A (brief) tour of Henry IV’s Paris

“Have you read How Paris Became Paris?” my new blog-friend Nomad Woman asked recently. I had indeed — and I loved Joan DeJean’s approach of (re)telling the city’s history through architectural and technological innovations.

I especially appreciated DeJean’s characterization of Henry IV (1554 – 1610) as a visionary. I had never before regarded his urban development projects — most notably Paris’ oldest bridge, the Pont Neuf — as being revolutionary, or even particularly modernist. But DeJean showed me the old king in a new light.

Anyway … Nomad Woman leaves for Paris tomorrow, and I’d offered to post some Pont Neuf photos and facts for her. But rather than focus on just the bridge, I thought it might be fun to look at several sites related to Henry IV.

Henri IV Paris BLOG
“Courtesy” of Google Maps. Thank you, Google!

Le Square du Vert-Galant

Find the beautiful statue of Henry IV, and you’ve found one of the most charming little parks in Paris.

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Vert Galant 1260353 BLOG

The statue dating from 1618 was destroyed during the French Revolution, but was rebuilt in 1818 from a surviving cast of the original. (A bit of Henry IV’s bona fide leg is still on view at the Carnavalet Museum, though.)

You can access the park from a set of steps off the Pont Neuf, behind Henry IV’s statue. When you reach the bottom, look for a plaque that commemorates the burning-at-the-stake in 1314 of Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar.

Jacques de Molay BLOG

Three centuries later the only thing that burned here was passion, as King Henry IV partied and cavorted with his many mistresses. In fact, the name “Vert-Galant” — which translates literally as “green (lusty) gentleman” — is a nod to old Henry’s legendary enthusiasm for the ladies.

Vert Galant pano 0578 to 0582 BLOG

Hemingway came here even more recently and observed the fishermen who worked the quays. “They always caught some fish,” he wrote, “and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.”
Seine sunset 60872 BLOG

The Square du Vert-Galant is also one of the launching spots for the “Vedettes” tour boats.

Today, this little teardrop-shaped park is still a meeting place for lovers, loungers and revelers alike. It’s also still one of only a couple of spots on the île de la Cité that retains its original slope to the river — which shows you just how vulnerable this little island once was to flooding.

Vert Galant 1240453 BLOG

Le Pont Neuf

In French Pont Neuf means “new bridge” — but this is actually Paris’ oldest survivor. The site of this bridge was chosen as early as 1550, during the reign of King Henry II, but budget shortfalls delayed the beginning of construction until 1578, under Henry III. Henry IV finally completed it in 1607.

Ile de Cite 40624 to 40629 BLOG
The twelve arches of the Pont Neuf stretch across the Seine to connect the Île de la Cité to the mainland.

As my blog-friend Nomad Woman learned in How Paris Became Paris, the Pont Neuf was unusual in many ways. Not only was it the broadest bridge in Europe at the time, it was also wider than any other Parisian street. Plus, it wasn’t covered in houses — as was typical at the time — so it offered sweeping views over the Seine. Very quickly the bridge came to represent modern Paris to the world, and became the place to see and be seen.

Pont Neuf 1260348 BLOG

Although the bridge today lacks the merchants and crowds and traffic it once drew, it’s still a technical marvel, with its 12 elegant arches spanning both sides of the Île de la Cité. And although it still offers a beautiful view of the city, I prefer to approach the Pont Neuf from the quays that pass underneath …

Pirates in Paris 1030930 BLOG

Pont Neuf 1240500 BLOG

Don’t miss the mascarons that adorn the bridge. There are 381 in total, and no two are identical. You can see a couple of the originals up close at the Carnavalet Museum.
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… and don’t miss an opportunity to appreciate the Pont Neuf in all its majesty from the nearby Pont des Arts.

Vert Galant 1260756 BLOG

La Place Dauphine

Even as the Pont Neuf was nearing completion in 1607, Henry IV was already hard at work at the Place Dauphine. Named after his son, the Dauphin of France — the future Louis XIII — this was the second of Henry’s public squares (see “Place des Vosges,” below).

