Les Grands Boulevards: a city wall transformed into a high-class promenade

Because I spend most of my time on the Left Bank of the Seine, I was struggling to understand many of the places described in The Invention of Paris, by Eric Hazan. The Right Bank has led the city’s growth since it expanded from the Île de la Cité. Today, Natasha and I decided to take a walk down the Grands Boulevards, an area that became outstandingly popular in the 1830s.

“On the removal of [Paris’ northern] fortifications, the Crown decided to retain the promenade as a broad avenue, the grands boulevards. Strollers were attracted in even larger numbers, and the frontages were gradually developed. In the west, especially, the grands boulevards became a centre of fashion, and the aristocracy built mansions and pavilions there.”

Paris: An Architectural History, by Anthony Sutcliffe.
Church of Madeleine

We started at Madeleine, named after a church of that name. You could be forgiven for not recognizing it as a church, though! Many false starts characterized the rebuilding of l’église de la Madeleine, with work finally beginning in 1806 when Napoleon Bonaparte decreed that the structure positioned at the west end of the Boulevards district would be a recreation of an antique temple to the Glory of of the Great Army. When the structure was completed in 1842, however, it was consecrated as a Catholic Church. Since a model of the Parthenon was the focus of park next to the university where I worked in Tennessee, I was a little unenthusiastic about the French equivalent. I liked that art had been displayed between columns along the sides, but the grime of the city has definitely subtracted from its visual impact.

Natasha and I continued on our path along Boulevard des Capucines. I had been looking forward to seeing the former mansion of Farmer-General Marin de la Haye (once featuring a roof garden that fed the house plumbing), but we could not discern which of the buildings at this intersection was his home. L’Olympia Theatre was more apparent by a red marquee and a sign for its music hall. The area is so busy with traffic and pedestrians that I didn’t take good photos. Similarly, we passed by the Hôtel Scribe, which housed the first commercial screening of a motion picture (courtesy of the Lumière brothers), without more than a brief pause.

The opera is gorgeous, though the crowds are a bit heavy for my tastes!

Arriving at the Opéra Garnier, however, gave both of us pause. The Place de l’Opéra is a fairly big square, containing its own busy metro station. Seven substantial roads meet at the the Place, so the people boiling into and out of the metro are interacting with a heavy crowd around the Opéra itself plus a bunch of traffic noise. It is also worth saying, “WOW!” The structure has a substantial presence of its own in the early winter afternoon, with the sun reflecting beautifully from its façade and glinting merrily from the golden statues perched on either end of the roof. I hope I’m not being too obvious to mention that this is the building in which the “Phantom of the Opera” was first imagined. I look forward to a tour when that sort of thing becomes possible again.

The former Credit Lyonnais headquarters has a very similar look to a building in the Louvre. I am still learning how to use my fisheye lens.

As we continued eastward, the Boulevard changed names again, this time to Boulevard des Italiens. Because I remember the Crédit Lyonnais tower soaring above all others in the Lyon skyline, I was curious to see the headquarters they crafted at Paris starting in 1876. I tried to get fancy with my photography when we reached the former headquarters. The building, which occupies an entire city block by itself, has a frontage so huge that my fisheye lens was barely able to capture it even from the opposite side of the boulevard. I wish we could have seen is glass atria from inside.

The passages have some very handy shops!

In the late nineteenth century, the high-class shopping areas of France opted to create “passages,” roofed shopping areas that might be called “arcades” in English. We encountered Passage Jouffroy and Passage des Princes at 11 Boulevard Montmartre (another name for the same road!). Natasha and I were interested in a bit of shopping, so we turned into Passage Jouffroy. It was surprising just how far through the block the passage continued. We found jewelry stores, chocolatiers, art galleries, and even a small museum. We particularly liked the Librairie du Passage, a used book store with a sidewalk sale in motion. We browsed for quite a while, and then we turned to the Marks and Spencer grocery store. It has been surprisingly difficult to find blocks of aged cheddar in French groceries, so we were pleased to find the British chain.

