Adored, neglected, and restored: A 1968 Nat Geo feature explored Notre Dame

Fifty years ago, we published an ode to Paris' most famous cathedral.

By Kenneth MacLeish
photographs by Bruce Dale
Published 20 Apr 2019, 23:05 BST
“Sublime and majestic edifice,” wrote author Victor Hugo of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The medieval ...
“Sublime and majestic edifice,” wrote author Victor Hugo of the Cathedral of Notre Dame. The medieval masterpiece, its flying buttresses and sculptures gleaming in floodlight, rises beside the Seine from the island heart of the French capital.
Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection
This story first appeared in the May 1968 issue of National Geographic Magazine. We have republished the article due to the April 2019 fire at Notre Dame Cathedral.

In the heart of Paris, which is the heart of France, which some consider the heart of Europe, there is an island in the river Seine called La Cité. In the heart of La Cité is an expanse of pavement inappropriately called the Parvis (Old French for Paradise), and in the heart of the Parvis there is a large hole in the ground. I had an appointment there on a rain-cleansed, sunlit morning—an appointment with the first century at the bottom of a hole in Paradise.

My guide to ages past would not arrive for an hour, therefore I waited, not at the raw edge of the excavation, but 230 feet above it on the loveliest lookout Paris can provide, the south tower of Notre Dame de Paris.

Tourists of every nation climb to this vantage point. More than two million people come to Paris every year, and more of them visit the world-famous Cité than anything else in the City of Lights.

From the south tower the entire island can be seen in a single circular glance, with the gracious, orderly Île St. Louis attached by bridge to its eastern end like a barge to a tug. Indeed, the Cité has often been likened to a ship, its bridges resembling gangways linking it to the Seine’s banks, its sharp western tip a prow pointing downstream towards the sea.

Rank of copper saints stands below the central spire of Notre Dame, all but one gazing over Paris. The Apostle Thomas, patron of architects, looks up at the 150-foot lead-and-wood tower. The statue bears the face of Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 19th-century French architect who rebuilt the steeple and restored the time-ravaged cathedral. He had his own name inscribed on the apostle’s ruler.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Limited in its three spatial dimensions, the Cité is gigantic in its fourth, the dimension of time. The workers scrabbling in the exposed soil below stood in the 1,800-year-old ruins of Lutetia, the Roman town that became Paris. The structure on which I perched epitomized the soul of medieval society. All around me was the story in stone of what had happened since then to this island, the kernel of French culture, the seed from which sprang France’s capital and France itself. (Discover the hidden world beneath Paris.)

Set aglow by votive candles, an American visits Notre Dame, a goal for travelers and scholars, painters and pilgrims for the past 800 years.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

The Cité is the gem of France, because of what remains upon it. But it is a gem flawed by what has happened to it. The center of the island was cruelly denatured by the heavy hand of the Baron Georges Haussmann, a 19th-century urban planner who favoured efficiency over antiquity. Here cold neoclassical buildings supplanted some of the crowding, twisting, stinking, living streets of the medieval town.

Yet the continuity of human experience that is characteristic of Paris remains. The cumbersome Hôtel Dieu, for instance, is the present embodiment of a great public hospital which has existed on the Cité for centuries. The Préfecture de Police­-Police Headquarters-stands upon the approximate site of the gracious Forum, where Roman forces of order were based before our era began. The Palais de Justice—once the Palace of the Kings—rests on the stones of a still-earlier palace. From it Julian Caesar—soon to be acclaimed the Emperor Julian—administered the laws of Rome to the island city and the dark forests of central France.

Spring night descends softly on the Seine, whose arms clasp the Île de la Cité’s downriver tip. Spanning both channels of the river, the Pont Neuf—New Bridge—is actually the city’s oldest. Built in 1604, it long served as a fashionable promenade and marketplace. A bateau-mouche, or sightseeing boat, approaches the Left Bank arches.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

But the perfect expression of that continuity was the cathedral beneath my feet. This lovingly fashioned masterwork rests on a spot at the Cité’s upstream end where the old gods of the native Paris were worshiped before the Romans came. A Roman temple stood there in its time. Christian churches rose upon the site and were demolished. Then, as if to celebrate the death of the Dark Ages, the church of Our Lady of Paris came into being, product of the minds, hands, purses-but particularly of the hearts-of her people.

That was 800 years ago. Since then the Parisians have adored it, neglected it, damaged it and desecrated it, restored and venerated it, depending on the social passions and fashions of the times. Notre Dame lives on, as a church, as a joyful place, as a work of art. I stood awhile, staring down into all the ages of Paris. Then I started down to begin my exploration of the Cité in the only spot where its origins were in sight: at the bottom of the hole in Paradise. (Read the 800-year history of Notre Dame Cathedral.)

A trumpetlike voice sounded from the pit. M Michel Fleury, Director of Antiques for the Paris region, was addressing his staff. Sighting me, he clambered out, a huge and agile man as impressive in form as in speech. He steered me around the brink of his dig, explaining it with a reckless generosity of decibels that allowed all within the crowded Parvis to listen and learn.

“We are digging because there are too many automobiles in Paris. A subterranean parking lot is planned for this spot. But first we must see what ruins are here and whether they may be sacrificed. Come, we’ll take a closer look.”