PLace Dauphine 1240517 BLOG

The original 1607 plan called for a public square (a triangle, actually) surrounded by houses of “a harmonious aspect.” The original houses all had similar façades, like those at the Place des Vosges, though more modest. The last of the houses (at the southeast corner of the square) was finished in 1616.

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Since then, however, almost all of the houses have been rebuilt, replaced, or heavily restored. Only two retain their original appearance — those flanking the entrance facing the Pont Neuf.

Pont Neuf 2007 BLOG

Place Dauphine 1240450 BLOG

Nevertheless, centuries of history still echo on the cobblestones of this hidden little treasure.

Place Dauphine 1240527 BLOG

La Place Royale / Place des Vosges

The Place Royale represented the epitome of city planning when it was inaugurated in 1612, to celebrate a royal wedding. But Henry IV’s initial plans for the site had been rather more commercial and mundane: irked by Italy’s dominance of the silk industry, in 1604 he had provided land for the construction of workshops and housing.

By 1605 the winds had changed, though, and Henry IV wrote to his finance minister with a new decree that the square should serve three purposes: to adorn Paris, to host public ceremonies, and to offer recreational space.

Paris Place des Vosges 2007 7 BLOG

Vosges fountain 1030151 BLOG

Henry IV drew up a new plan for the Place Royale — one that incorporated the existing commercial buildings, and that added three more sides with similar “pavilions.” He ordered that the buildings be uniform in height and appearance, and that they house both businesses (on the main floor) and residences (upper stories).

Vosges window 1030158 BLOG

The Place Royale’s original occupants were economically and socially diverse, according to How Paris Became Paris. But over the following centuries it still endured several booms and busts — and several name changes. (In 1800 Napoleon changed the name of the square from “Place Royale” to “Place des Vosges” to honor the Vosges region, the first to pay taxes to his new government. The square was again renamed Place Royale in 1815, only to be changed yet again into Place des Vosges in 1870.)

Place des Vosges 1210008 BLOG

More boom-and-bust cycles followed, culminating in almost slum-like conditions in the 1970s. But gentrification soon swept through the Marais, and the Place des Vosges was once again among the most desirable addresses in Paris.

Place des Vosges CX 1020870 BLOG

Vosges doorknocker 1300441 BLOG

Today, most of buildings are privately owned — but you can visit the house of Victor Hugo, author of “Les Misérables,” which is now a municipal museum. Admission is free, every day from 9am to 6pm except Monday.

Le Musée Carnavalet

Strictly speaking, this museum of Paris’ history has no direct ties to Henry IV — but it does contain a remnant of his bronze leg (see “Le Square du Vert-Galant”) and a few mascarons from the Pont Neuf. Beyond that, though, it’s a fascinating walk through centuries of history … and a wonderful way to put faces to some of these stories.

Carnavalet 1200907 BLOG

Plus, it’s simply a beautiful place.

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I hope you’ve enjoyed your virtual tour, chère Nomad Woman, et je vous souhaite un très bon séjour à << la ville lumière >> !

City of Lights 1250347 FB


    • Aw, Tom … thank you for your vote of confidence! I’m not sure I have an entire novel in me, though. Would you settle for another blog post? 😉

  1. A beautiful and fascinating travelogue, H – almost as good as being their in person, and certainly evoking powerful memories. Bravo et merci. 🙂

    • I’m so glad you liked “your” post, Paula! But more importantly: I’m eager to read YOUR impressions of these places. Bon séjour !!

  2. Your love for Paris glows in every word. Every time I read one of your posts I find myself checking the Eurostar timetable!

    There’s a real skill to framing useful information for a new visitor inside the knowledge and enthusiasm gleaned from your own experiences of the place. It’s like a distillation. Gin from juniper berries.

    I like your photos and I hope you’re keeping your posts on Paris so that they can serve future travellers in book form!

    All best wishes

    • I’m delighted that my love for Paris is so contagious, Elaine! I worry sometimes that these historical posts get too mired in detail, so it’s reassuring to read that at least one other person out there finds them interesting. As for publishing them in book form: Several friends have suggested the same. Do you think people would really be willing to pay for yet another book on Paris, when they can just read my posts online? Perhaps if I market it as “gin from Parisian juniper berries.” Ha! Well, regardless … thank you SO much for your kind comment. You’ve made my day.

