On the Way to Somewhere... Close By

Fish restaurant at place Chatelet
There are attractive restaurants and cafés at Châtelet,
but they are in a big... place.

'Discovering' Châtelet; from Rivoli to Seine

Paris:- Wednesday, 12. November 1997:- Everybody who reads this magazine should know by now that the City of Paris' visitor services are in dire straits. The monthly and useful 'Paris Selection' is no longer published and the city magazine for residents is not as freely distributed as it was.

It means, if I want to find out what's happening before it's history, I have to go a little further to get information about coming events. I have to ride all the way to the métro stop Hôtel de Ville, instead of getting out at Etoile. This means I see the Madame of the Toilets in the Champs-Elysées' Drugstore less often and see her underground colleague at the Hôtel de Ville more often.

Since there is a newspaper kiosk right at the métro exit I manage to remember to buy Le Parisien's Paris edition more readily - but I do not get to see the week's new - 'official' - posters on the Champs-Elysées. Overall, I guess I have to look harder and further afield for posters each week.

Paris' Hôtel de Ville has a reception office on the rue de Rivoli and I get 'Paris - Le Journal' here, in the middle of the month. This magazine has most of what I - we - need, including ads for funeral services.

This office also has small temporary exhibitions and today they are dismantling the one about the bridges. From what's left of it, I'm sorry I missed it; but I've been around the Seine enough lately.

A visitor is asking the way to the nearest public baths when I arrive at the counter; to see that it has nothing except for 'Paris - Le Journal' on it. A reader has written to ask about next spring's Paris Marathon so I ask if they have a brochure for it.

They do. They have lots of brochures hidden away under the counter. Should I ask for all of them? A pile of them used to be on the counter and I could browse through them and pick up the interesting-looking ones, but now they are saving money and hiding them. When it is offered, I get the brochure for the 'Demi-Marathon' too, just in case less serious runners are reading this.

This is one of those Wednesdays when I am supposed inside f Tour Saint-Jacques to 'think of something' while coming down here. But coming out of the reception office I still have a whiteout upstairs. I have been around the Hôtel de Ville a lot lately, so it's been done too. What else?

'Golden October' is two weeks gone and the bit of 'gold' in November is not around today. There is a café I intend to see, so I start wandering in its direction - heading west along Rivoli.

Lead bullets were dropped off the Tour Saint-Jacques for some technical reason; or was it a visitor attraction? The tower is now closed to visitors.

At the corner of the rue de la Coutellerie I look back and see a café I never noticed before; the Café de la Hôtel de Ville. It is a big café and it is right on Rivoli.

This is what I call a 'find' resulting from the '50 percent rule.' This rule, as I make it up here, says that 50 percent of the interesting views in Paris are behind you. If you are walking in any direction you are usually looking at an arc of about 180 degrees, in front - and never see the other 50 percent in the 180 degree-arc behind.

Be careful practicing this rule; if you are in the middle of a street and start walking backwards to get the 'rear view, you could get run over.

Going from the Hôtel de Ville, if I am on Rivoli, I am usually headed towards Châtelet and stay on the left - because the right-hand sidewalk is always crowded. As I said, at the rue de la Coutellerie I look back and see this café for the first time.

I continue along Rivoli. At the rue Saint-Martin there is the Square of the Tour Saint-Jacques on the left and in it there is the Tour itself. I have seen this before but I have never looked at it. What the dickens is it? Right here on this busy street; in its own little park, in the centre of Paris.

Well, it was once an observation platform for getting good views. But before that, the Tour Saint-Jacques is what remains of a whole church that may have been begun in 1060.

After a very long history, the Révolution melted down its 12 bells and it was demolished in 1797, leaving the tower which was bought by a fellow named Dubois for 411,000 francs; who in turn rented it to a manufacturer of lead bullets. The City of Paris bought it from the Dubois family in 1836 for 250,100 francs and continued to rent it to the bullet maker. The gargoyles were redone in 1853.

After this I've forgotten where I was vaguely going before and now am 'on the job' right here and now. I come out on the avenue Victoria by the place du Châtelet, where the two theatres are facing each other and you can see the Conciergerie across the river. Not looking up the boulevard du Sébastopol is a good idea.

The avenue Victoria goes through to the rue des Lavandières-Sainte- Opportune. It was put together in 1854 out of the rue de l'Arche-Popin, for the part down to the Seine, this addition was detached in 1912 and l'Arche-Popin became rue Edouard-Colonne.

The name Lavandières was used from 1244 and Sainte-Opportune was added to avoid confusion with the rue des Lavandières-Place-Maubert in the Quartier Latin. As that is way to heck-and-gone across the river, I guess people were just as confused about French names then as they are today.

Half these streets are closely allied with streets that have disappeared, and in this case it is the rue des Mauvais-Paroles, which went over to the rue des Bourdonnais from rue les Halles, which was swallowed up by Rivoli. Richelieu lived for a couple of years in the disappeared part of the rue des Lavandières, or from rue Auxerrois - cafe 'au Petit Bonneur' where the rue Jean-Lantier goes through to the rue Sainte-Opportune. The odd thing is the rue Jean-Lantier starts at the quai de la Mégisserie and where the rue Sainte-Opportune starts at the rue Jean-Lantier, it is on the east side and the rue Sainte-Opportune is on the west side - of the same street, until Rivoli.

