A (brief) tour of Henry IV’s Paris

If you have even a passing interest in history, I heartily recommend Joan DeJean’s book How Paris Became Paris. Rather than recite dates and facts, she retells the city’s history through the architectural and technological innovations that began Paris’ transformation from a muddy medieval mess into the world capital we know today.

I especially appreciated DeJean’s characterization of Henri IV (1554 – 1610) as a visionary.

I had never before regarded his urban development projects — most notably Paris’ oldest bridge, the Pont Neuf — as being revolutionary, or even particularly modernist. But DeJean showed me the old king in a new light.

Rather than paraphrase the book (which I recommend reading for yourself), today I will lead you on a virtual tour of five sites that have a connection to Henri IV. You can easily visit all five in one day, if you are so inclined.

“Courtesy” of Google Maps.

Le Square du Vert-Galant

Find this beautiful statue of Henri IV (Henry IV in English), and you’ve found one of the most charming little parks in Paris.

The statue dating from 1618 was destroyed during the French Revolution, but was recast in 1818 from a surviving mold of the original. (A bit of Henri IV’s original leg is still on view at the Musée Carnavalet, though — see below.)

You can access the park from a set of steps off the Pont Neuf, behind Henri IV’s statue.

When you reach the bottom of the steps, look for a plaque that commemorates the burning-at-the-stake in 1314 of Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar.

Three centuries later the only thing that burned here was passion, as King Henri IV partied and cavorted with his many mistresses. In fact, the name Vert-Galant — which translates literally as “green (lusty) gentleman” — is a nod to old Henri’s legendary enthusiasm for the ladies.

One wonders if anyone ever fell into the river during these passionate encounters.

Hemingway came here even more recently and observed the fishermen who worked the quays. “They always caught some fish,” he wrote, “and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.”

The Square du Vert-Galant is also one of the launching spots for the “Vedettes du Pont Neuf” tour boats.

Today, this little teardrop-shaped park is still a meeting place for lovers, loungers, and revelers alike. It’s also still one of only a couple of spots on the Île de la Cité that retains its original slope to the river — which shows you just how vulnerable the island once was to flooding.

It’s beautiful even in the winter.

Le Pont Neuf

In French Pont Neuf means “new bridge” — but this is actually Paris’ oldest survivor. The site of this bridge was chosen as early as 1550, during the reign of King Henri II, but budget shortfalls delayed the beginning of construction until 1578, under Henri III. Henri IV finally completed it in 1607.

The twelve arches of the Pont Neuf stretch across the Seine to connect the Île de la Cité to the mainland.

As Joan DeJean teaches us in How Paris Became Paris, the Pont Neuf was unusual in many ways. Not only was it the broadest bridge in Europe at the time, it was also wider than any other Parisian street. Plus, it wasn’t covered in houses — as was typical at the time — so it offered sweeping views over the Seine.

These little alcoves invite you to “Stop here. Appreciate life for a minute. And smile,” as the street art suggests.

The bridge soon came to represent modern Paris to the world, and became the place to see and be seen.

Although the bridge today lacks the merchants and crowds and traffic it once drew, it’s still a technical marvel, with its 12 elegant arches spanning both sides of the Île de la Cité.

And although it still offers a beautiful view of the city, I prefer to approach the Pont Neuf from the quays that slide underneath the old bridge.

And while you’re down on those quays, don’t miss the mascarons that adorn the bridge. There are 381 in total — no two of them identical. You can see a couple of the originals up close at the Carnavalet Museum (scroll to the bottom of this post).

And don’t miss an opportunity to appreciate the Pont Neuf in all its majesty from the nearby Pont des Arts.

La Place Dauphine

Even as the Pont Neuf was nearing completion in 1607, Henri IV was already hard at work on the Place Dauphine. Named after his son, the Dauphin of France — the future Louis XIII — this was the second of Henri’s public squares (his first was the Place des Vosges, which we visit below).

The original 1607 plan called for a public square — a triangle, actually — surrounded by houses of “a harmonious aspect.” The original houses all had similar façades, like those at the Place des Vosges, though more modest. The last of the houses, at the southeast corner of the square, was finished in 1616.

Almost all of the houses have been rebuilt, replaced, or heavily restored since then. In fact, only a couple retain their original appearance: the two flanking the entrance, facing the Pont Neuf.

Nevertheless, centuries of history still echo on the cobblestones of this hidden little treasure.

It’s a lovely spot in which to take a break or grab a bite — and on Sunday afternoons, the little park fills up with friendly games of pétanque.

La Place Royale / Place des Vosges

The Place Royale represented the epitome of city planning when it was inaugurated in 1612, to celebrate a royal wedding. But Henri IV’s initial plans for the site had been rather more commercial and mundane: Irked by Italy’s dominance of the silk industry, in 1604 he had provided land for the construction of silk workshops and housing.

By 1605 the winds had changed, though, and Henri IV wrote to his finance minister with a new decree that the square should serve three purposes: to adorn Paris, to host public ceremonies, and to offer recreational space.

Henri IV drew up a new plan for the Place Royale — one that incorporated the existing commercial buildings, and that added three more sides with similar “pavilions.” He ordered that the buildings be uniform in height and appearance, and that they house both businesses (on the main floor) and residences (upper stories).

Henri’s bust appears above the entrance to his pavilion — Le Pavillon du Roi.

The Place Royale’s original occupants were economically and socially diverse, according to How Paris Became Paris. But over the following centuries it still endured several booms and busts — and several name changes. (In 1800 Napoleon changed the name of the square from Place Royale to Place des Vosges to honor the Vosges region, the first to pay taxes to his new government. The square was again renamed Place Royale in 1815, only to be changed yet again into Place des Vosges in 1870.)

More boom-and-bust cycles followed, culminating in almost slum-like conditions in the 1970s. But gentrification soon swept through the Marais neighborhood, and the Place des Vosges was once again among the most desirable addresses in Paris.

Today, most of the buildings are privately owned, but you can visit the house of Victor Hugo — author of Les Misérables — whose home is now a municipal museum. It’s open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Monday; admission fees vary.

Le Musée Carnavalet

Strictly speaking, this museum of Paris’ history has no direct ties to Henri IV — but it does contain a remnant of his bronze leg (see Le Square du Vert-Galant) and a few mascarons from the Pont Neuf. But beyond that, it’s a fascinating walk through centuries of history … and a wonderful way to put faces to some of these stories.

Plus, it’s simply a beautiful place.

[Update, added September 13, 2020: The Musée Carnavalet has been undergoing an extensive renovation. Please check the official website for reopening information and hours.]

I hope you’ve enjoyed this virtual tour. And seriously: Please do consider DeJean’s wonderful book. She will give you fresh insights into 16th- and 17th-century Europe, and how Paris took its first steps to becoming our modern City of Light.

Text and all images © Heather Munro.