Though the city’s history began long before cobblestones, they are an essential part of Paris.
The streets of Paris were first paved in the late 12th or early 13th century, under King Philippe-Auguste, who also constructed the city's first wall. While the wall was constructed to provide security, the streets were paved, it's said, because the king found the smelly mud of Paris’ rues unbearable. The original paving stones were apparently kept until around the 16th century, when they were replaced with newer ones.
Paris in the Middle Ages wasn’t the same as today. For most of that era, it was a relatively small section of the heart of the city, encompassing the Ile de la Cité and farmland on the Right Bank, running from a point on the present-day rue Montorgueil to the north, to a location the soon-to-be Bastille to the east, and to the west, a port just before the Louvre, then a fortress outside the wall. The southern part of the wall contained a significant portion of the present-day fifth arrondissement, and a smaller portion of the present-day sixth arrondissement. Other areas of the City of Lights we know today were farmland, or villages with dirt roads. When they were incorporated into Paris, they were given their paving stones.
The Cour du Commerce Saint-André. The area, bordering the outside of the city wall, was built up by the time of Charles V (14th century), but this particular street was created in 1776. The cobblestones are much larger and more widely spaced than the pavés found in other areas, and in my opinion seem to be mostly the 18th century originals, though I'm no expert. This passage, located near the Odéon Métro stop, is a lovely place to visit, and is full of history: besides a remnant of Paris’ first city wall, you’ll also find: the Procope Restaurant, hangout of many notable 17th and 18th century celebrities and politicians and the first place coffee was served in Paris (1686); and, in the Cour de Rohan, a courtyard off the passage, the place where Revolutionary extremist Marat printed his famous newspaper L'Ami du Peuple, and the location in which Dr. Guillotine first experimented with his new invention, a more humane way to execute criminals (he used sheep to test it out).
But while the cobblestones look quite harmonious with their surroundings, the change wasn’t always easy. Montmartre, a neighborhood famous for its steep cobbled streets and stairways, is a high hill that had been hollowed out since ancient times for the gypsum it contained. Its pavés were added starting in 1860, when the former village was incorporated into Paris. The stones and the traffic they held were sometimes too heavy, and sections of streets collapsed, dragging trees, carriages, and even people, into the ground.
Montmartre: the sloping rue Ravignan. Notice two kinds of paving stone arrangements: a series of fan shapes (background), and those simply placed in gridlike order (foreground). You’ll see a lot of both in Paris.
Luckily, the problem of Montmartre's once treacherous paved streets has been solved today, though I’m not sure how. Maybe a walk up to my favorite spot in Paris, la place Emile Goudeau, is really a walk of faith.
The eye delights in the lovely pavés of Paris. You may notice, though, that they aren’t everywhere in the city. And in some places, they’ve been covered with asphalt.
“A practical measure,” you could say, and in many ways you'd probably be right. But it also has to do with the delicate balance between beauty and caution that anyone needs to use when dealing with Parisians.
You see, ever since the July Revolution of 1830, paving stones have been wrenched from the streets to serve as material in barricades, and, occasionally, as projectile weapons.
In the mid-19th century, Baron Haussmann was ordered to demolish older, insalubrious parts of Paris and widen streets and boulevards, mainly so that, if necessary, the military could move easily through the city. However, the Baron didn’t count on the power of the cobblestones; in 1870, Napoleon III, who’d commissioned him to so dramatically change the landscape and architecture of the City of Lights, was captured by the Prussians. A new government was established, and soon challenged by Communards, who wanted even more of a change (for more information on this, please feel free to click here
). Once again, the cobblestones were pried up and used to make often formidable barricades.
July Revolution, 1830: Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix. On the lower left of the iconic image, we see cobblestones that make up part of the barricade.
1848 Revolution: La barricade de la rue Soufflot by Antoine Vernet. Notice the man on the upper left, raising a cobblestone to use as a weapon.
1871, the Paris Commune: Barricade Paris 1871, by Pierre-Ambrose Richebourg
The Paris Commune was eventually suppressed, and the established order restored. But it wasn’t until 1968 that the government started thinking differently about les pavés. In May of this year, an uprising of students and workers, unsatisfied (to put it mildly) with their current government effectively shut down the city, regularly clashing with police. The period is known, among other things, for its anti-government posters and slogans, including this one:
Sous les pavés, la plage!
- "Under the cobblestones is the beach!" The protestors knew this first-hand, since they pulled up the stones, revealing Paris’ sand-like soil, and famously used them, not only to make barricades, but to throw at police. Though pavés had been thrown at opposing forces before, the idea of young people – many from bourgeois families – doing such a thing – shocked society.
May 1968 - Students throw cobblestones at riot police, Blvd. St. Michel
And that’s why many streets in the city are no longer cobbled.
Could this act be like the cutting of Samson’s hair? Since 1968, no major protest by the French people has had as great an effect. Instead, most Parisians are content with orderly demonstrations, parading loudly and slowly down mostly asphalt-covered boulevards.
Though you can still see pavés today, especially in areas where it seems to serve the tourism industry well, in more residential areas, there’s usually just pavement on major streets.
In front of the Pantheon, at the top of the rue Soufflot, the same street that was depicted in the painting of the 1848 barricade, paving stones in different colors are used to make a decorative motif.
Recently, though, some of the past has resurfaced.
The boulevards des maréchaux (so called because they’re named after marshals who served under Napoleon I) surround Paris, where the last of the city’s walls stood until 1929. Near them ran La Ligne de Petite Ceinture (the Little Belt Railroad), a small train line that made a circle around Paris, from around 1852 to 1934. The train became obsolete with the expansion of the Métro, and today a bus service runs a similar route. But a few years ago, city planners decided it would be wise to repeat history in a way, and create a tram that would run on the boulevards des maréchaux, serving the same purpose as the Petite Ceinture once did.
The project has been underway for at least half a decade, and certain portions are complete and running. In the west of the city, the boulevards have been dug up – including the pavés that had been paved over. Many will be used in the new, larger sidewalks that are being constructed. For now, along some sections of the boulevards, they’re piled up as they were in the days of the barricades.
The project is a massive one, involving not only the laying of tracks and the building of tram stations, but first checking and sometimes reinforcing gas pipes.
It seems the government has become complacent in the years since 1968: not only do they leave unearthed pavés unguarded, but they even joke about those tumultuous times: here, a public announcement reminds residents: Sous les pavés, le chauffage! (Under the cobblestones are heating pipes!)
Still, les pavés haven’t lost their importance. Some will look at them and merely see beauty. But these cobblestones are more than their appearance. In many ways, they are the soul of this city, where aesthetics, anger, love, and death, have all met – and still meet – on avenues, alleyways, and boulevards.
Last fall, OSer Brassawe
suggested we each do posts about the cobblestones in our home cities. He posted his back in January. You can click here
to read it. Mine took some time, because I needed to find these different images - especially the pile of paving stones on the boulevard. Thanks to Brassawe, I've come to appreciate cobblestones even more than I did before, noticing patterns and motifs I previously only took in as part of the whole Parisian landscape.
The information about when and why the Parisian streets were first paved comes from a book I have called Medieval Towns: Paris: The Story of Paris by Thomas Okey, published in New York by E.P. Dutton & Co., 1919.