View from the rue des Orfèvres, towards the rue Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois. The salt storage was on the left, at the corner.

But back at the place du Châtalet; it was the location of Le Grand-Châtelet, demolished about 1810. It was the most fetid area of Paris.

About 870, Charles le Chauvre probably had a big wooden tower in front of the Pont au Change, to defend the bridge. The tower saw use during Norse attacks. In 1130, Louis le Gros built a fortress and a small stone fort, a 'châtelet;' but it was useless by 1190, as part of the Philippe Auguste ramparts.

Enlarged by Saint-Louis, again by Charles V, Le Grand-Châtelet - so named because it defended the Grand-Pont and to set it off from the Petit-Châtelet on south side of river. It was restored and transformed under Charles VII, Louis XII and Louis XIV.

The 'châtelet was not at the centre of the actual place - it was closer to the actual theatre - the western one. Its facade looked towards rue Saint-Denis. It was a narrow building of two floors, with windows on each floor, topped by cadrans and mansards and had an arched passageway going through it at ground level which was 28 metres long.

Le Grand-Châtelet had towers of various sizes with conical roofs, lookouts, and other useful castle-things. The whole of it formed a fortress. The prison was to the left off the passage and the law courts were on the right.

Le Grand-Châtelet became the seat of the Prévôts of Paris. It was seat of city administration from 665, by the Counts of Paris, who eventually became kings; such as Hugues Capet in 987; then Eudes too, of course. And since they were kings, a viscount was named as head of Paris, who in turn delegated power to a Prévôt and this business continued up to the Boulainvilliers who were the last to do it, in 1766.

Le Grand-Châtelet was where 'justice' was dealt out quickly and severely. Confessions were obtained by torture - water, nose-pinch, Chatelet area map garrote, the rack, and really horrible things. With a confession on record, the accused then went to court.

Bad guys were hung, thieves sent to the galleys, sorcerers and witches were burned alive and whole; while other, lesser malefactors were whipped and banned. Some only had their heads shaved, which got rid of lice. Counterfeiters were thrown into boiling water.

If all this wasn't bad enough, those condemned to death had to undergo torture a second time to find out the names of their accomplices.

The morgue was also in Le Grand-Châtelet - corpses fished from the Seine were kept here; those murdered in the streets overnight - which was at a rate of 15 per night in the 17th century. These were buried, quite naturally, in the Cimetière des Innocents.

And the courts were the good part compared to the prisons, on the left: newcomers were looked at carefully before being send to nine, then 15, then 20 'prisons.' Up higher were common rooms, where one to three shared a bed and each other's lice. Or those arrested were sent to 'secret' cells, or to a grand cell on the first floor where about 100 slept on straw.

Super bad guys were sent downstairs to underground 'holes', into which prisoners were lowered on ropes by pulleys - holes where it was impossible to sit or lie down and which were always partly full of water because of the proximity of the river. They couldn't even lean against the wall because it was sloped inwards, toward the entry hole.

The ancient market - l'Apport-Paris, took up the north-west corner of the place, by the rue Saint-Denis. Think of sounds: the grinding of the mills at the Pont au Change, the cries of birds and sheep being slaughtered, of calves and cows having their throats cut, of the strident calls of fishmongers, and the merchants in the market of l'Apport-Paris.

Through the commercial noise, listen to the screams of the tortured. And there is the smell - of the morgue, of the fish, of the meat, of the skinned hides, and of all sorts of blood. All this made it one of the most horrific parts of Paris; now gone since 1810.

Today the place du Châtelet lets in a lot of light and the theatres sit staring at each other and mad traffic drives through while a few visitors poke about looking for signs of life. If they get tired of this, they can find a table in one of the big cafés in the big theatres and look out the windows at the twin big theatre across the way.

The Théâtre du Châtelet is on the west side, with 1,800 seats, was built from 1860 to 1862 as a replacement for view south from Lantier the Théâtre Imperial, which got kicked out of boulevard du Temple to make room for the future place de la République.

This view is towards the Seine and shows the rear of the Théâtre du Châtelet, with some cafés on the right.

The Sarah-Bernhardt theatre, with 1,500 seats, was also built around the same time, also by Davioud, also in the same style: Italian renaissance, and it also replaced a theatre in the boulevard du Temple. It opened 10 weeks after the Théâtre du Châtelet. The Commune set it on fire and the Opéra-Comique moved into it in 1887 when its own Salle Favart burned down.

Between Châtelet and the Hôtel de Ville there is a sub-station of the police prefecture and a city public assistance centre. To the west of Châtelet, there is nothing official except for the big twinned theatres. It is like a village, it has its long history and it has its historical monument in the Tour Saint-Jacques.

It has department stores at either end, and Les Halles area right beside it. Just beyond are Beaubourg and the Louvre. It is as if, in the centre of one of the biggest attractions in the world, there is a blank space.

Although it is less than 200 metres wide, when you get 20 metres away from either Rivoli or from the Seine quais, you really are in a village - speaking roughly now - about 700 to 1,200 years old. It is even hard to tell that you are surrounded by 12,000,000 million other souls.

If this has not been too long, seepart twoof this report for a few details about some of the streets at the western end of this downtown area.

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