In the City On the Island

Courtyard of the Palais de Justice
A rare storm passes over the Ile-de-la-Cité in the afternoon.

The Centre is Where Lines Cross

Paris:- Wednesday, 11. June 1997:- All European cities have centres; some particular place where they started. This is very fundamental - a long time ago there were no 'centres' and people were just scattered around, with their backs to walls, fighting off bears, wolves and the 'other' guy.

Sometime in history, man figured out it was better to have another 'guy' - it might have been a woman with a big club! - behind his back instead of stone, because it was more companionable. When this point was reached in history, the two of them looked for a place to live which was easier to defend, so they could spend more time looking for food.

This is why the Ile-de-la-Cité was chosen. As an island, it had a natural moat. The inconveniences were that the island was small and the river was big; but time passed and some other people who often walked from the Midi to - somewhere up north - found the river easier to cross by way of the Ile-de-la-Cité.

There were no autoroutes in those days; there weren't even any roads - there were crude paths. Travel by land was hard work and dangerous; but travel by river, while also dangerous, was not quite as hard.

So the Parisii on the Ile-de-la-Cité became used to being on the crossroads of the river and the path; and from this they prospered. When the ambitious Romans showed up in the early '50's BC, they lent modern ideas and a language to the citizens of the island; it gave them an awareness of who they were in relation to the rest of the world.

Norsemen came by water, because it was easy to do so, and sacked the part of the town which was not barricaded on the natural fortress of the Ile-de-la-Cité. The town was wealthy and the Norsemen returned often.

The Romans saw their empire collapse at its centre; sacked and taken over by tougher gangs of adventurers. The empire dissolved and the German tribes, whom the Romans had held at bay on the eastern side of the Rhine, flooded west Entry, Sainte-Chapelle Church to seek fortune and comfort in a more gentle climate.

For Gaul and Lutéce, the first intensive assault came in 259-60. While the more powerful Burgundians and Goths swept south, the minor federation of Germanic 'Francs' took Gaul. Controlling Flanders and northern France, the Salian Francs lead by Clovis swept south about 480, and by the time of his death in 511, most of what is now modern France was controlled by the Francs.

The entrance to the Sainte-Chapelle church, within the Palais de Justice.

Their capital at Tournai was moved to Paris in 507 and was recognized by the Rhine Francs two years later. Both the 'Méovingien' Clovis and the 'Carolingien' Charlemagne are deemed French; but they were not - 'France' as a geographical concept came about only in the 10th century.

While Charlemagne had his capital at Aix-la-Chapelle - now Aachen - what he ruled was called the 'Holy Roman-Germanic Empire.' As one historian puts it, from the third century, Paris 'climbed back in its cradle' and stayed there 700 years.

There are gaps in the dates concerning the 'rulers' of France; from the end of Charles le Chauvre in 877 until the beginning of Hugues Capet in 987, there is a 110-year blank. This is partly filled by Michelin's account of the successful defence of Paris against the last Norse attack - 30,000 very tough guys! - by Count Eudes of Paris, who was elected king 'of France' in 888.

Never heard of Count Eudes of Paris? He was born in 860. His father was Robert the Strong. Because Eudes defended Paris so successfully, he replaced Charles the Big - deposed in 887, died in 888 - and from 893, he fought Charles the Simple. Eudes died in 898. Both Eudes and his father were apparently born in France, but the rest were all Germans. It was the 'Dark Ages' and times were not only tough but obscure.

At any rate, in the 10th century, some of the Norsemen turned their energies to the colonization of America instead of attacking Paris.

The city climbed out of its cradle; at the end of the century outposts were created on the right bank towards Saint-Denis. Philippe-Augustus opened Les Halles as a market in 1183, and ordered a wall built around the town, on both river sides, in 1190. This was the first city wall.

The Ile-de-la-Cité became the administrative centre for lay affairs. It was also a religious centre, but this was run from Sens; Paris had no archbishop of its own until 1622.

In a companion article in this issue entitled 'Looking for the Island of the Ile-de-la-Cité' there is an account of the 'island' that is the Ile-de-la-Cité. For myself, looking up this 'history' has been done out of curiosity: why is Paris here? View of sky, from inside Palais de Justice Just as the dates above are only approximate - from different sources - the reason 'why' is even more vague.

I think it simply comes down to the intersection of the north-south path which became a road, and the east-west river, which was a highway. Where these cross, is the Ile-de-la-Cité, and chance has made it the centre.

An angry sky, seen from inside the Palais de Justice, as the light dims.

The Romans started it, the 'Germans' continued it, but it really got going when Paris decided to be itself. It is certain that royal places preceded the building of the Conciergerie, but the first indication is a sketch of what Philippe le Bel had built to replace what was there before 1285.

What I see today walking east along the quai de l'Horloge, is probably not much changed from 1380 - except the first tower, which is most likely from 100 years earlier: the Tour Bonbec. The next set of double towers have the entrance to the Conciergerie and I take a look in its entry.

Places, especially palaces, were well-built back then and it is holding up well. It is also well-preserved, and I have little sensation of antiquity. The walls are not covered in moss. It is so good, it may even be a reproduction, made in Hollywood.

This whole complex - the Conciergerie, the Palais de Justice and the Sainte-Chapelle church, take up about a quarter of the Ile-de-la-Cité. Besides historic and old sites, the buildings are also the working law courts and on the quai des Orfèvres side at the west end - near the place Dauphine - are the headquarters of the criminal police, the Police Judiciaire.

I don't feel like paying them a visit, nor the prefecture or the Tribunal du Commerce, but I do go in and look at the outside of Sainte-Chapelle for the first time, and then pass through an arcade into the Cour du Mai and go up the steps to the courts.

While I am doing this, the sky is getting ready for some drama. The building is a horrible maze and I look around some dark hallways at closed courtroom doors and read some inscriptions and even go a way down the Galerie des Prisonniers.

Before I get asked for my detention papers I cut into the Galerie Duc, and through a window see an angry sky. Lights are coming on inside as I go out and stand at the top of the steps. Very big drops of rain are plopping on them, the Cour du Mai and the boulevard du Palais beyond.

On the other side, partly hidden by the gold-tipped iron entry fence and trees on the street, I see the welcome lights of a café. Part of the way there, I duck into the Louis XIV escalier for shelter until it looks like there will be no letup, and then hit the 'green man' light on the button and get to the café not too wet.

Here I have a double-express and admire the decor, in this lawyer's bar. I can see the sign for the métro Cité from the bar. I could zip down the rue de Lutèce in the same direction, do a cut right into the rue de la Cité, and turn left to be in front of Notre Dame with the Hôtel Dieu on my left.

The rain-swept boulevard du Palais, looking towards Châtalet.

If I do that, I will see the renovation scaffolding still covering the face of the cathedral, but probably not much else. The people around with umbrellas are trying to turn them right-side-out again, but we all know they're goners.

All the cafés in the rue d'Arcole will be full as will be those in the rue du Notre Dame. The portrait painters will be gone and the bouquinistes will have hurriedly dropped the lids on their dark green bookstall boxes. Even birds will be hiding.

The Ile-de-la-Cité: swept clean of its cops, lawyers, judges, visitors and post-card buyers; its merchants trundling fragile wares under cover; darkness and car headlight reflections - the centre of Paris, the centre of France - halted by wind, rain and lightning.

Inside the métro station Cité it is steamy and so are the people in it waiting for a ride back to their hotel.

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