Parking problem solved! Crowded streets rarely deter an ingenious French driver. This one simply stops his lightweight Citroën and lifts it into a mini-space.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

He led the way down into the dig, across crumbling walltops and single-plank bridges.

“This hole is a cross section of our early history. Observe, here, the cellar of a 16th-century house. This house and hundreds like it were razed by the good Baron Haussmann to provide open space in which the troops of Napoleon III could mow down the troublesome populace. It’s a good thing the bulldozer had not been invented, or he’d have demolished all the houses on the island. But God intervened! Haussmann died.

“Now­—come along, mind you don’t fall­—over here there are Roman remains. Second or third century. Here stood a public building, tile floored, you see. And it had central, radiant heating. There is its furnace; there are the ducts that carried hot air under the floors. Our ‘Lutèce­—Lutetia, as the Romans called it­—was a well-planned city then.

“During the first century, Lutèce spread from the island to the Left Bank as well. Then came the German barbarians. They burned the Left Bank suburb. The city withdrew again to its walled island.”

We made our way to a place where part of that wall stood exposed. “It didn’t keep them out,” said M. Fleury. “As the Dark Ages descended, these German Franks mixed with the Romanized Gauls and the Romans themselves. Then the Roman Empire collapsed. The war lords of the Franks became kings of Lutèce. They reigned for 500 years.”

Like a great ship, the Île de la Cité rides the Seine with the Île St. Louis towed from its stern. Bridges appear as gangways, leading to shops and offices of the Right Bank (left) and to cafes and colleges on the Left. In this aerial view, the metropolis stretches to the Vincennes forest five miles to the southeast. France measures road distances from a zero-mile marker in the square below Notre Dame’s twin towers. In a gaping excavation in the square, archaeologists labor to bare Roman ruins, tangible reminders of the capital’s ancient past.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

He glanced up out of the dig and loosed a sudden, splendid oath. “Excuse me. Some idiot is blocking my car.” And he galloped off in full voice, headed for the 20th century.

The Dark Ages came like numbing winder to Lutèce. Progress hibernated among the fallen cornices of the vanished empire. But the new religion called Christianity grew, and it glowed in this somber time like a fire in a frozen night. It found expression in a building, the sixth-century church of St. Étienne (St. Stephen). Part of that building stood at the east end of the excavation.

Michel Fleury rejoined me as I examined these remains, so different from the cut-stone construction of Roman times.

“We don’t know much about it except that it was the largest church in Gaul. But its masonry was crude and it had no arches­—people had forgotten how to build them. During the ninth century, when the Vikings burned the city, St Étienne was saved.”

Some historians believe that a little church nearby, dedicated to Mary, was destroyed at this time. But the Parisians­-the town was called Paris by then­-must have decided they’d been honouring the wrong patron. They let St Étienne fall in ruins, and built a new church of Our Lady. It was partly wooden, even more crude than its predecessor. Nothing is left of it. It stood until the 12th century, when the present Notre Dame was begun.

Young and old savor quiet pleasures on the Seine’s timeless islands. Henri Thomas walks with his cat Nicolas from his Left Bank home to play cards in a Cité park.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

M. Fleury looked up at the serene towers above us. “There is culmination of this long sequence, marking the end of darkness, the return of civilization. You’ll find the 12th century in the apse, the 12th in the façade. They are the great centuries.”

To traverse a millennium in a morning is to develop an epic appetite. I hurried off to satisfy it at a restaurant named Quasimodo, after Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. It offers a fine view of the hunchback’s home, the cathedral, next stop on my progression through time.

M. Meischo, the Quasimodo’s owner for 30 years, regaled me with fine food and a rundown on restaurateurs’ ethics.

“I never push extras on anyone,” he told me, “particularly on a man who looks poor, more particularly on a man who come in with a lady, most particularly on a man with a lady who is obviously not his wife. In the latter case it is too easy, too cruel to say, ‘Which will you have, the oysters or the caviar?’ I do not give him the wine list either, because his little friend will ruin him with a bottle of the best Bordeaux. He’ll pay, but he will never come back.

Keeper of the keys, guardian of Notre Dame Louis Armand knows its every hidden passageway and chamber. Here with but a few of his keys, he pauses outside the south tower beside a stone bird.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

“Now, so that you will come back, I offer you a small cognac.”

Thus fortified, I worked my way through the lunch hour traffic to begin my travels through the Cité’s second millennium with my friend Louis Armand, chief guardian of Notre Dame. This amiable official awaited me with clusters of keys, an earthly St. Peter ready to admit me to a realm as celestial as any this side of heaven.

By spiral stairs and hidden passageways, M. Armand led me to the top of the cathedral. Its highest point is a slim spire set at the center of the cruciform structure, this delicate finder of wood and lead is not the original, which was dismantled and sold during the Revolution, but a 19th-century replacement by the architect Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who devoted much of his life to restoring Notre Dame.

Grouped at the spire’s base are the Twelve Apostles, giant figures in weathered copper. All but one gaze outward; that one, St. Thomas, has turned his face to look up at the spire. But it is the face of Viollet-le-Duc, looking back at his creation with pardonable pride.

