On a typically graceful Parisian avenue, by the banks of the River Seine, is a building with the darkest of histories.
A structure linked to the torture and deaths of thousands of people, the Conciergerie seems out of place surrounded by the grandeur of Notre Dame Cathedral and Sainte-Chappelle.
This area of downtown Paris swarms with tourists at all times of year thanks to its proximity not only to Notre Dame but the Louvre Museum, the Pantheon and the Pompidou Centre.
The Conciergerie has an altogether different appeal. Morbid fascination lures tourists into its below ground chambers where the Queen of France, Marie Antoinette, was imprisoned as she waited to be executed.
Not long after her death, France descended into the period known as the Reign of Terror that ripped the country apart. This dark chapter of French history saw tens of thousands of people arrested - many imprisoned at the Conciergerie - before being executed.
The cells of Antoinette and others have been well preserved and the Conciergerie remains a living museum educating visitors about this turbulent period.
As you cross the River Seine approaching the building, it very much blends into its splendid environment. Its facade is not menacing; not an ugly, hulking edifice we typically associate with prisons. Instead, it cuts a regal figure. That’s because it was never intended to house criminals.
It was built on the Ile de la Cite, an island in the Seine, as part of the magnificent Palais de la Cite, a royal complex which housed the Kings of France for some 800 years from the sixth century onwards. It was in the 14th century this building took a sinister turn.
When King Charles V moved to the nearby Louvre Palace in 1358 the Palais de la Cite was transformed into an administrative hub, housing French Treasury staff, hosting parliamentary sittings and acting as a courthouse. It soon became a place to intern high-profile prisoners.
If they did not confess to their crimes, they were introduced to the former palace’s ghastly torture dungeons.
Early in the 1400s, the Palais de la Cite went from a minor to a major player in Paris’ growing imprisonment industry.
Its time as a prison is now long gone and the people who visit its cells and chambers do so of their own choice. I visited in late June, in peak tourist season, and although the streets outside were spilling over with foreign visitors there was comparative silence and solitude in the bowels of the Conciergerie.
In a city blanketed with attractions, the Conciergerie is one of those that passes beneath the radar.
This is of benefit to those who do venture into the eerie building. If it was crowded with tourists it surely would lose its suitably sombre atmosphere. In a dungeon where thousands of people were tortured, one requires a degree of quiet to properly digest it all.
The symmetrical nest of striking stone arches in the Conciergerie’s main underground hall gives way to a network of smaller chambers and cells, connected by narrow corridors. Plaques alongside these rooms detail their prior uses and the names of their most significant residents. The most prominent among these is Marie Antoinette, who was incarcerated here briefly in 1793 before she was tried and executed due, in part, to her opposition of the French Revolution.
While Antoinette’s former cell looks modest, in fact, it was one of the more salubrious in the prison. At that time, inmates who had power or wealth were often afforded large, private cells like this one, whereas petty criminals were stuffed together in hovels.
Antoinette’s cell is decorated sparsely, with a basic wooden-frame bed, a desk and several wooden chairs, including one occupied by a dummy of the Queen draped in black clothing. There also is a small chapel dedicated to Antoinette which was set up in this lower section of the Conciergerie many years after her execution.
It is now more than 100 years since the prison was decommissioned. These lower parts of the building are among the only areas open to the public, with significant sections remaining occupied by the Paris law courts.
Long after the Reign of Terror, the building’s dungeons remain a dark, sober reminder of a terrible past in the City of Light.
- The Conciergerie is located in downtown Paris, alongside the Cite metro station, and within a few minutes’ walk of the magnificent Notre Dame Cathedral.
- Combined tickets for both the Conciergerie and the neighbouring Sainte-Chappelle royal chapel can be purchased at the entrance to either attraction for $19 for adults.
- The Conciergerie is only 10 minutes by foot from the gorgeous gardens of Jardin de Luxembourg.
Published under license from Well Travelled