As we passed Rue Rougemont, I was pleased to see a stylish façade and cupola in the corner of my eye from a BNP Paribas in an historic building. We had a little peek at Sacre Coeur at the crest of Monmartre on another of the side streets! Since I love art deco, I had high hopes as we approached the 1932 Grand Rex Theatre. As we drew close enough to see it, though, I could only say, “that is just awful!” The entirety of the Grande Rex Theatre is now swathed in a multi-story advertisement for Samsung mobile phones. I know that businesses must innovate to balance their books, but this seemed a real low.

La Esquinita was a store we had sought for weeks!

Natasha and I suddenly realized we had bypassed an important site on our tour, and we retraced our steps a couple of blocks. On a small side road, we spotted our quarry next to Paris Accordéon (open since 1944!). La Esquinita is a small Mexican grocery, perhaps with ties to the Zicatela restaurant on the other side of the same block. Natasha had been in search of chili poblanos, guajillo chilies, and corn tortillas, so we were delighted to find all three in one shop!

I had just two more items on my itinerary for the Grands Boulevards. As we had passed to the east on our promenade, our route had joined with the course of the walls erected around the Paris of the 14th century by King Charles V Valois (definitely not Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor). It was their path that had largely determined the course of the roads upon which we walked. In the 17th century, Louis XIV replaced a fortified gateway through this wall (guarding the road to the royal basilica of St. Denis) with the first triumphal arch in Paris.

The Port St. Denis must have loomed over the area’s structures when it was constructed in 1672.

As Natasha and I approached the Porte Saint-Denis, the crush of people and the road traffic picked up considerably. In the distance, Natasha pointed to a long line of police vehicles with rotating blue lights. Her sharp eyes picked up a large yellow flag, perhaps indicating a protest associated with the “yellow vests.” She has explained to me before that if one is living as a foreign worker in another country, lingering near activities that draw police is unadvisable. I was under some time pressure to get my photograph of Porte Saint-Denis, and we rapidly scuttled off our route to the north to avoid the press.

I was glad that we got to see the Theatre Antoine on our detour. We moved a couple of streets east where we saw a line of people 100 meters long waiting for entrance to the Lidl grocery. From there, we could see Porte Saint-Martin, a smaller triumphal arch constructed a couple of years after Porte Saint-Denis. While I worked the camera, Natasha pivoted her head to find the nearest Metro station; we did not intend to linger if the protest moved in our direction. We expedited our walk to the metro station and boarded line 8 back to our neighborhood.

Post-script, March 16, 2021

I wanted to share a rather different look at this area that I found in a biography of Baron Haussmann:

The next day, December 4, [1851,] there were barricades at rue Saint-Denis, rue Rambuteau, faubourg Saint-Martin, and faubourg Saint-Antoine. Common people were in the streets claiming victory: “Down with the pretorians!” But by early afternoon General Magnan had thirty thousand men on the move, converging from the four points of the compass on the centers of the insurrection in today’s 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th arrondissements. The column that had come from the west, under General Canrobert, advancced from the Madeleine down the boulevards to the Porte Saint-Denis. Blocked by a hostile crowd, it opened fire for ten minutes on anything that moved— demonstrators but also onlookers, passersby, show assistants– and caused dozens of deaths. Resistance crumbled as the barricades were removed with great force; a total of four hundred people were killed, ten times fewer than in June 1848. Prisoners were shot on the Champ de Mars. The last barricades came down on December 5. Terrorized Paris would not stir again for nineteen years.

Haussmann: his Life and Times, and the Making of Modern Paris, by Michel Carmona, page 104

4 thoughts on “Les Grands Boulevards: a city wall transformed into a high-class promenade

  1. Pingback: Montmartre: le blog de la Butte | Picking Up The Tabb

  2. Pingback: Grande Galerie de l’Évolution and Masala Dosas | Picking Up The Tabb

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