Soaring heavenward, the vast nave of Notre Dame embraces worshipers at evening Mass. Eight centuries ago, unknown masons hoisted hand-hewn stone upon stone, raising walls higher than any others then in France. Crossed ribs in the 115-foot ceiling carry the thrust of the roof down to 75 great pillars and to the exterior flying buttresses. Witness to coronation and royal marriage, baptism and funeral, the very walls of Notre Dame seem to whisper of pageantry and grandeur.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Above the lofty stone vaults that top the interior of the cathedral, there is a forest of beams which support the building’s lead-clad protective rood. M. Armand led me into this antique attic.

“See,” he said, “the wood is hard, after all those centuries! Notice how few cobwebs: no flies, no spiders. No spiders, no webs. Although why there are no flies I cannot say. I supposed there is nothing here to amuse them. But come here is something that may amuse you. “

He beckoned me down a wooden catwalk suspended above the dusty curves of the vaults to point out a little cross of lead.

High over the distant altar hang the tasseled hats of cardinals, in memory of past prelates whose tombs lie underground.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

“It is a memorial to some poor fellow who fell when the vaults were being built. Pshhhh! It is a long way down. You can see how far, if you like. Just step down onto those curving stone surfaces below us. They form the ceiling of the nave. That’s it. Don’t worry; it will hold you. The stone is six inches thick.”

“Six inches?” I froze. “six inches of old limestone unsupported by anything but an engineering principle which elides me at the moment? Are you planning a lead cross for me too?”

Allez, allez, go ahead,” said M. Armand from the catwalk. “it has never collapsed before. Now, pull out one of those plugs-they block holes that were made for lowering drapes and candelabras.”

I pulled the plug and stared straight down thought a small hole at the checkerboard floor 115 feet below. Then I replaced the plug—gently—and eased back to safety.

“That,” I said, “is a terrible sight.”

“I knew you’d enjoy it,” said Louis Armand.

Yawning gargoyle spits rain water clear of the cathedral walls. Hundreds of these grotesque waterspouts reach from high balustrades and towers. Not all churchmen approved such Gothic decorations. St. Bernard condemned them, saying that people might find it preferable “to spend the whole day in admiring these things, piece by piece, rather than in meditating on the Law Divine.”

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

It is possible to make the entire external circuit of Notre Dame in a kind of balustraded gutter just above the lovely, leaping buttresses that soar unsupported in 5-foot spans. Even here, where few people go, there are finely wrought figures. The men who made them cared not at all that their work would remain unappreciated by humanity; these artists sought only to please God, and Mary, whose house this is.

Artfully hideous creatures perch on turrets and railings, contemplating the world with sardonic glance. Some stretch downward, jaws agape; these are gargoyles, who vomit out the runoff of the rain (above). A vampire crouches in the readiness for flight. Composite creatures devour each other in frozen fury.

All of these represent evil spirits, driven by Mary from the church’s holy interior to guard it from without. A supernatural stone citizenry watches over the cathedral with unwinking eyes.

On the sidewalk her salon, a concierge greets passers-by on the Île St. Louis, the Cité’s sister island.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

“Let us go down into the interior,” M. Armand suggested. “At least there are no evil spirits there. They have all been exorcized.”

Notre Dame is a dark cathedral. Her side windows are neither large nor magnificent, nor, for that matter, original. The old panes were knocked out long ago to make way for plain glass that would admit more light. This white glass has been replaced recently with pleasantly colored panes. Only the great rose windows in the north and south transepts are as they were in medieval times.

The best place from which to see them is the juncture of nave and transept. The roses glow in heavy gloom like vast, blazing flowers. As a child, Viollet-le-Duc was convinced that the music of the cathedral’s organ came from these celestial windows.

I walked with M. Armand as he gently herded worshipers and visitors out into the cool evening, and helped him close the great ironbound doors. He gave me a grin and a handshake and went off to his dinner. Above me, the twin towers reached skyward to catch in this moment the last rays of day.

Beside Notre Dame, a strolling couple steal a kiss in a rain-washed garden, once the site of the archbishop’s palace.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Dusk leaves the Cité empty except for the watchmen in the domains of God and the law, the temporary inhabitants at the hospital, and the residents of the two clusters of habitation at the two ends of the island. Place Dauphine, at the west end, sits comfortable in lamplight, a secure upper-class corner of Paris. Built in 1607, and much altered since then, it holds no echoes of medieval times.

The eastern community, on the other hand, occupies the area of the cathedral’s original walled enclave, where dignitaries of the Church and a colourful collection of their lay associates once lived. Most of their homes have vanished, of course, but the newer buildings rest upon ancient foundations, and the streets still lie in antique curves.

In this place, alone and at night a man might find a reflection of the profane side of the 12th and 13th-century life whose sacred aspects are so beautifully stated by the cathedral itself.

Beads, beard, and an earring adorn a young Frenchman.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

The medieval Cité contained three- and four-story houses of wood and plaster, leaning inward over bustling alleys, their windows spewing occasional additions to the filth underfoot. Knights, serfs, monks, men-at-arms, artisans, and shopkeepers traveled these pungent ways, discoursing loudly in decayed Latic and foreign tongues ranging from English to Syrian.

