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Walking the historic streets of Paris

If you know Paris, you will have walked over the Pont Neuf, the creation of King Henri IV (1553 – 1610), visionary, lover, pluralist, urban designer, and soldier, who inherited the throne (1594) as the bloody civil Wars of Religion between Catholics and the “heretic” Protestants were still raging. The fanatics hated him because he was Protestant. A pragmatist, and disenchanted to say the least with partisan religions, Henri became a Catholic to calm Catholic Paris. (There is no evidence that he ever said “Paris is worth a Mass.”) He was crowned Rex Christianissimus in Chartres.

Within a few years he had made Paris a city of tolerance. He claimed “Those who genuinely follow their conscience are of my religion – as for me, I belong to the faith of everyone who is brave and true… We must be brought to agreement by reason and kindness, and not by strictness and cruelty…”. The same year he undertook the Pont Neuf (1598)  he issued the Edict of Nantes, granting tolerance and freedom of worship to the Protestants.

Paris was still a war zone of filthy ruins after the decades of war. But Henri was determined to transform it, “to make this city beautiful, tranquil, to make it a whole world and a wonder of the world.” (He adored beautiful women, having had, according to myth and/or history, 53 mistresses and many bastards.) After opening the famous bridge over the Ile de la Cite, between the Left and Right Banks – some consider the view from the Pont Neuf the most beautiful prospect in Paris – he extended the Louvre, building its Grande Galerie; designed the Orangerie; the lovely Place Dauphine directly across from the bronze horse on the bridge with Henri in the saddle.

Place des Vosges Paris

His most superb creation was the Place des Vosges in the Marais. He envisioned a large open public space surrounded by handsome pavilions of red brick and golden stone, with vendors in the arcades, bordered by rows of lime trees, and framed by the pavilions’ salons where literature, sex, and music would entertain the rich and royal.  The Place to this day is still a dreamworld in the early morning light; in the 17th century, it was “the fun part of town.”  Sundays are festivals of families, Parisians, and tourists looking for brunch. Henri ordered his royal square coupleted in l8 months.

But then a drop-out monk, another fanatic, stabbed him to death with a kitchen knife when Henri’s carriage was stuck in traffic. All Paris changed . . . everyone began to wail and cry, with women and girls tearing their hair out.” Though Henri was reputedly a garlicky man, not fond of the bath, he is remembered in Paris “as a charmer, his eyes full of sweetness… his whole mien animated with an uncommon vivacity.” He remains the most beloved king of France.

The up-dated story of his political marriage to the much maligned Catholic Marguerite Valois – (described by male historians as a fat nymphomaniac) is told in a later chapter of this book. Her medieval hotel still stands in the quiet southern Marais, on the Seine. Her story is as complicated and shocking as her husband’s as well as the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre at the time of their wedding which – miraculously – did not kill them both. Margot hid Henri under her bed and inside her closet while Catholic royalty and their courtiers beheaded thousands of Protestant wedding guests and tossed their heads out the windows of the Louvre.

“Beauty is in the streets“ they say in Paris. Travelers, like Parisians themselves, have their favorites. And as the city evolves and erupts, the streets change, Parisians come and go. But the beauty remains. The streets’ multiple personalities – charming, elegant, dirty, broken, haunted, lyrical – wind along the past and present, through the storied worlds of Parisians, ancient and modern. Walking in their footsteps, we sense the hauntings of history, connect with sites of memory: we can feel that the city’s past is part of the present.

By Susan Cahill, author of The Streets of Paris: A Guide to the City of Light by Susan www.susancahill.net

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