The Conciergerie – the oldest prison in Paris
Paris has a long list of well-known places to see and explore such as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. However, if you’re looking for a lesser-known but fascinating place, add The Conciergerie to your itinerary. This historic Gothic palace not only housed royalty centuries ago but also served as a prison during the French Revolution between 1793 and 1795. You can actually see where its most famous prisoner, Marie-Antoinette, was kept up to the day she was executed.
The Conciergerie, on the banks of the Seine, dates back to the 6th century and was the site of the residence of Clovis, the first king of France. The structure that occupies the land today was built in the 1200s. After he built the palace, King Louis IX commissioned what is now known as Sainte Chapelle to be part of the palace complex. The striking church, finished in 1248, served as a private chapel for the royal family. Saint-Chapelle stayed intact, though some of the palace grounds from those early days are gone. King Philippe IV, also known as Philippe the Fair, continued the work of his grandfather Louis IX and turned the palace into a symbol of the French monarchy. He also decided to include the Parliament of Paris within the palace walls.
The kings and queens of France left this palace at the end of the 14th century and took up residence in the nearby Louvre, Chateau Vincennes and Versailles as time went on. King Charles V, the last royal resident here, appointed the first Concierge. That’s how the name Conciergerie came about. The Concierge was charged with maintaining order, overseeing the police and supervising prisons. At the same time, Charles V converted the former palace into judicial offices, which it houses even today. The prison opened at that time is the oldest in Paris.
In a self-guided tour, you first enter the large Hall of Soldiers. It’s empty but impressive, with its graceful curved beams. The Guard Room also shows off vaulted ceilings. The kitchens built in the 1300s by King John the Good are restored and open.
You can then move into smaller rooms around the sides of the main hall. These show different aspects of what life was like here. Displays and signs along the tour provide information. A video showing in one of the stone rooms tells the history of the palace.
At one point in the tour, you can pop outside to explore the exercise yard. The spikes sticking out of the roof give the idea that escape was not an option.
Marie Antoinette’s cell, where she spent the last 10 weeks of her life, was replaced by a commemorative chapel about a hundred years ago. The wall has a “tear” motif. The queen’s chair is on display. Art depicts her final day as she made her way up the stairs to the cart that would take her to the nearby square for her beheading.
The winds of history change. Those held in a prison cell may one day be honored. The walls of this palace, keeping their place in the center of Paris, have seen so much. It’s awesome to spend an afternoon here, imagining all that’s happened here.
The Conciergerie is open to the public and is next door to Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile Saint-Louise, just one long block from Notre Dame. A combination ticket for the Conciergerie and Sainte-Chapelle is available.
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