The Atmospheric and Underrated La Conciergerie, a Paris Hidden Gem
Updated: Jan 13, 2020
I think the Conciegerie is one of the best historic sites in Paris. But I was told it was "just a gloomy barren place" with a gloomy, vicious history. Not worth my time in Paris, when there was so many iconic sites to see.
Oh? Sordid French history? A scandalous past? Murder and mayhem? That sounded right up my alley. I like a bit of darkness, medieval prison gloom, and "french revolution gone awry" vibe when taking my geographical cures.
Geographical cures can't all be sunshine, beaches, and unicorns. Not when there's Gothic architecture to behold and the French Revolution to re-live. I would take an ancient building with pointy arches over a beach most days anyway.
Besides, it was February. There was no sunshine to be had in France, much less in Paris. It was a dark day in the City of Light. As the rain droned on, I felt like I was in Caillebotte's famous painting, Paris Street, Rainy Day.
The Conciergerie's gloom mirrored the typical gloom of the ungodly gloomy month. And, that day, the mighty fortress provided respite from the driving rain that had soaked the cobblestone streets, bathing the city in a gray hazy sheen, creating a moody and foreboding monochromatic forest, a refuge for introverts to hide themselves and reflect.
My point is that it was the perfect day to visit a venue redolent of crime and death. Besides, the Conciergerie is one of Paris' oldest monuments. I think it's a must see site on Paris' Île de la Cité, just for the history alone. It's definitely worth visiting, even if you're not a history buff.
History of the Conciergerie
The Conciergerie has had myriad incarnations. It's morphed from a medieval palace to a torture prison to a notorious guillotine way station to a public museum.
The Conciergerie was built in the 6th century. It was the residence of Clovis, the first King of France. Today's version of the Conciergerie dates to 1200, when the building was formally known as the the Palais de la Cité.
The French kings and queens abandoned the gloomy palace in the 14th century and decamped for brighter digs. They took up residence in the Louvre, Chateau Vincennes, and Versailles. When King Charles V, the last royal resident there, moved out for good, he appointed the first "Concierge" and renamed the building La Conciergerie.
The Concierge was charged with keeping order, overseeing the police, and supervising prisons. The Conciergerie was used as a seat of parliament.
Part of the Conciergerie, The Bonbec Tower, was converted into a prison. The torture there was so insidious and resulting misery so loud that the prison tower was graphically nicknamed "The Babbler."
French Revolution & The Reign of Terror
Then along came the fast and furious French Revolution. Enlightenment ideas had spread and stoked a revolutionary fervor in the Latin Quarter. The monarchy's proposed new taxes caused widespread resentment and were the last straw. The people wanted equality. And bread. On July 14, 1789, rabid rioters stormed the Bastille, and the French Revolution began with a bang.
After toppling King Louis XIV, there was a tiny period of relative harmony. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was enacted. Still, some architects of the revolution, like Robespierre, Desmoulins, and Danton, were not satisfied. These extreme Jacobins wanted the Ancien Régime utterly eradicated. They prevailed, and the glorious French Revolution transmogrified into a dark bloody event.
In 1792, revolutionary forces captured and arrested King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette as they attempted to flee the country. Monarchy was abolished. The king and queen were charged with treason and thrown into the Conciergerie.
Then came 1793 and 10 months of utter hell that would live in infamy. Led by Robespierre, the radicalized revolutionaries unleashed the infamous violence known as the Reign of Terror. Terror became "the order of the day."
"Enemies of the people" were imprisoned without trial and duly "sentenced" -- the verdict was either innocent or death, no murky middle ground. Under the Law of Suspects, citizens could be classified as an "enemy" based on the slightest hint of opposition. Sometimes the revolutionary leaders accused people they didn't like or wanted out of their way. Evidence was not a valued legal concept at the time.
The Conciergerie became the "antechamber of the guillotine," the last stop before people were marched to the guillotine at the Place de la Concorde and decapitated.
In total, up to 40,000 people were killed before there was a reactionary blow back and more moderate forces prevailed. Even Robespierre got a taste of his own medicine and was hoisted on his own guillotine-petard.