This fertile ferment continues without much change for 700 years, presided over by the bishop, at one end of the island, and the king at the other. Then came Baron Haussmann. I headed for the portion of the island his wreckers had not reached.

The old cloister, as the walled domain of the Chapter of Canons was called, housed unusual and not invariably pious persons, as well as the worldly ecclesiastics themselves. It was also thought to contain evil spirits, driven by the odor of sanctity from the island’s many holy places.

Among the most renowned of the cloister’s early tenants was the young cleric Abérlard, founder of a school to which the present-day University of Paris traces its origins. It was Abérlard’s misfortune to fall in love, around 1120, with a girl named Héloïse, niece of the irascible Canon Fulbert. The lovers had a child and a secret marriage, in that order, which so annoyed the old man that he had Abérlard mutilated in a manner to prevent further indiscretions on his part.

But Abérlard’s behaviours was purity exemplified compared to the doings of a certain other denizens of the quarter. Two of these, a pie maker and a barber, were widely admired for their respective skills. The pieman made meat-filled pastries of uncommon delicacy. The reverent gentlemen of the cloister, gourmets to a fault, extolled his creations as good deeds shining in the usually rancid world of pastry cookery.

The barber wielded the sharpest razors in Paris. So deft was he that his client (a stranger, perhaps, come to his shop at the end of day) never felt the blade that shaped his beard until it slit his throat. The body dropped down through a trapdoor into a cellar which connected with that of the pieman. You have guessed the rest.

Appetites awakened, strollers study a menu posted beside a sidewalk café. La Colombe, the Dove, lies in what remains of the medieval quarter, a maze of streets beside Notre Dame. Baron Georges Haussmann, French city planner, cleared much of the island a hundred years ago to make room for broad avenues and government buildings. Midway up the narrow street two light stripes across the pavement mark the site of a third-century Roman wall.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Both men were burned after a dog dug up evidence pointing to the source of their meat supply. Legend insists that their spirits, together with those of their victims and of the holy men who ate their flesh (and so were presumably excommunicated), still hover about the neighbourhood, emerging at night to spread malevolence, hideous sounds, and bad smells. The premises in question were near the Rue Chanoinesse. There I walked, ears, eyes, and nose cocked.

At first I heard only echoes of my own slow steps. A wisp of mist drifted in the street. Then a door­-dark, heavy, nail-studded­-swung open with a rusty squeal, only to shut again.

A little farther along, sobs sounded from behind a shuttered window. A radio melodrama, without question. Overhead, a scrabbling noise of claws on copper came from a rain gutter. Rats, probably. A sulphurous smell tinged the moist air. Undoubtedly the Seine. (Read about love and loss on the Seine.)

Then, suddenly, a solid sound filled the curve of the street, a deep growl that became a roar. The spell was broken: Two motards­-motorcycle policemen-­-emerged from a cellar garage that has become their base, and rolled away in a subsiding mutter of mechanical flatulence.

From the cathedral that symbolizes the sacred splendour of the Middle Ages, and the foundations and fables that alone recall their profane life, history next directed me to the Palais at the Cité’s other end.

The palace’s location and some of its functions remain unchanged after 1,700 years. Its earliest elements vanished long ago, destroyed by wars, weather, and human caprice. But in its existing form it incorporates the finest creations of the later 13th and 14th centuries, hidden in a maze of masonry dating from then to now.

Amid the elegance of an era past, guests enjoy a luncheon honoring the President of Turkey during his visit to France last June. Gilded walls, neoclassic paintings, and tall mirrors decorate the 17th-century Hôtel de Lauzun on the Île St. Louis, since 1928 the official reception hall for the city of Paris. Dignitaries often arrive by boat, mounting quayside steps to the sumptuous hôtel, or townhouse.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Within a somber court, flanked on one side by the offices of Paris’s most redoubtable police investigators and on the other by courts of justice, stands an oasis of exquisite beauty, a little church known as the Sainte Chapelle. It has been called the masterpiece of the Gothic, that ill-named architecture which developed on this island and spread to all of western Europe. The Gothic style derived from the invention of the pointed, ribbed stone vault, so light that height could be achieved without mass, so strong that walls, relieved of their burden by buttresses, could be of glass rather than stone.

The Gothic grew from infancy to full flowering in the 90 years during which the basic structure of the Notre Dame was a-building. The Sainte Chapelle was built in less than five years, and finished in 1248, just before the cathedral’s towers were completed.

Choice creation of French cuisine, truffle-flavored sauce Périgueux comes to the table in a silver bowl. The sauce complements beef Wellington, the main course of the luncheon.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

I have often sat in the Sainte Chapelle alone, simply to absorb a spectacle that is literally beyond description. No intellectual effort is needed to understand the magnificence of this small church, as it is to appreciate Notre Dame. The Sainte Chapelle appeals directly to the senses. Whoever enters is moved, either to smiles, to tears, or to astonishment.

The visitor finds himself in a chamber aflame with color, in which stone has been used so weightlessly that columns appear as bars in an elegant cage of glass. Miraculously, much of its 6,800 square feet of glass is original. The chapel is, in a sense, an immense and fragile vessel: Louis IX (later St. Louis), that most pious of monarchs, built it as a container for relics of Christ’s passion.

