Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Paris, France
December 31
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out


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JUNE 13, 2011 10:27AM

Paris Cobblestones - for Brassawe

Rate: 16 Flag

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.[1] 

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 or 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.
vernet 48
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.
[1]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. 

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FIRST! I wanted to do that for a while. :)
This was wonderful. I was going to do a short video on the cobblestones of Oakland yesterday and it just was not in me.
This is why.. you were doing this marvelous piece.
Aha! You came through for me. I knew you would.

Really nice photos, Alysa. Thank you. And wonderful text for perspective on it all.
The only cobblestones in my town are fake concrete ones that were molded. Everything else is paved. Such is life in a town just a 100 years old. :)
ocular - Glad I could make your day :-)

Linda - I'm so glad you liked this - AND YOU SHOULD TOTALLY DO YOUR PIECE ON THE COBBLESTONES IN OAKLAND! It would be a part of the series! Please do it!!!

Brassawe - Yess! I'm glad it's what you wanted. This was a fun mission to be on - I"m just sorry it took me so long!

ocular - Well, I'm just glad they went to the trouble of making any kind of cobblestones at all - I feel like many newer places just wouldn't bother, unfortunately. I know the towns where I grew up didn't.
Great trip back to Paris! The pictures bring it back to me too.
But the older of us must remember to take care walking on them.
Cobblestones really do lend charm to a city. I love the sound of a horse's hooves on cobblestones. Lovely post, Alyssa.
Wonderful pictures and history!
Luminous - I'm so glad you enjoyed this - and it's not just older people who have a hard time on the cobblestones at times - those of us with weak ankles also find it tough! :-)

Sarah - That is a lovely sound. There aren't enough horses here!

sweetfeet - Thanks! I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I had a lot of fun writing it.
When I was in Paris last week, I had to walk very carefully on the cobblestone streets to maintain my balance wearing my most flat heeled shoes. However, Parisians, especially the young women in the highest heels, seem to be able to ignore the uneveness and go skipping along with ease.
So interesting and the pictures were perfect.
Beautiful post, Alysa! I wasn't aware of Brassawe's request, so I wondered about the title - but now I know. I love cobblestone roads and there are some in Old Montréal. Your photos and text however are non-pareil. Thank you for the informative tour.
Wonderful bit of Parisian history, Alysa. =o) I love the look of those fan-shaped cobbles. They tell me "You're in Europe, now." I'm not totally sold on walking on them, though.

Alas, Mountain View, young town that it is, seems to have a tremendous shortage of cobbled streets. Even San Francisco has a shortage in this respect.

Loved this! A most enjoyable tour.
"insalubrious", hm? Thank you: it's been awhile since I had to actually look up a word I'd never heard.

Sounds like Alysa the secret subtlest of anarchists
wrote some of this!
"And that’s why many streets in the city are no longer cobbled.
Could this act be like the cutting of Samson’s hair..."

Wonderful tour,
geographically & historically,
as always.

Have you ever high-heeled it over those cobblestones?
Not at all salubrious, I would imagine.
Wow. Every so often you post something that makes me realize how much smarter you are (than I was at your age; 20-years-older-perimenopausal savant that I am). This was a very interesting and educational blog. I love the (few) NYC cobblestones we have left. Hoping to see the Paris version...some day...
I have to take you to task. In at least two parts.
So as to get you into the respectable 20's
for a rating.

u said the ladies of the fiction club aint mean.
i say: they yell atcha like damn librarians, with their bold
print and underlining.

i see that the cobblestone thing hasnt exactly caught on.
why in heaven's name did you take a prompt from an old geezer
like brassawe? good gosh.
here is a better prompt:

for the damn fiction club, whom i now fear:

next wednesday:
1. do whatcha want if u=a simpleton.
2. write on this shit: christ, france, buddha, england, india, sex, foreplay, death.
2nd part to my comment.

i must warn you to a new yet old, really damn old,
menace to os, the thing, the
bearded hippy vegetarian
art james.

he has defamed me in at least 50 ways in the past four days.
i will not engage in a dust up with the ol sob, becuz
i dont believe in totally annihilating
men of
i admit it...some, small


but i hope to keep you up to date on this fella's
doings. he disguises his hammer in a velvet
glove, or if he is truly perverse
like he was

just pounds you with a damn placebo hammer.

just when we got thoth back, art james will ruin it, i can but
prognosticate with only the best for both.

dustups are no damn good for us.
dustups choke the lungs.
under the rug from now on, i would hope.
hm. i see the cowardly lion aj has not come out of his
pampered fancy farmhouse yet. ha
Amazing...and lovely. What a great idea from Brassawe. I can't contribute because we have no cobblestones in our city -- we do have Indian temple mounds and we can still dig up pieces of Indian pottery along the shoreline -- but no cobblestones. I do love the cobblestones in New Orleans' French Quarter, which is nearby. You make me long for another trip there -- but after the summer, when the streets don't smell like piss. Ah, the history those stones have seen!
Macco – I would love to send you one…but I think it might get confiscated en route by the French postal workers. They ruin all the fun….

Dolly – I love this description you give. I can see it so vividly. Alas, I myself will never be a true Parisienne. Or maybe not “alas,” but whatever the case, when cobblestones are very uneven and widely spaced, as in the Cour du Commerce Saint-Andre, I usually get wobbly ankles and almost bite the dust! I hope you enjoyed your trip to Paris!

Miguela – Thank you. I wish I were a better photographer, though.

Fusun – Thank you! I’m so glad you liked this. I would love for you to do one on the cobblestones of Montreal!

Shiral – Thanks, and I’m glad the photos whet your appetite for France! Cobblestone shortages are a sad thing indeed – but living in the US, you do have some other great things. I am really missing graham crackers and air conditioning tonight, for example….

Harry’s – Thank you! That means a lot!

James – Thanks for your comment and I didn’t know you didn’t know “insalubrious.” Speaking French a lot expands my vocabulary in some ways, because this is a fairly normal word in French – on the other hand, I forget certain things in English sometimes! And no, me high heeling anywhere is not salubrious at all!

Eva – I am definitely not smarter than anyone! Especially not you, at any age. You should write about the NYC cobblestones – how unusual, since we don’t think of them when we imagine NY.

James – You are cracking me up!

Bellwether – Thanks for reading. I think you’re lucky to have Indian mounds and other lovely treasures where you live. Describing the cobblestones of New Orleans kind of killed a part of my dreams, though… : - )