Looking for the lost walls of Paris
by Duncan J.D. Smith
The casual observer could be fooled into thinking that Paris was never fortified, so few and far between are the remains of its old walls. In reality the city has been protected seven times over the past 2,000 years, both for military and mercantile reasons, and on each occasion with a wall greater than the one before. The following virtual journey takes in evidence for all of them.
The first wall dates from the time of the Romans after they settled in 52 BCE on the Île de la Cité (4th Arrondissement). As Lutetia Parisorum, the town initially prospered and spread onto the Left Bank. By 400 CE, however, it had shrunk to little more than a garrison town occupying the island alone, with the first wall built around it as protection against Germanic invaders. The line of the wall is marked in the street outside 6 Rue de la Colombe and fragments of it can be seen in the Crypte Archéologique beneath the Place du Parvis-Notre-Dame. When extant it stood around 25 feet high, with a crenelated walkway on top.
If you leave the Île de la Cité by means of Île Saint-Louis and the Pont Louis-Philippe, you will reach Place Saint-Gervais. Here stands the Église Saint-Gervais-Saint-Protais, one of the oldest churches in Paris. A church had stood here for six centuries when the second wall of Paris was built during the 11th century (the front steps of the church still give an impression of the hillock which protected the church from river floods). Behind the church the Rue de Barres follows the line taken by this wall, which was over a mile in length.
An impressive stretch of the third wall of Paris still stands to its original height at the Rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul. It was commissioned by Philippe Auguste (1180–1223) to protect Paris against pirates and other invaders, and encompassed what are today the 1st, 4th, 5th, and 6th Arrondissements. North of the Rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul the wall ran along the south side of the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois before reaching its northernmost point at a gateway, which stood at the junction of Rue aux Ours and Boulevard de Sébastopol.
From there it turned south-west to meet the Seine near the Louvre, which finds its origins in a moated defensive outpost completed in 1200 (its impressive foundations still exist beneath the Cour Carrée). Before the wall’s demolition in the 16th century, it ran for almost three and a half miles and was punctuated by four main gates and more than 60 towers.
In 1356, and with King John le Bon (1350–1364) in prison, the provost of the merchants of Paris commenced work on a fourth city wall, to safeguard the commercial heart of the city from attack by the English. He had only completed one gate, however, the Porte Saint-Antoine on the eastern edge of the city, when he was killed for conspiring with the English! The wall was continued by Charles V (1364–1380) from the gate, which was protected by the famous Bastille fortress, in a moated semicircle all the way to the Louvre. Although the wall was lower than the previous one (20 instead of 30 feet high) it stood on a massive earthen embankment wide enough to confound modern cannonballs.
Around the same time, the marshy area between the Porte Saint-Antoine and the earlier wall of Philippe Auguste was drained to create the Marais, to where the king moved his royal residence from the Île de la Cité. A reminder of the former royal compound is the ruined tower of the Église Saint-Paul at the corner of Rues Saint-Paul and Neuve Saint-Pierre.
Of the massive fourth wall itself surprisingly little remains beyond a length of counterscarp built to protect the Bastille, which lurks today on the platform of Line 5 at the Bastille Métro station (direction Bobigny). It can be reached by walking to the top of Rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul and turning east along Rue Saint-Antoine. It’s worth noting however that the Grands Boulevard of Louis XIV (1643–1715), which stretch north from Bastille, follow the line of the wall, rising and falling as they cross its former bastions (the steps in the narrow Passage Sainte-Foy at 263 Rue Saint-Denis do likewise).
Commencing in 1543 during the reign of Francis I (1515–1547) and continuing until 1640 under Louis XIII (1610–1643), the wall of Charles V was extended westwards by the Enceinte Fossés Jaunes, so-called because of the yellow earth used in its construction. This, the city’s fifth wall, extended from the Porte Saint-Denis (today a marooned archway at the junction of the Boulevards Saint-Denis and de Sébastopol) to the Place de la Concorde. To see the only remaining piece of this wall, take Métro Line 1 from Bastille to Concorde, where the ruins of a bastion stand in the basement of the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries (1st Arrondissement).
The sixth wall of Paris was very different to those preceding it. Called the Enceinte des Fermiers Généraux (Tax Farmers’ Wall), it was constructed between 1785 and 1790 by order of Louis XVI (1774–1792), to ensure that taxes (Octroi) could be levied on all goods entering the city. An idea of its great size can be gauged from the fact that Métro Lines 2 and 6 follow exactly its 15-mile-long course. Since the wall was not defensive, it was only ever around ten feet high. Although this wall was demolished in 1860, four of architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s neo-Classical tollhouses built to collect the taxes are still standing, including a fine example at the northern entrance to Parc Monceau (8th Arrondissement). It can be reached by taking Métro 1 from Concorde to Charles de Gaulle Étoile, and then Métro 2 to Monceau.
The Seventh Wall
The seventh and final wall around Paris dates to the 1840s and was a belated response to the occupation of Paris by Prussian forces in 1814–15. Designed by Adolphe Thiers, Prime Minister to Louis Philippe I (1830–48), it is the greatest wall of all, stretching 21 miles and encompassing all the city’s Arrondissements as they exist today. However, despite having earthworks over 450 feet wide, the so-called Thiers Wall did little to halt the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War (1870), and it was demolished in 1919 (the military road that once serviced it is now occupied by the Boulevards des Maréchaux and the Boulevard Périphérique). Just one sorry remnant of the once-mighty wall is visible today in a modern courtyard garden at 23 Rue Albert-Roussel (17th Arrondissement), which can be reached by taking Métro 2 to Place de Clichy and then Métro 13 to Porte de Clichy, from where it is a short walk along Boulevard Berthier.
Adapted from the book Only in Paris: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects by Duncan JD Smith (published by The Urban Explorer).
Also in this series by Duncan J.D. Smith:
About the Author
Explorer and travel writer Duncan JD Smith first got the history bug when his grandfather unearthed the grave of a Roman soldier. He opened his own museum aged eleven and went on to study archaeology at Birmingham. After many years in travel publishing, in 2003 he relocated to Vienna, where he writes and publishes his Only In Guides, a series of city guides for independent cultural travellers. Duncan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. www.duncanjdsmith.com and www.onlyinguides.com.