Day 1 – Two raids and an execution
Morning – July 12 to July 14, 1789
We begin at the Palais Royal and two days before the storming of the Bastille. Its arcades were a popular hangout for radicals and on July 12, riled by the sacking of Chief Minister Jacques Necker the day before, Camille Desmoulins gave a rabble-rousing speech from a tabletop outside the Café Foy at 57-60 Galerie Montpensier that set the next few days’ events in motion. There’s no plaque to mark its spot – nor outside 177 Galerie Valois where a certain assassin bought the knife that changed the course of the Revolution – but the courtyard remains almost exactly as it was in 1789.
Heading south out of the Palais Royal, pass through the Louvre and into the Jardin des Tuileries. Here, on July 13, disgruntled citizens seized a royal store of weapons and rained stones down on the palace guards – the first of many brutal skirmishes the garden would witness. Following the river west on either side will bring you to Les Invalides in half an hour.
On the morning of July 14, with the city in a state of panic, several thousand men plundered the military complex’s store of 30,000 muskets. However, days before, 250 barrels of gunpowder had been moved to the Bastille for safekeeping. After a tour of the relevant exhibits of the Musée de l’Armée, it is here that our guide heads. You can either follow in the mob’s footsteps for an hour, or hop on the 87 bus at Saint-François-Xavier and arrive at the Place de la Bastille in half the time.
Surprisingly, it’s not the 170-foot (51-meter), gold statue-topped July Column that is of interest to us here (it commemorates the Revolution of 1830) but the brown brick outlines on the Boulevard Henri IV and Rue Saint-Antoine that show the perimeter of the fortress prison. After a brief negotiation and a four-hour battle, its governor, Bernard-René de Launay, surrendered to the crowd at 5:30PM.
His bad day then took a turn for the worse. He was dragged to the Hôtel de Ville, under a hail of abuse, where he was beaten to within an inch of his life. (You can get here far more comfortably on the M1 in just six minutes.) Finally, having screamed ‘Enough! Let me die!’ and landed a kick squarely in the crotch of one of his attackers, de Launay was stabbed to death and his decapitated head was paraded around the square on a pike.
With this unsavory image in mind, pop over the Pont d’Arcole to the Île de la Cité and the Square Jean XXIII for a spot of lunch. The garden offers great views of Notre-Dame, which was transformed into the Temple of Reason and later a wine storehouse during the Revolution.
Afternoon – October 16, 1792
After lunch, we fast-forward three years to Marie Antoinette’s execution. Her last day started at the Conciergerie, a palace-turned-prison that became known as a ‘vast antechamber of death.’ The grim misery of the Revolution seeps out from the walls of this museum, which contains fascinating rooms and objects, like the queen’s eleven-by-six-foot (3.3 by 1.8 meters) cell, and the bell that announced the arrival of her tumbrel in the May Courtyard.
You can retrace her final journey by exiting the Conciergerie, crossing the Pont Neuf and, after a few blocks, turning left onto the Rue Saint-Honoré. Block out the luxury boutiques and imagine how she must have felt that day – the back of her head shaved, hands tied behind her back, and the people she once ruled cursing her from the roadside. As she passed by his balcony, the Revolutionary artist Jacques-Louis David sketched the queen staring off into space. What must have she been thinking?
A left turn will take you onto the Rue Royale and the Place de la Concorde, the square which didn’t claim the most heads but definitely the most famous ones, including those of Louis XVI, Madame du Barry, Robespierre, and poor Camille Desmoulins, who helped get the whole show going. The fountains and the obelisk, 19th-century additions, substantially alter the feel of the square, but the Pont de la Concorde that leads off it was, remarkably, built with stones from the Bastille, so that ‘the people could forever trample the ruins of the old fortress.’
Evening – Au Chien Qui Fume
For dinner, head back on foot or on the M1 to the Rue Saint Honoré and Au Chien Qui Fume. Opened in 1740, this seafood restaurant retains many original features and is the perfect place to absorb a sense of Paris during the Revolution.