11th and 12th Arrondissements
M° Bastille, Ledru Rollin, Charonne, Voltaire, Breguet Sabin, Gare de Lyon
Don’t ever ask a Parisian for directions to “The Bastille”. Perhaps the folks back home will fall for the photos of you “in front of the Bastille”, but anyone who’s read even the most elementary French history book will know that it no longer exists. The French Revolutionaries didn’t simply storm the Bastille in 1789, they tore it down.
The Château de la Bastille
Originally built as a fortress outside the city’s walls in the 14th-century (during the Hundred Years’ War), La Bastille (or the Chastel Saint-Antoine as it was originally known) was later used as a prison to demonstrate the monarchy’s absolute power. You could only get in – or out—with a letter signed by the king. Famous prisoners included the Man with the Iron Mask, Voltaire (for spreading rumors about the royal family), Fouquet (the finance minister who built Vaux-le-Vicomte), and the Marquise de Sade. When the angry revolutionaries stormed the prison on July 14, 1789 to liberate those oppressed by the king, they found only seven prisoners, living in conditions that were far better than the horrid images they’d imagined. Nonetheless, the Bastille was joyfully dismantled, with many of the stones carved into mini-Bastille models and sold as collectors’ items. The Place de la Bastille is a popular rallying point today for disgruntled Parisian protest marchers.
The Colonne de Juillet now stands in its place, a tribute to those who died in the 1830 and 1848 Paris uprisings, with a crypt below containing their remains and a golden statue of Liberté at the top. To see the outline of where La Bastille used to stand, look for the large paving stones set into the cobblestones where the Boulevard Henri IV meets the Place de la Bastille (and also on the sidewalk in front of the large bank. Try not to get run over by the speeding Parisians!
Another historic reminder can be found in the Métro Bastille (on the platform for Line 1), where a colorful mural reproduces one of the illustrations published in the French newspapers during the Revolution. Try and spot the humoristic anachronism of the female revolutionary wearing very modern glasses.
On the south side of the Place de la Bastille is the Bassin de l’Arsenal, a pleasure port for permanent or visiting house-boats. The gardens on the eastern side are a pleasant place to stroll, with a children’s playground and small café terrace open in summer. Next door is the imposing Opéra Bastille (entry at 130 Rue de Lyon, 12th Tel 01 40 01 19 70), built for the Bicentennial of the French Revolution in 1989. Parisians were not originally impressed with the round, office building look, but the state-of-the-art 112,000ft² stage and outstanding acoustics make it the ideal setting for big productions such as Carmen. Guided tours cost €10, €5 for visitors under 26. Call for the weekly tour schedule.
Escape from the busy Place de la Bastille through the cobblestoned Cour Damoye, turning right at the Rue Daval. The intersection of Rue de Lapp and Rue de la Roquette is best known for its popular nightlife scene, which is still quite lively despite the migration of its edgier clientele to Belleville and Oberkampf. Further up the Rue de la Roquette, the Rue Keller and Rue des Taillandiers are worth a visit for their alternative boutiques and DJ record shops.
The Musée du Fumeur (7 Rue Pache, 11th M° Voltaire) i s worth a detour. Dedicated to the history of smoking, its tiny museum displays vintage prints and antique paraphernalia in an elegant wood-paneled setting. The best part is the cozy café hidden in the back, with its funky psychedelic ceiling mural and healthy organic snacks and fruit smoothies on the menu. The boutique sells books in English and French, pipes, cool posters and gifts, and plenty of tobacco and rolling papers. Cannabis (chanvre or haschiche) gets plenty of air play as well, on an educational level, but this isn’t Amsterdam , so don’t ask for it. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11:30am-7:30pm , Sunday 12:30pm-7:30pm , free entry. Tel 01 46 59 05 51
Continue to the Rue du Faubourg St-Antoine via Rue de Charonne. Make an effort to get off the busy main road to peek into the small courtyards and cobblestoned passages of this historic cabinet-making and furniture manufacturing quarter (such as the Passage du Chantier, on the south side of the street just before Rue St-Nicolas). Like Belleville, the working-class population of the Faubourg St-Antoine was often on the frontlines of any popular revolt during the 19th century, easily barricading their narrow streets and passageways. Get a feel for the convivial atmosphere of this neighborhood at the traditional Marché d’Aligre (Rue d’Aligre, open every morning except Monday), known for its bargain prices and quality produce. The open market has been around since 1777, with the covered section added in 1843.
When the market closes on Sunday, locals celebrate with a glass of wine and fresh oysters (in season) around the corner at the Baron Bouge (at 1 Rue Théophile-Roussel, 12th).
Follow signs from the market to one of the most interesting newcomers to the neighborhood, the Viaduc des Arts (all along Avenue Daumesnil). The renovated glass, brick and steel arches used to support the railway linking the Bastille to Vincennes in the late 1800s. The Viaduc was reopened in 1990 with 50 ateliers and boutiques dedicated to art and design. Above the viaduc is the Promenade Plantée, a 3-mile long pedestrian greenbelt leading all the way to the Bois de Vincennes (joined by a cycle path at the Jardin de Reuilly). .
Visiting the Bois de Vincennes
The Château de Vincennes (1 Avenue de Paris, 12th, M° Château-de-Vincennes) was an important royal residence from the 11th century through the 17th century, with the Bois de Vincennes reserved for the king’s hunts. When the court moved to Versailles , the Château de Vincennes became a prison and military fortress. Napoléon III gave the Bois de Vincennes to the people, turning it into an English-style park, but kept the Château, adding an extra military fort to the grounds. Heavily altered over the centuries, it has only been in the past two decades that serious renovations have begun to restore the 14th-century donjon (tower prison) and 16th-century gothic chapel. The welcome center (acceuil) has a large souvenir and book shop with many multilingual guides to Paris sights. Open weekdays 10am-noon and 1pm-5pm. Tel 01 48 08 31 20. For information about visiting the Bois de Vincennes, see the Family Entertainment section of this guide.
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