Sunday, December 21, 2014

Medieval walls in modern Paris

Notre Dame de Paris
I just returned from 10 days in Paris and Bonn. One of the things I find amazing about cities in Europe is the way that ancient walls and buildings--whether Roman, Iron Age, or Medieval--have become part of the modern urban fabric. There are three ways that ancient architecture is manifest in modern cities. First, whole buildings have survived, and they continue to be used. Notre Dame cathedral, first built in the 12th century, is still an active church today, in addition to being a tourist destination. My wife and I visited many of these in Paris five years ago: St. Michel, St. Severin, the Cluny Abbey, and others.

Crypte Archeologique
A second way ancient buildings remain today is in the form of preserved ruins. This is what I am used to in Mexico. You can see the Aztec Templo Mayor in the middle of Mexico City, nicely preserved and set off from the modern city. In Paris, the whole open area in front of the cathedral has a preserved excavation underneath, the Crypte Archeologique du Parvis Nortre Dame is an amazing site (and sight), one of the highlights of our prior visit to Paris. Remains from Roman and Medieval Paris have been excavated and restored, and they are well labeled and explained. You walk right through the ruins, an impressive experience.

City wall of King Philip II
But the third way ancient buildings are preserved in modern cities is, for me, the most fascinating. This is when walls and parts of buildings have become incorporated into the historical and modern fabric of the city. I spent some time in Paris exploring this phenomenon. I began with an internet document, "Medieval Paris: A walking tour of the Marais," by Eric Jager. This is based on the north bank (rive droite), just across from Ile Saint-Louis. The tour takes you past the longest extent of the early medieval city wall, built in the 12th century by Philip II. Today, it separates some apartment buildings from a park, where kids were playing soccer.

Medieval street, recent buildings
The tour follows some winding streets that have preserved the old Medieval plan, although the buildings are much more recent. This view of Paris is radically different from the expansive boulevards created by Hausmann in the 19th century (see my prior post on this). The Champs Elysees is great, but I really enjoy walking through the old winding Paris streets.

Medieval arch, National Archives
The tour passes the National Archives building, which just happens to have a medieval archway with towers built into one side of it. There are a number of these cases on the walking tour. You look up an apartment building, perhaps 100 years old, and notice that one wall is more than 500 years old. Amazing.

I highly recommend this walking tour. The only problem is that it does not come with a map! The directions are good, and it was not hard to follow. I just printed out a Google map of the area before I left for Paris.

Roman amphitheater
I also ran into these medieval vestiges while walking around the city. I went to see the Roman Amphitheater, which has been restored in the middle of a block, with apartment buildings all around. Very interesting. Evidently Victor Hugo was instrumental in getting this excavated and restored in the 19th century. The Roman town was called Lutetia. On the way, I noticed a plaque on a building and learned that Rene Descartes had lived there for a few years.
Section of the medieval city wall

But I also ran into another portion of the old medieval city wall, where just a small segment was preserved at the edge of the street. And then after visiting the Shakespeare and Company book store, I spotted an old wall segment in a small park next to a medieval church.

The official component of my Paris trip was successful (Marion Forest passed her dissertation defense with highest honors, and I interacted with a bunch of friends and colleagues from the Universite de Paris-1, Pantheon-Sorbonne). But I was just amazed at all these vestiges of Medieval Paris that have become part of the modern urban landscape. Oh, by the way, the food was great too!
An old wall, probably medieval, near the Shakespeare bookstore