It had been our plan the day before to visit the Conciergerie, the infamous prison used to house those awaiting their fate at the Guillotine, but alas due to food poisoning we decided to hold fire on it. So the next morning, with my partner feeling much better, we decided to finish off our visit to Paris by visiting the remaining places we wanted to go to. First on the list? The Conciergerie. I’d been stupidly excited about visiting the prison since we first booked our holiday – perhaps that’s morbid, but I was utterly fascinated to see the place that was known as the Guillotine’s waiting room, and the place in which Marie Antoinette spent her final hours.
So off we went, hopping off the Metro at the Louvre – Rivoli and walking the rest of the way. We wandered across the Seine before heading past the intimating walls of the Palais de Justice (which was once the Palais de la Cite) before disappearing down the steps into the murky world of the prison.
You immediately find yourself in a large, vaulted hall at the end of which is a display from visiting school children about their visits to the museum. Up a small flight of stairs to the left (behind the bars in the background of the above photograph) you find yourself in a small bookshop and it’s beyond the shop that the visit truly begins.
Guided through, you first of all come to what look like cells. These are in fact what were considered offices – one of which, although a reconstruction, would have been a tiny little room in which prisoners were brought before they were taken out to the cart that took them to their death. In that little room, their hair was hacked off and their hands tied.
You are then led up a flight of stairs and into a room that is covered in a list of names, sombrely lit with strip lighting above the panelling.
I think the name speaks for itself. But it was quite eerie to sit on one of the benches in that room and see all those names – including famous names such as Capet (as the Royal family were known after their titles were taken away) and Robespierre.
Further upstairs you then get to see reconstructions of some of the cells that prisoners were kept in during the Revolution.
But even if you did have the money the likelihood was that when the prison was as overcrowded as it was during much of the Revolution and the Terror, the living conditions would have been horribly unsanitary. The smells that must have lingered about the place don’t even bare thinking about.
The next part of the visit takes you through a display of documents from the Revolution and the Terror, many of which were signed by Maximillian Robespierre himself as well as drawings and portraits of some of the victims sent to the scaffold.
You are then taken down a small staircase and into a large chapel. Behind the altar is a small room – this was originally the cell in which Marie Antoinette was imprisoned before her execution until it was remodelled into a smaller chapel. Today, it houses a little alter with later paintings of Marie Antoinette hung above it as well as memorials to her husband and her sister in law. I was particularly struck by the beautiful stained glass in her window which overlooks the courtyard outside.
We sat on one of the pews in the main chapel for a while after being inside Marie Antoinette’s chapel and I found myself feeling a little emotional. This was the place that the one time Queen of France spent her last 72 days. Yet in those last days she kept her strength and dignity, going to the scaffold with courage and bravery despite so much heartache in her short life.
I found the Conciergerie to be an incredibly moving place. To think that this prison is where thousands of people waited to be taken to their deaths is just mind blowing – and it’s not really somewhere you yourself can imagine being. Even if you have the most vivid of imaginations. I was moved and I was humbled to have gotten to visit this place, and it’s somewhere I would like to go back to.
After we left the Conciergerie, we hopped back on the Metro and took ourselves off to the Place de la Concorde. I wanted to visit here because this is the site that once held one of the main guillotine’s during the Revolution, the very one at which Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette lost their lives. Today, the square is full of traffic and tourists so it’s hard to even imagine the blood that was spilled there.
We rounded off our trip, and indeed our holiday, with a walk to the Eiffel tower (we were going to go up it, but found the queues to be far too long – so instead settled on a quaint little cafe for a bit of chocolate cake.