Many of us, if not all of us, know the feeling of getting lost in a place where one simply isn’t supposed to. For example, when you walk in New York city and can’t, for your life, find the Empire State building, or failing to locate the Louvre in Paris, despite going in circles all over the neighbourhood. And speaking of getting lost in Paris, I recall a phone call I got from a friend of mine, a fan of classical-sounding English, who called me from Paris and said: “I’ve been looking for the Bastille for an hour now. Tell me, where is this Bastille of which you speak!?” So, for his sake, and for all of yours, allow me to tell you a few facts you probably didn’t know about the Bastille (that doesn’t exist anymore, by the way).
The Bastille didn’t start out as a prison
The first two tower of the Bastille were built in 1357, not as a royal prison, but as a fortress, with the purpose of protecting the eastern border of Paris. In truth, those buildings weren’t even built by the king of France, but by Etienne Marcel, head merchant of Paris and its non-official mayor (at that time, the position of mayor didn’t exist yet). In the 1470s, the other six towers were built, and the Bastille became one of the most impressive fortresses of the Middle Ages – which didn’t bother the English, who conquered it in 1420…
Before we continue: Dinner and a Seine cruise - the perfect combination?
The first prisoner in the Bastille was its own architect…
The English were also the first who turned the Bastille into a prison, and their first prisoner there was no less than its own architect, Hugues Aubriot. Undoubtedly, the English knew how to use irony as early as the 15th century…
The Bastille was a luxury prison
During the 17th and 18th century, the Bastille became the symbol of brutality of the absolute monarchy, although, in fact, the fortress functioned as sort of “luxury prison”, where nobles were held for, usually, no longer than six months. Unlike in other prisons, here the prisoners could maintain a considerable part of their previous lives and lifestyles, and were allowed to bring with them furniture, servants, entertainment, and even get visits from their lovers. Cardinal de Rohan took this to a new level, when he invited 20 of his closest friends to a magnificent dinner in his chamber at the Bastille.
And there were some very famous guests there
One of the most famous prisoners of the Bastille was Voltaire, who was imprisoned there in 1717 after mocking the Duke of Orléans, regent of France. Voltaire spent the time of his imprisonment writing the play Oedipus, and in general, he had quite a good time there. His words to the regent, after being release, can attest to that: “I wanted to thank you from the bottom of my heart for the great food your excellence has provided me with. Next time, you don’t have to feel obligated to fund my living expenses as well”. Another famous prisoner was the Marquis de Sade, who was imprisoned in the Bastille per his family’s request, and there he wrote one of his famous works, “The 120 Days of Sodom”.
The Marquis also lived quite the good life in the Bastille, and was even allowed to drink the wine produced in his own estates in Provence. However, 10 days before the Bastille was conquered, the Marquis de Sade was transferred to the mental hospital in Charenton. That happened after the Bastille governor revoked his right to walk on the fort towers, and in response, the Marquis built a paper megaphone of sorts, and started screaming to the passersby under his window that the prisoners in the Bastille were being slaughtered by their guards.
So who really wanted to destroy the Bastille?
Were the French people the ones to initiate the destruction of the Bastille? Not exactly. Maintaining the Bastille cost France a fortune, and in 1784 it was decided to close down the prison, destroy most of the Bastille, and leave only two towers as a historical monument. On top of the Bastille ruins was supposed to be built “Louix XVI Square”, and in its centre – a pyramid made of iron chains and locks that were used in the Bastille. On top of the pyramid there was to be a statue of the kind reaching out towards the ruins of the Bastille, and symbolically releasing Paris. However, like many other plans, this plan was also delayed thanks to the French bureaucracy, and as a result, the revolutionaries got to the Bastille first. The rest is history.
Where can we find the Bastille today?
After the Bastille was destroyed, the revolutionaries built a fountain. Napoleon, who didn’t like the revolutionary symbol, initially thought of erecting his famous victory arch in the Bastille square, but later decided to place there an enormous statue of plaster-made elephant. The statue stood there in the years 1814-1846, and next to it was erected, in 1833, a large column with a bronze statue, commemorating the names of those who were killed in the revolution of July 1830. This last column exists to this day. Do you still want to take a walk around the Bastille? Go to Place de la Concorde and cross the Seine. Congratulations, you just stood on the Bastille, because the bridge builders used bricks taken from the fortress. The rest of the bricks from the fortress were sold to tourists by Pierre Francois Paloy, who became a very rich man following this venture, and at the same time, he also became the father and inventor of the tourists’ souvenirs field.