      • I’m not in the travel book publishing business, but I think there’s still a wish to carry something in your hand to help you navigate a new city or to find a new way of looking at a city you’ve visited before. It’s that human wish to navigate by the stars or to listen to travellers’ tales. We all like to feel that somebody is holding our hand.

        I know what you mean about ‘why bother buying a book when I can read it online’ – I suppose for the same reason that people buy cookbooks written by people who blogged hundreds of recipes first. You can’t write notes in the margins of blogposts. You can’t personalise them. And travel is a very personal thing.

        What I see in the way you write about Paris is an enthusiasm for the city and an ability to give just the right amount of information so it doesn’t read like a cut and paste from Wikipedia or a dry lecture, but like being taken round Paris by a knowledgeable but not show-offy friend. And your photos are lovely.

        I remember visiting Paris for the first time, long ago, in the company of a book called ‘walks around Paris’ or something like that. It was small enough to carry easily and it felt like a friendly, talking map. I remember feeling isolated from real life by the French that we’d been taught in school. It’s hard to drop phrases like ‘le singe est dans l’arbre’ into casual conversation. So carrying some ordinary English about with me in my pocket felt reassuring. Like a magic charm against dragons!

        • “Le singe est dans l’arbre.” I think you’ve just provided the title to my new guidebook, Elaine! 🙂 Thank you for your many (and beautifully stated) good points. Your eloquent arguments have convinced me — and I promise you that someday I will distill these posts into a guidebook! Thank you so much for your encouragement.

          • You’ll have instant reader recognition from anyone who likes Eddie Izzard. ‘Le singe est dans l’arbre’ is a surreal piece of language learning shared by most Britons over 30 and Mr Izzard didn’t have to go too far to make it into comedy. The sketch is here, from about 20 years ago, about 3 minutes in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkCJIBQLvzk&spfreload=10

            Did you learn French as a child? Did you learn things like ‘la plume de ma tante’?

          • Haha! That video is *brilliant.* Isn’t it hilarious the bizarre phrases we language students are forced to learn — phrases that would be useful only in the most extraordinarily unusual circumstances? I didn’t learn French as a child, so I was spared the ravages of tree-ridden monkeys. But now that I’m learning German as an adult I can tell you that the strangeness continues. To wit: I recently learned how to disown an unwanted child in one simple, easy step. Just say, “Das ist nicht mein Sohn,” and voilà, you’re off the hook for college expenses! Anyway … thank you SO MUCH for the great laugh.

  3. Your words and photos are so vivid that I really felt as if I’d had a brief excursion to the heart of Paris. I’d buy your book!

    Henri IV seems a bit of a dude to me, with his pragmatic approach to ending the Wars of Religion. I didn’t know his reputation as a ‘vert galant’ though! Only adds to his charm, somehow. You have taught me a lot: I know none of these sites except for the Place des Vosges, such a gem. I remember it on a February afternoon, full not of sunbathers but of immaculately dressed little French children, playing soberly under the watchful eyes of their ‘BCBG’ parents. 🙂

    • You are SO kind, DB … thank you. And you are also so correct that Henri IV seems like a bit of a stud! I’ll admit to having a bit of a historical crush on the old fellow; he was not only a brilliant leader, but I think also a populist at heart. In any case, thank you for stopping by — and especially for sharing your own lovely memories of Paris. xx

  4. I really enjoyed this post. Henry IV, ‘Good King Henry’, probably the first ‘town planner’ amongst many other things. And to his second wife, Marie de Medici, we owe the Jardin du Luxembourg and the Palais du Luxembourg. And one day I’ll tell you something about la Pace Dauphine which I’m guessing you might not want to publish on your blog. Is that a teaser or what!

  5. Oh wow, I’m catching up with your blog and I just love this post! The images, your knowledge of Paris…. It is clear to see what a passion this ‘city of love’ is to you. So when is your book being published, I’d buy it in an instant. 🙂

    • You’re so sweet! But if I ever do get around to publishing a book, your copy will be *free.* Thank you, dear Rochelle.

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