Paris walks: The path to purgatory
A walk through Revolutionary Paris
View Time Out Paris walk: The path to purgatory in a larger map If you can keep your head while all those around you are losing theirs, get on the blocks for our Revolutionary Walk, a unique promenade through the goriest spots of regicidal fever. You'll need: stout shoes, water and a fervent imagination. Start at Place de la Concorde, Métro Concorde. The key date here is 21 January 1793. Since 8am the gates of Paris have been locked, the shutters barred. A crowd of 20,000 has assembled in the Place Louis XV, renamed Place de la Révolution. At 10am there is a drum roll, the king is strapped to a plank and pushed towards the 'iron razor', the guillotine. The device slices through his neck, executioner Samson holds up the head, the crowd roars and clamours to soak their hankies in the monarch's blood. But to see how the nation reached this bloodthirsty state, we have to step back in time.
So walk through the gates from Concorde and into the sedate Tuileries gardens. The Tuileries Palace that used to stand here was the scene of repeated Revolutionary fracas. On 13 July 1789, the eve of Bastille Day, a crowd ransacked the royal garde-meubles for weapons, raining stones on the guards from the balustraded terrace. This was only a taster for what was to come. Inadvisedly, perhaps, the Royal family moved here from Versailles in October 1789. On the night of the King's arrest in 1792, 600 of his Swiss guards were murdered, their genitals hacked off and fed to dogs. It was, said Robespierre, 'the most beautiful Revolution that has ever honoured humanity'. Turn left at the first path, which takes you to the side gates of the Tuileries. On the railings opposite 230 rue de Rivoli there's a plaque commemorating the site of the old Salle du Manège. This was the seat of Revolutionary government through November 1789 until a Republic was declared on 21 September 1792. At 202 rue de Rivoli is the Hôtel Saint James et d'Albany, the home of Général Lafayette, whose celebrated meeting with Marie-Antoinette in 1779 is commemorated by a plaque in the courtyard. Turn up rue St-Roch to the rue St-Honoré, where Danton, Robespierre and friends met at the Couvent des Jacobins, and follow the road to the Palais-Royal. The dandy Duc d'Orléans' pleasure palace was a hotbed of revolutionary thought as nobles and plebs mingled in the coffee shops and sideshows. This was the scene on 12 July 1789, for Camille Desmoulins' pistol-waving speech, while revolutionaries stormed into the salon No 7, Monsieur Curtius' wax museum, to grab the wax heads of their heroes.
Walk through the arch in the Louvre's north wing to the Place du Carrousel, where the guillotine briefly stood. Cross the Seine at Pont des Arts and head down Rue Bonaparte. On your left you'll see the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where Alexandre Lenoir tried to save France's heritage from the mob – he threw himself on the grave of Richelieu and took a stab in the back for his pains.
The fourth left, Rue de l'Abbaye, was the site of one of the Revolution's worst atrocities, in September 1792, when 115 priests were trapped in the garden and butchered. The red brick Abbot's Palace is now the Institut Catholique. Take Rue de l'Echaudé right, cross the road and take the Mabillon and Rue Garancière past St-Sulpice to the Palais du Luxemborg. Now the Senate, the palace was commandeered as a prison and housed, among others, Danton and Thomas Paine. Take Rue Rotrou through Place de l'Odéon, where Camille Desmoulins lived at No 2, and follow Rue de l'Odéon, where Paine, having escaped the guillotine, lived at No 10. Cross Boulevard St-Germain to find the Café Procope at 13 Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie. A favourite slugging ground of Voltaire, Rousseau, Danton and Marat, it contains a host of portraits, Voltaire's desk and even a postcard from Marie-Antoinette.
Backtrack to the other side of the Boulevard St-Germain and the Rue de l'Ecole de Médecine, where at No 15 the Cordeliers' Club met in the former Couvent des Cordeliers. No 18 was the scene of pamphleteer Marat's infamous demise, when Charlotte Corday stabbed him in the bath with a kitchen knife. The martyred Marat's rotting corpse was exhibited for public display in the chapel of the Cordeliers, with a false arm that had been sewn on from another dead man.
Follow the road east and cut up Rue St-Jacques and Rue Dante until you meet Rue Galande. By the time the Terror started, every available space was being used as a prison. At No 52, the Caveau des Oubliettes jazz club gets its name from a gory death sentence whereby prisoners were thrown into cells and 'forgotten'. At No 56, the Trois Mailletz pub found torture instruments in its cellar during renovation, while the Caveau de la Huchette jazz club (5 rue de La Huchette), was a tribunal, prison and place of execution where a well washed away the traces of 'justice'. At Pont St-Michel, cross onto the Ile de la Cité where you can call in at the Conciergerie. This 'vast antechamber of death' was one of the most appalling prisons of the Revolution, where prisoners slept in their own excrement. Not so Marie-Antoinette, who had an 11-by-six-foot room with a bed and wallpaper. Didn't stop her getting dispatched for the big sleep on 12 October 1793. At Pont St-Michel, cross onto the Ile de la Cité where you can call in at the Conciergerie. This 'vast antechamber of death' was one of the most appalling prisons of the Revolution, where prisoners slept in their own excrement. Not so Marie-Antoinette, who had an 11-by-six-foot room with a bed and wallpaper. Didn't stop her getting dispatched for the big sleep on 12 October 1793. Cross the Seine at Pont d'Arcole and you'll find yourself in front of the Hôtel de Ville from whence, in October 1789, a mob of 3,000 fishwives and others commandeered guns and cannon before marching to Versailles to lynch the King. They returned with the severed heads of two guards. This was also the seat of military tribunal set up in August 1792 to dispense instant 'justice'. The original building was destroyed in the 1871 Commune.
Take Rue du Temple, the road of no return for Louis XVI, turn right into rue St-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie and left into Rue Vielle-du-Temple. At No 47 (with the medusa heads on the door) is the townhouse where Beaumarchais ran a fictitious trading company that secretly channelled arms to America. Now take Rue des Francs-Bourgeois on the right, which will bring you to the Musée Carnavalet with its fine collection of Revolutionary history. Follow rue de Sévigné south to the church of St-Paul-St-Louis on Rue St-Antoine, from which the hearts of Louis XIII and XIV were seized and sold to a painter. Now you're on the road to the Bastille. Take Boulevard Henri IV and notice the brown bricks in the road as you approach Place de la Bastille. These mark the spot where the Bastille prison stood; similar marks can be seen on Rue St-Antoine, where No 5 is the site of the main gate and the famous 'storming' on 14 July 1789. On Place de la Bastille, in June 1794, the guillotine claimed 73 victims in three days.
From here on in, things get grim, in terms of both the tale and the trudging. Lightweights can hop on the 86 bus to Place de la Nation, leaving hardier souls to ponder Mirabeau's remark that 'There is nothing more lamentable or revolting in its details than a revolution but nothing finer in its consequences for the regeneration of empires'.
Nation, formerly Place du Trône, was the guillotine's last stand before the murderous device moved back to Concorde to give Robespierre the chop. But this is where French collective denial steps in. In 1794 the machine claimed more than 1,000 lives at Place de la Réunion, just to the north-east of the twin pillars of the Fermiers-Généraux wall. But is there anything to commemorate the slaughter? Nothing. The proof is found at Cimitière de Picpus, down Rue Fabre d'Eglantine and left. Here two mass graves contain the bodies of 1,306 people killed by the guillotine in the last, brutal period of the Terror in June and July 1794. Also buried here is Général Lafayette, who, languishing in an Austrian prison all this time, escaped the guillotine and lived on to the ripe old age of 74. Which just goes to show: there are far worse places to be than the big house.
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