For the first time in 500 years, the Saint-Jacques tower in Paris will be open to the public every weekend through the end of September. Over the years I’ve been coming to Paris, I’ve watched the 177 foot tower undergoing a transformation. It’s located at the corner of rue de Rivoli and rue Nicolas Flamel. Powerful, gothic, and mysterious, the Saint-Jacques tower has attracted a lot of interest since it was built in 1509. But despite all that interest, no one was able to visit the tower. Today you can, thanks to the work of one man – architect Rémi Rivière – who spearheaded the restoration and drive to open it to the public.
At the beginning of the 15th century, there was a bloody insurrection led by Jean sans Peur (John Without Fear). To seek pardon above for their actions below, the butchers from the local market, Les Halles, who had formed the militia, built a church with the rather unforgettable name “Saint-Jacques de la boucherie” or Saint James of the butchery. As in English, une boucherie (boo-sher-ee) means both a literal butcher’s shop and a brutal attack, so this name simply could not fit better.
The church acquired what was reputed to be a relic from the saint and it marked the beginning of the route for pilgrims on their way to Tours and ultimately Santiago de Compostela. It was this historical connection that led to the tower being classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1998. Another historical tie is that Nicolas Flamel was one of the financial patrons of the church and he was buried here.
Although the church was leveled after the French Revolution, the tower was preserved as part of a deal that allowed the new owners to buy the site for the value of the ruins as construction materials. About all that remains is a chimera (one of those scary-faced carving that people call gargoyles, but they aren’t – gargoyles are drain pipes). The thirteen bells in the tower were all melted during the Revolution.
In the 19th century, the tower was briefly used to make shot for rifles before the city bought it back in 1836 and declared it to be a historic monument. The statue of Saint-Jacques on top dates to this time period. The Second Empire was a time of enormous expansion as whole blocks were leveled to make way for Baron Haussmann’s vision for the city. Instead of being knocked down, as so many buildings were, the tower was placed on a pedestal to keep it at the level of the new street and a park was built around it.
The view from the top is reputed to be one of the best in Paris. If you can, climb those 300 steps before the end of September. Who knows? It may not be open for another 500 years.
Paris: The Novel, by Edward Rutherford
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