The Tour: What's There To See at the Conciergerie?
The medieval facade of the Conciergerie is best seen from the Right Bank. The building includes four stately Gothic towers: the Bonbec Tower, the Silver Tower, the Caesar tower, and the Horlage Tower.
The oldest tower, the Bonbec Tower, was infamous for torture, as described above. The Silver Tower was the royal treasury. The Caesar Tower was named in honor of the Roman Emperors and the historic Roman presence in Paris.
The Horlage Tower was built between 1530-33 and is over 150 feet tall. The tower showcases a beautiful clock, which Charles V conceived as Paris' first public clock. It was installed in 1535 and gilded in 1585.
The clock was severely damaged during the French Revolution. But it was restored by the clockmaker Pierre-Michel Lepaute in 1849. It still chimes every hour on the hour, and keeps time for French citizens.
Interior of the Conciergerie
Once inside the Conciergerie, you'll experience one of Europe's finest examples of secular Gothic architecture. It's an easy one way circuit.
You begin in the great Hall of Soldiers, the Salon des gens d’armes, declared a UNESCO site in 2006. The hall was built between 1302-13 by Enguerrand de Marigny. It's a massive four aisled room with an impressive vaulted ceiling and four large fireplaces. It's the oldest surviving medieval hall in Europe.
This was the barren place I was advised to "skip" ...
I loved the medieval eeriness. It was deadly quiet, even a footfall broke the silence. The desolate setting seemed suited to a gloomy day and a gloomy (but fascinating) historical topic. You can feel history pouring from the walls.
During the Reign of Terror, prisoners were huddled en masse in the great hall. They were interrogated, tried, and then escorted to prison down the "Rue de Paris," the walkway of the executioner, by "Monsieur de Paris," the executioner himself.
There are small rooms on the sides, which have displays and convey what life was like in the prison. There is also a video on the history of the place.
You can visit the Guards Room, the Office of the Keeper, the kitchens, and the Toilette. The Guard's Room was an antechamber where the King held meetings with his council and dispensed justice.
The hall is supported by stout pillars with interesting capitols, one supposedly depicting the famous love story of Abelard and Heloise. The Toilette was where the prisoners had their hair shaved before heading to their grisly death.
Upstairs, there is a memorial room that honors the citizens murdered via the guillotine. Robespierre is on the list. So is Charlote Corday who stabbed another radical Jacobin, Jean-Paul Marat, in his bathtub. She said: “I killed one man to save 100,000.” Even Danton was later guillotined for questioning the scope and extreme violence of the Terror.
You can see several prison cells, some with creepy life size mannequins of incarcerated men. The dank dungeons are a stark contrast to the beautiful architecture.
The prisoners' quality of life depended on their personal wealth and whims of their jailers. Only celebrity prisoners got their own cells. Middle class inmates were put in "pistoles" with a simple bed and table. The poor were stuffed into a single cell with straw floors. The cramped cells were infested with rats, and the stench of urine permeated every room -- a gruesome existence indeed.
Marie Antoinette Exhibit in La Conciergerie
Downstairs, there's an exhibit featuring Marie Antoinette, the Conciergerie's most famous prisoner. It's decidedly unsatisfying and not "her cell."
It's a kitschy memorial, a reconstructed staging of her cell with her posed in a long black veil. It is not the real deal. The actual cell was demolished and is now an expiatory chapel, so it's been altered as well.
I found this bait and switch confounding, and perhaps a touch theme park-ish. Victor Hugo called it "respectful vandalism," since we are not, in fact, seeing what the queen saw and experienced.
Shouldn't the actual cell have been left intact and exhibited with historical accuracy? I felt like the exhibit (and chapel) were a sad bit of Restoration Era counter-revolutionary propaganda, designed to rehabilitate the image of the despised queen. Even if she never said "let them eat cake," she was an undeniable example of overweening royal decadence.
The accompanying signage confirmed my suspicions. Marie Antoinette is described as "brilliant" and the signs don't even explain the reason for her arrest and death. Quelle fraude!
Rather annoyed, I carried on to the next chapel.