rue du Bastion in the 17th arrondissement, the Poterne des Peupliers (a postern) in the 13th arrondissement or Bastion 1 at Porte de Bercy in the 12th arrondissement, in the middle of the Bercy interchange.

The Adolphe Thiers wall (in light green) and the location of Bastion n° 1
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The Charles V Wall

In the 14th century, King Charles V had a new wall built on the right bank but the Philippe Auguste wall was not demolished for all that, since it was considered so solid and wide that a cart could run on top of it.

Charles V was king of France from 1364 to 1380. His reign marks the end of the first part of the Hundred Years War, as he recovered almost all of the lands lost by his predecessors. He was a learned king who founded the first royal library, predecessor to the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de France).

In 1356, Étienne Marcel, Prêvot des Marchands (a position similar to that of a mayor) had a new wall constructed on the right bank, however, he died before the works were completed. Charles V continued the fortification works following his tactics of terre déserte (“better a crushed land than a lost land”) and reinforced the Philippe Auguste wall on the left bank while creating a whole new wall on the right bank that was 5km long and consisted of a combination of ditches and earth-filled ramparts, the last of which was crowned by a small wall. The fortification extended beyond the Louvre Castle to the west, which made the castle lose its protective function. In the east, however, the residence of the king, the Hôtel Saint Pol, was poorly protected and therefore another small bastion was built: the Bastille. It protected against invasions through the Porte Sainte Antoine gate, and in case of an insurrection within Paris, it covered the road leading to the Château de Vincennes, the king’s residence outside of Paris.

The Château de Vincennes

The Charles V wall was destroyed in the 17th century, and there are few remains today. However, it left its imprint on the map of the city, as many boulevards run along the site of the fortification, such as boulevard Saint Denis, boulevard Saint Martin, boulevard du Temple, boulevard des Filles-du-Calvaire, boulevard Beaumarchais and boulevard Bourdon, to name only a few.

The purple line shows the boulevards named above – running along the Charles V wall (see map below).

In 1672, Louis XIV, the Sun King, had a triumphal arch built on the site of one of the former wall’s gates, the Porte Saint Denis. Two years later, he had another triumphal arch built about 250m away, the Porte Saint Martin. The names are misleading since neither of them was ever meant to be a gate, but to glorify Louis XIV and his military victories.

Charles V wall (orange) and Philippe Auguste wall (brown)
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The Philippe Auguste Wall

In Gallo-Roman times, the population of Lutetia lived mostly on Cité Island and the south shore. There are still some remains to be seen today that will be the subject of a later blog post.

Philippe Auguste was king from 1180 to 1223 CE. He stands out among medieval kings of France for his long reign, his important military victories and his measures to reinforce the power of the king and put an end to feudalism.

He built the city wall that bears his name to defend Paris against attacks from the English Plantagenet dynasty in particular, coming from the north and the east. It was a simple wall 5km long with 77 towers.

Later he also built a second portion of the wall on the left bank, after Normandy fell into the hands of the Plantagenet, and an attack from the north-west had to be envisioned.

In order to protect Paris against invaders coming up the Seine river, Philippe Auguste had a fortress built, the Louvre Castle. (It was later demolished to make way for the Louvre Palace, but that’s a subject for another post.)

The Philippe Auguste wall (in brown)
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Paris city limits

Since the first settlers built a fence around their settlement, the inhabitants of Paris have constructed walls around their habitat. As early as the 4th century CE, there were walls on Cité Island. As the city grew, new walls were erected, forming concentric circles, from Gallo-Roman times to the 21st century.
Let’s have a closer look.

The city wall of Philippe Auguste dates back to the 13th century. Remains can be found near the Pantheon in the 5th arrondissement on the left bank, as well as in the 4th arrondissement on the right bank, in the Marais and near the Village Saint Paul.

The city wall of Charles V dates back to the 14th century. It was destroyed in the 17th century.

The General Farmers Wall was built between 1784 and 1791 by the corporation of tax farmers. It was no longer a wall to protect Paris from invaders but to collect taxes on incoming goods.

Finally, the Adolphe Thiers Wall from 1846 corresponds more or less exactly to the boulevard des Maréchaux of today.