These sacred objects had come into the hands of Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. Baldwin needed money. Louis offered a vast sum for the Crown of Thorns and parts of the lance, the sponge, and the Cross. Priests brought home these treasures, which Louis himself, barefoot, carried the last few miles to Paris.

Conferring on a case, French lawyers review a thick dossier outside a courtroom in the Palais de Justice on the Cité. They wear the costume of their profession, long black gown and white cravat.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

The chapel suffered little change under subsequent royal rulers. But it is miraculous that is survived the Revolution. By 1793 the oppressed people of Paris had come to hate king and clergy with equal cordiality. The Revolution abolished religion, and the state took over the properties of the Church.

Mobs destroyed all signs of royalty in Sainte Chapelle and Notre Dame alike, and wrecked religious statuary while they were about it. The gold and silver cases from the holy relics were melted, the relics themselves, however, were transferred by priests to the cathedral, where they are today.

St. Louis’ gift to France became a grain store, a clubhouse, a storage place. A sign hung on its door: “For Sale. Property of the State.” But when the youthful Republic had gotten over its tantrums and recognized that its artistic patrimony was worth saving. Sainte Chapelle was still fit to be restored.

Forbidding fortress, the Conciergerie through the centuries imprisoned the accused in its towers and dungeons. The medieval building takes its name from its first housekeeper, the concierge of the royal household, who acted as jailer.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

The 14th century, the next level in my ascent through the ages, lay literally just around the corner on the north side of the palace. Here stand the remnants of the royal residence of Philippe le Bel, St. Louis’s grandson, who made it the finest in medieval Europe. During the 18th century, fires destroyed everything but the Sainte Chapelle and the great ground-floor halls and towers beside the rived.

These chambers, called the Conciergerie (because the royal major domo, or concierge, once had charge of them), are handsome, even beautiful; but they are the grimmest in Paris. So befouled were they by their later use as a revolutionary prison that there is no cheer left in them. They tell a terrible story. For the moment, however, that story would have to wait. It was twelve o’clock, the time when France’s monuments historiques close so that guides and guards can lunch.

I did the same, then went down along the quay to commune with the Paris fishermen, those quintessential symbols of the triumph of faith over reason. It is widely believed that none of these relentless sportsmen has ever caught a fish. That is not true. I cannot claim ever to have seen one land a fish during the nine years I lived in Paris, but I know one or two sober, credible men who say they have.

In any case, nothing was doing along the quay today. The fishermen sat in Zen-like repose. The regular watchers stood behind them, watching, I eased up alongside one rod holder and ventured a bonjour!

He nodded, not angrily. A few hundred yards of river coursed by. “You have taken some fish?” Courtesy required the question.

Patient tread of attorneys and clients awaiting their hearings echoes in the vast central gallery of the Palais de Justice. Sunshine pouring through a ceiling window spotlights a gentleman hurrying through the 240-foot-long hall. In the Palais, once the site of the royal residence, judges hear local criminal and civil cases; here also the Cour de Cassation, similar to the United States Supreme Court, reviews decisions from tribunals throughout Franch.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

“Possibly later I shall have caught something. This spot is not ideal, nor is the hour. But there are fish. Even trout! Yes! I heard of one being taken only a few miles upstream. Trout swim about, do they not?” I wished him good luck and left him to his dreams.

The hour being now half past one, the doors of the Conciergerie would be creaking open. I turned from the river and the sun to the handsome, haunted caverns of the 14th century. Here, in a vaulted, hall some 70 yards long, lived the palace staff. In an adjoining kitchen, meat was cooked in found monumental fireplaces. A spiral stairway would upward to the chambers of the kind on the floor above. It had been a gay place in its time, full of good smells and fat servants.

Yet all this cheerful clamor was stilled before the century was out. As England launched the Hundred Years’ War in an attempt to seize the crown of France, the kinds left the old palace to move downstream to their new fortified castle, the Louvre. They never returned. But the “men of the robe,” judges and lawyers who had moved into the old palace as part of the royal court, now stayed on to make the palace their domain. It is theirs still.

A house of justice must have its prison, and one was soon established in the old royal quarters. Victims notorious and notable figured in the long history of the prison’s use. But not until 1793 and the revolutionary Reign of Terror did the prison reach its hideous apogee as a scene of suffering. Some two thousand Parisians were tried and held in the Conciergerie before going out to feel the effect of a humane device advocated by a doctor named Guillotin, who claimed for it that it could “whisk your head off in the wind of an eye, without your ever being aware of it.”

It seems to have stood the test of time, for it is in official, if infrequent, use today.

There are still sad little cells to be seen, one of them that of the Queen Marie Antoinette. But it is best to see them with a group of causal tourists, led by a guide whose memorized commentary is blessedly unevocative. If you go alone, as I once did, the fetid stench of terror may come to you on a damp draft, and a suggestion of sobbing.

Stained glass hangs like tapestry in the upper chapel of the Sainte Chapelle. Figures of apostles in medieval dress guard narrow pillars. The 1,134 scenes in glass tell Bible stories and relate the purchase of the Crown of Thorns from Emperor Baldwin II of Constantinople. The relic, now in Notre Dame, rested on the arched tribune reached by two small spiral stairs. During services, the royal family sat in niches at left and right. Restoration in the 19th century revived the early appearance of the chapel, which had become a shop and storehouse in times of little faith.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Above the prison cells, now as then, are the law courts which replaced the burned-out chambers of the king. I proceeded, therefore, as had the prisoners of the Terror, from the Conciergerie to the courts, though with different expectations.

