Monday, March 26, 2012

Marie Antoinette and the Heart of Paris

On Thursday, we took our first Metro ride (of this trip) leaving from the gorgeous Place St. Georges just south of our apartment.

We were headed for a tour of the Conciergerie with "Paris Walks" --  they are our favorite walking tour company, and we never miss an opportunity to take one of their tours when we are here.   The Conciergerie building is currently a courthouse (Palace of Justice), but it was once the prison where victims of the Revolution, including Marie Antoinette, were held prior to losing their heads on the guillotine.

Marie Antoinette right before her execution (she was only 38 years-old).

Our tour started outside the Conciergerie which sits on the Isle de Cité, the small island in the middle of the Seine River where the history of Paris began.  A tribe called the Parisi first settled here, followed by the Romans, and then the Franks.  You can really feel the flow of history when you realize that the site of the Conciergerie has always been a place of justice dating back the the Parisi.  And that Notre Dame sits where a pagan temple to Jupiter once stood.  The island continues to exemplify the age-old division of church and state with the courts on the west side and a cathedral on the east.

Notre Dame

Inside the Conciergerie a series of recreations depict the horrible conditions people faced when they were arrested during "The Reign of Terror".  (The recreations were a bit "cheesy," making us glad that we were visiting with a tour guide who could give us all the historical background.)

And a re-creation of the cell where Marie Antoinette awaited her death:

Even an actual (used!) guillotine blade was on display:

The trials during the Reign of Terror were a sham, and many innocent people kept the guillotine busy decapitating an average of 38 Parisians every day for about a year.  An especially moving room displayed a list of every person who died by the blade.

Sometimes, people turned in their neighbors because they wanted to get rid of them -- one woman turned in her neighbor because she didn't like the way the woman hung out her wash; so, she was guillotined for her infraction with that wash!  One of the saddest deaths hit close to our new Montmartre home.  Marie Louise de Montmorency-Laval, the last Abbess of Montmartre (she appears on the list below as ex-Abbess), was executed even though she was 71 years-old, deaf, and practically blind.  Her crime?  Being "blind and deaf to the Revolution!"

Our minds were still reeling from The Terror as we walked out through the courtyard where the condemned were forced into the tumbrils (wooden carts with bars on the sides) that would carry them to their death.  If you are interested in this era, there is a marvelous book called "The Way of the Tumbrils" by John Elliot (it is actually out of print, but you can download it to an e-book for free at

The gorgeous sunlight outside lightened our mood along with some uniquely French photos that Frank especially enjoyed:

We strolled along the River Seine, browsing the stalls of the "bookinistes" (booksellers with distinctive green metal stands along the riverside) and revelling in the ambiance.  The Bateaux Mouche (tourist boats) were floating down the Seine, and Paris looked just as beautiful as ever.

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