The present-day Paris city limit lies just a little over 100m further out and is marked by the Boulevard Périphérique (“Périph” or BP) expressway, a 35km-long ring road around Paris, but also including the Bois de Boulogne to the west, the Bois de Vincennes to the east, and a heliport in the southwest, near the Seine river.

The evolution of Paris city walls

We will have a closer look at each of these walls in the following posts. Stay tuned!

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La Libération, August 1944

As first a settlement and later a city, Paris has existed for over 2,000 years. History has left its marks on the city, and traces of different time periods can be found all around Paris. In non-chronological order, let’s look at some that you might have come past during a visit without knowing.

If you have been driving on the roads of northwestern France, maybe you have noticed stone markers with a flame in addition to regular distance markers. The bornes de la liberté are set along the route of the Allied Forces from D-Day in June 1944. Liberty Road (la Voie de la Liberté) starts in Normandy, travels across northern France to Metz near the German border and then northwards to Bastogne on the border of Luxemburg and Belgium. But other markers can be found outside of this main route.

In March 1941, following the battle of Kufra in Libya, Leclerc (then a colonel) and his men swear an oath to “not put down the arm until our colours fly over the cathedral of Strasburg”. They fulfilled their oath in November of the same year. But before they could liberate Strasburg, they had to liberate Paris.

In August 1944, the Second Armored Division, in French 2e Division Blindée shortened to 2e DB, marched into Paris from the south. Commanded by the now General Leclerc, it was also called the Division Leclerc.

This monument commemorates not only the Oath of Kufra and the Liberation itself but also the events in this town the 2e DB crossed.

Traces of the combat in Paris in August 1944 can be found–among other places–on the wall of the Paris School of Mines on the boulevard Saint Michel (6th arrondissement, near the Luxemburg Gardens).

The avenue d’Orléans, in the 14th arrondissement leading from the Porte d’Orléans to the Place Denfert-Rochereau is today called Avenue du Général Leclerc.

Map of Paris showing the Avenue du Général Leclerc (the lower point) and the wall of the Paris School of Mines (the upper point).
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Why the Hôtel de Sens is not a hotel

Did you know that in French, a “hotel” isn’t always a place where you can book a room for a night? A hôtel-Dieu, for example, was originally a hospital for the poor run by the Catholic Church, Dieu being the French word for God. The most famous of all these hospitals is also the oldest in Paris, created in the year 651 by the Parisian Bishop Saint Landry. Today you can find the hospital building right next to Notre Dame on Cité Island.

A hôtel particulier is no more a hotel than a hôtel-Dieu, but a grand townhouse or mansion. Their main characteristic is that they will be free-standing, most often located between the main courtyard and the garden, and of course, be in a city.

The Hôtel de Sens is a hôtel particulier built in the 15th century in the 4th arrondissement, near the Seine river. At the time, Paris did not have its own archbishop but belonged to the archbishopric of the Archbishop of Sens, a town 100km to the southeast of Paris. The archbishop had this hôtel particulier built as his pied-à-terre when he was in Paris.
Several archbishops resided there, in fact, over time, as well as other notable figures such as Antoine du Prat, chancellor and prime minister under King François 1er, Louis de Bourbon-Vendôme, a prince from the royal family, or Louis de Guise, Cardinal of Lorraine.

One resident, however, had a more eventful stay than the others: Marguerite de Valois, better known as La Reine Margot (granddaughter of François 1er and first wife of King Henri IV). Her marriage with King Henri IV was annulled in 1599. She lived at the Hôtel de Sens from 1605 to 1606. Legend has it that she had a fig tree at the door cut down because it was in the way of her carriages. Whether it is true or not, the street now bears its name.

Marguerite had a number of lovers. According to another legend, two of them fought it out just below her window. One was killed, the other executed in the same spot.

Main entrance of the Hôtel de Sens on the corner of Rue du Fauconnier and Rue du Figuier

During the Revolution, the Hôtel de Sens became property of the state, was sold and housed, like many hôtels particuliers in the area at the time, shops, workshops, or factories. During the 1830 Revolution (commemorated by the July Column at Bastille), a cannonball hit the façade and lodged so deep within the wall it became impossible to remove. It is still there today, visible to any passersby, with the date engraved beneath.

Location of the Hôtel de Sens
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