The present halls of justice were aswarm with black-gowned, white cravatted figured hurrying along corridors in whose smoky air beams of sunlight stood like glowing bars. I passed through court after court, watching trials of offenses ranging from drunken driving to murder, it struck me that French court-room procedure is more personal and flexible than that prescribed by Anglo-Saxon law. Solemnity is not imposed as a warranty of seriousness. Neither anger not humor is disdained.

Private church for a king soars in Gothic glory on the Île de la Cité. Louis IX built the Sainte Chapelle in the courtyard of his royal palace to house the Crown of Thorns and other sacred relics. The pious king, who spent hours each day on his knees at prayer, conveniently located the towering upper chapel beside his own second-story apartments and placed the lower chapel opposite the rooms of his palace staff. Today France treasures the church as a national monument; the courtyard does duty as a parking lot for the Palais de Justice.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

As I rose to leave the highest criminal tribunal, the Court of Assizes, a young magistrate beside me pointed out a large gild frame hanging on the wall behind the judges, containing no picture but only a rectangle of shadow.

“That was a painting of Christ,” he whispered. “people took their oaths on it. But with the separation of Church and state after the Revolution…” he shrugged and pursed his lumps. “Still, Christ is here, if invisible. One may still address oneself to Him.”

I came out of the Palais and once again took up my trek through time, logically, there should have been splendid structures to commemorate the 15th and 16th centuries. But there is nothing of note to be seen. Magnificence is for kings, and the kings had left the island. The Middle Ages died dismally, and the scapegrace poet Francois Villon sang their requiem in the wineshops of the Cité.

I left the island then for the Île St. Louis and the 17th century, in which Paris was born anew.

The bridge leading from the Cité to the Île St, Louis, a short metal span, is too small to support a car and too ugly to stand close inspection. But it does reflect a philosophy: The 6,000 Louisiens or Îliens, as the island’s people are called, are not interested in bridges, although the island boasts several of these. They tend to stay at home, and would prefer that other people–particularly those with automobiles–did the same.

Lean shadows of afternoon etch Quai des Orfèvres where it slides under the Pont Neuf. On such embankments all Paris once bathed, washed clothes, watched water tourneys, and shopped at merchants’ boars and stalls, including those of the orfèvres, or goldsmiths. Today Parisians forsake auto-clogged streets for island quays to bask beside the Seine.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

For 16 centuries, while the Cité grew in importance and splendour, the Île St. Louis lay fallow. Until 1614 it was a sylvan spot where cows browsed and Parisians came to fight duels, make love, and engage in other outdoor sports. Henri IV saw this real estate as the perfect setting for a radical experiment in urban living; his son, Louis XIII, commissioned it. He called for a clean, modern, efficient, and beautiful townlet with paved streets, stone-clad quays, and houses of high style.

In its quiet and seclusion, the Île St. Louis slept away the years. The Revolution, when it came, raged around the island rather than on it. The island’s church dared celebrate Mass during the agnostic years when other churches, including Notre Dame, became “temples of reason”. Even the German invaders of the 1940’s left the place largely alone. Old men fished along its quays despite the rattle of German machine guns. A few died in quest for a fresh-caught perch.

The footbridge from the Cité leads into a single, central, commercial street down which I presently made my way in an atmosphere of provincial peace. Cars passed minutes apart. An old lady with a long loaf in her hand spoke to me, as no city person would have done. “It will rain,” she remarked in a neighbourly manner. “It will surely rain.” As I tried the locked door of a bookshop, a passing workman called, “Try the restaurant nest door; the girl goes there for coffee.”

Inside a comfortable cocoon, a traveler with no francs to spare keeps warm in his temporary free lodging—under a bridge of Paris.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Where everyone knows everyone, courtesy becomes commonplace. In time, even the doors of the stately houses along the treelined quays began to open.

The first was that of the overwhelming Hôtel de Lauzun (Hôtel means “townhouse: in the 17th century.) Here Paris officialdom welcomes foreign dignitaries in a setting that is almost desperately gorgeous. The walls and ceilings of its reception rooms are covered to the last square inch with paintings, carvings, gilt panelling, and patterned fabrics. The only plain surfaces are those of the mirrors, which serve to reflect and redouble the rest.

Who had lived here? The question comes forcibly to mind, since it is hard to believe that any normal mortal could have acted out his life on so sumptuous a stage. A charming representative of Paris’s Hôtel de Ville–the City Hall–explained:

“The first owner, Charles Gruyn, was of low degree and high presumption, but he had money. He also had his hand in the king’s till, where it was discovered.

“Next came a fetching rogue, the Duke of Lauzun. He appealed to Louis XIV and to his homely cousin, La Grande Mademoiselle. Lauzun was too ambitious for his own good and got himself sent to prison. But when he got out–historians believe–he secretly married La Grande Mademoiselle. In any case, they lived here from time to time. She occasionally broke costly dishes on his head. He in turn spoke unkindly to her: ‘Take off my boots, granddaughter of Henri IV!’

