Hidden down alleyways and high above the heads of passers-by are some of the Bastille’s most fascinating places. Easily missed by the casual stroller, this now-fashionable neighbourhood rewards the inquisitive visitor.
Secrets of the Bastille: The Viaduc des Arts
The Spider King
Everyone has heard of the Sun King, and the splendours of Versailles, but slightly less-known is the Spider King. Louis XI gained this nickname for various reasons – his less-than-handsome features, his skill at out-maneuvering his enemies, and the fact that he was always watching his back for fear of being stepped on. Yet without one of his generous gestures, the Bastille area in eastern Paris – more correctly called the Faubourg-St-Antoine – would look very different today.
During his reign in the mid-15th century, Louis would often enter the city through the gates in the city walls, which stood just west of the present place de la Bastille, where the infamous Bastille prison was located. He saw how poor the people were who lived outside the walls, and decided to do something to help. He allowed the people in this district to make furniture without having to make payments to the craft guilds of the time, which was then the custom. It brought many furniture makers to the area, and the trade thrived… and still flourishes today.
Furniture-Makers down the Passage du Chantier
The Passages in the Bastille
Large furniture shops can be seen along the main street, the rue du Faubourg-St-Antoine, but look closely and you will see several entrances to alleyways, or passages, almost hidden between the shop fronts and fashionable clubs. These mostly cobbled courtyards still house the descendants of the traders who moved here in the 15th century: furniture makers, upholsterers, leatherworkers, restorers and other crafts. With a little imagination you can summon up the bustle that must have existed here, when there were more small factories with their tall chimneys, and railway tracks ran along the passages to ease the movement of the bulky goods.
Many of the shops today sell only modern furniture, and rather gaudy at that, while others offer reproduction antiques and “Prix fous!” (crazy prices). But there are some genuine artisans still working here, producing tasteful furniture in traditional styles, and, this being Paris, rustic kitchen tables and cabinets feature prominently.
High above the Streets of the Bastille:
The Promenade Plantée
Viaduc des Arts
Walk down rue St Nicholas, though, and follow the signs for the Viaduc des Arts. Here the Bastille crafts also survive, as the arches beneath a disused freight railway line have been impressively restored and now contain galleries, cafés, clothes shops and, yes, furniture makers.
Look up, though, and you may get some glimpses of greenery above the archways. This is no overgrown railway track, however, but one of the hidden gems of the whole city: the Promenade Plantée. The former freight line is now a long, thin park, which runs for about 4.5 kms (2.8 miles) from behind the Opéra Bastille, all the way to the Bois de Vincennes. Trees, shrubs and colourful flowers line the pathway, with fountains, seats, little ponds and a huge open area where a train turntable used to be. If the Spider King could see the Bastille today, he surely wouldn’t think how poor the people are, not with such pleasures above their heads and in their secret alleyways.
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