“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
… and don’t miss an opportunity to appreciate the Pont Neuf in all its majesty from the nearby Pont des Arts.
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).
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.
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.
Nevertheless, centuries of history still echo on the cobblestones of this hidden little treasure.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
Plus, it’s simply a beautiful place.
I hope you’ve enjoyed your virtual tour, chère Nomad Woman, et je vous souhaite un très bon séjour à << la ville lumière >> !