“After the Revolution, the writers Theophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire rented rooms here. These and other artists established on the premises a singular club, whose membered met to eat green hashish jam and dream strange dreams.”

Receptions today are less unusual, but they put this building to better use than ever did rascals, royalty, or new-rich.

At the upstream end of the Enchanted isle, as the Isle St. Louis us often called, there is a building nearly as spectacular as Hotel de Lauzun and in a sense even more interesting, for it is an inhabited home. This one, the hotel Lambert, was also originally the proud confection of a wealthy commoner, one Lambert the Rich. It entered its most romantic period in the 18th century, when the Marquise du Chatelet persuaded her accommodating husband to buy the place for her and her lover, the great Voltaire.

The hotel’s present occupant, who holds it on a long lease, is a young Liechtensteiner, the Baron Alexis de Redé. He has restored and furnished it with lavishness and taste.

Financier and collector, Baron de Redé restored spacious apartments in the Hôtel Lambert to their former grandeur with furnishings from the Louis XVI, Directoire, and Empire periods. The library ceiling, painted by Eustache Le Sueur, dates from the 1640s.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

“The place didn’t look much like this when I took it, just after the war,” he said. “Originally the walls and ceilings help paintings made especially to fit them by some of the greatest painters of the period—Le Brun and Le Sueur, for instance. Most were gone. I’ve bought one or two back and found appropriate replacements for others.

“The furniture is mostly my own, picked to suit this demanding setting. It’s been an expensive job. But a house like this deserves to be maintained and lived in as the private palace it was built to be.”

A letter to a distinguished Îlienne, Madame Georges Pompidou, wife of the Prime Minister of France, had brought a prompt and cordial invitation to visit her at their flat on the island’s southern quay. I hurried now from antique flamboyance to modern luxury.

A beauty comes to a candlelight ball on the Île St. Louis

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

Madame Pompidou joined me in her sunny salon, a tall, blond lady with a direct manner.

“We are not Parisians, my husband and I,” she told me, “but we love this island. That is why we keep our place here, even though we live primarily in the official Prime Minister’s residence in the centre of the city.”

“Is the island as isolated from the rest of Paris as people claim?” I asked.

“From the rest of Paris?” she laughed. “If you ask one of our shopkeepers for something he hasn’t got, he’ll tell you to try in Paris, as if we were not a part of the city at all! It’s a charming attitude.

“Take my cook, for example. She will not leave the island to do our marketing. She says, ‘Madame, consider; here everyone knows me, I am among friends. Bun in Paris people are rude and rush me. I can do well enough here.’ And indeed she does.”

We discussed the growing popularity of the island and its effect on the Îliens.

“The houses here are old, often in bad repair, and lack modern conveniences,” she told me. “but they are in great demand. The wealthy are bidding up the prices. I’m afraid some of the less well to do may find it difficult to stay on.”

High fashion graces a midnight ball given by Baron Alexis de Redé at his 17th-century home on the Île St. Louis. Some 400 guests dined and danced until dawn to the music of three orchestras.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

From the moment of its creation, the shopkeepers, artisans, and artists of the Enchanted Isle have lived on its internal streets, leaving the quays to the rich. I looked up a member of this lively fraternity, the painter Fred Zeller, at Number 51, Rue St. Louis-en-L’Île.

Number 51 presents perfectly the problem that faces Îliens of modest means. It is a slum, but a slum of great style.

Behind a spectacular entryway there is a large court whose walls sag attractively- in places, alarmingly. Patched panes wink from elegant windows. A handwritten placard in the entry warns tenants that water will be shut off on cold nights. A glance at the courtyard ells why: Such pipes are there are run unprotected up the outsides of the walls.

M. Zeller was in his cubbyhole of a ground floor studio, hemmed in by big, bright canvases and hard at work on a new one.

“Come in,” he said. “Sit down. Or squat or lean, since there’s nothing to sit on.

As he painted, he talked about living conditions on the island.

“A house made for a sovereign who would be a philosopher,” wrote Voltaire, a short-time resident of the Hôtel Lambert. Candles lit for the fete shine on in the baron’s apartment at daybreak.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

“It is a fine place to live,” he assured me. “I can think of none better. Such quiet! At night I hear nothing. Nothing! But the place is changing. Grand old buildings like this start to rot away because the landlord can’t charge high enough rents to maintain them, and the tenants couldn’t afford to pay them if he did. So big builders come along and buy them, restore them, and sell beautiful apartments for 250,000 francs – about fifty thousand of your dollars. Well, the buildings are saved. But the poor people have to do. Hand me that rag, will you?”

He painted for a while in silence.

“Still, I can’t complain. I can go to the end of the street and see Notre Dame through the leaves of the trees along the quay. At every hour of the day its colours are different. I can browse in the bookstalls along the river. I can sleep in silence. As long as I can afford this good life, I’ll stay.”

On the quay side of the next block lives an artist of a different sort, recently become a firm friend of mine. I sighted him one morning, seated at an open window, newspaper stretched wide, cigar angled alertly upward, long jaw jutting.

“Jim,” I hollered. “You available?”

He grinned and beckoned. James Jones, at 46 one of the most successful of American novelists, has lived on the Paris islands for ten years.

As I moved toward his door he called, “Wait, I’m coming down. I feel like walking.” We turned into a side street and crossed to the north branch of the Seine.

Leading the casual life, young people share a pan of scrambled eggs for Sunday brunch. Student Étienne Tembouret, second from right, rented and refurbished this quayside room on the Cité. Some of his friends attend colleges in the Latin Quarter, named for the common language of European scholars who lived there in the 13th century.


Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

“I love this doggone island,” he said (or words to that effect). “there’s nothing like it. Quiet. Great people. The shopping street’s like a village market. You ought to see the sigh store after dark. It’s like a painting.”

On the quay he stopped suddenly and pointed. “see that crummy old launch by the shore? There’s an old guy who lives there, sort of a bum. Sometimes he makes a pot of big-hearted stew and invited in all the other bums – the clochards, the French call them. Funny place to life, but not bad. No rent, and no one to bother him.

“That’s king of beautiful, you know? One kind of freedom. In summer the clochards like to live along the quay, sleep under the bridges. They keep pretty clean, too. Wash their underwear in the river. I was on the bum once, when I was a kid. You can learn a lot…”

I had one more visit to make before returning to the Cité and the end of my two-thousand-year tour. Princess Bibesco, widow of Romanian industrialist Prince George Valentin Bibesco and dowager of the Enchanted Isle, had accorded me a rendezvous at her home on the western tip of the island. She received me in a little sitting room made comfortable with cushions and furs.

We stood at her windows, which frame one of the finest views in Paris.

“From this spot I can see the Cité, the Paris of our early kings, and the Right Bank, where their successors reigned. I see the oldest and the newest, and many things that are timeless. I see the symbols of each season, there below: just now, the new leaves, the lovers (see them walking, hand in hand?), the old clochard searching the gutter for something of value. And always I see the river running away to the sea.”

During the French revolution, guards herded prisoners into a barred section of this medieval gallery in the Conciergerie. There and in fetid cells, they listened for the dread call to execution on the Right Bank.

Photograph by Bruce Dale, Nat Geo Image Collection

She waved me to a seat, and for a while she spoke of the island’s history ad people.

“Our island is a melting pot,” she declared.

“it always has been so. The very rich rub shoulders with the very poor. My own family is both French and Romanian; we think of ourselves simply as Europeans. But the Île St. Louis is more than French, more than European; it is the natural home of the arts.”

I left the Îliens locked in their riverine calm and crossed the trembling footbridge to the Cité. My travels through the ages now returned me, for better or worse, to my own epoch. As if to emphasize the transition, my eyes fixed on a strange structure at the eastern tip of the Cité, a moving memorial to the worst days in our 20th-century lived. There, in a brilliantly designed crypt which imparts a deliberately painful sense of prison, two hundred thousand glass spheres glimmer in the symbolic representation of the two hundred thousand Jews, Gypsies and other anti-Nazis exported from France and killed by the Germans during World War II.

I had visited the place, and been moved by it, but now I bypassed this coldly eloquent reminder of mass murder and headed for the life and warmth of the Flower Market.

I rounded a corner into that cheerful spot and found it full of sound and flurry. I had forgotten that it was Sunday, the day when birds replace the flowers. It was as if the blossoms had come alive and found voices. There were birds from all over the world, displayed in tiers of little cages.

But there was as much here for people-watchers as for bird-watchers. A small boy and his sister squatted to peek into a cage full of tiny Bengalis. “Regarde, comme ils sont jolis! See how pretty they are,” said the girl. “If we had a bird life that….”

“No!” said her father.

Two old ladies watched a little green parrot, entranced.

“He interests you?” asked the seller. “I tell you frankly, such birds are hard to find.”

The ladies were tempted. “But will he bite?” asked one.

“Gentle as a kitten.” Said the seller, reaching in for the bird. It bit him.

Quelle horreur!” cried the old lady. “We will get a canary. They, at least, do not bite.”

In the middle of the market, amateurs offered their pets from hand-help cages or perches. A crippled boy carried an immense red and blue macaw on his shoulder. Children crowded near, amazed. A man standing near me whispered, “The bird is not really for sale. It is the only wonderful thing he owns.”

A dark-eyed girl had lovebirds in her hands. A stout lady hawked canaries, “Good singers, all good singers.” A bewhiskered gentleman with a cageful of finches called, “Male and female! Male and female.”

At the end of the square, a bit apart from the others, a small gray man in a long raincoat held a cage containing a single canary. He said nothing at all, but when anyone caught his eye, he smiled.

No one bought his canary. When evening came, he covered the café and went down into the subway station. Buyers and lookers vanished with the sun.

I crossed the bridge to the Right Bank and leaned on the parapet, looking back. The four towers of the Conciergerie stood empty and unlit, recalling half-forgotten horror. But Notre Dame, drifting through the centuries on her island ship, marked with chiming bells the end of another hour.


Explore Nat Geo

  • Animals
  • Environment
  • History & Culture
  • Science
  • Travel
  • Photography
  • Space
  • Adventure
  • Video

About us


  • Magazines
  • Disney+

Follow us

Copyright © 1996-2015 National Geographic Society. Copyright © 2015-2024 National Geographic Partners, LLC. All rights reserved