A hop-on / hop-off tour of Paris’ top squares
The meaning: Place = Square
Designed and erected over the centuries, Paris’ squares have become the stages of the city’s living memory. These huge “platforms” adding to the charm and harmony of urban space often take many different forms – from tokens of Parisian urbanism uniting avenues and boulevards to closed and calm refuges hidden away from the noise; from places of charm reflecting the history of a district to tiny squares, bearing the spirit of old Paris with its historic cafés and boutiques; from pretty belvederes watching over the marvels of the city to simple intersections honoring personalities from the world of art, science or politics… With more than 365 squares (and a list still expanding), the city of Paris showcases its squares ostentatiously, like a general proudly wearing the honorary medals on his full dress uniform…
A major contributor to the feeling of spaciousness, the huge number of public spaces interspersed throughout the city allows the visitor the chance to flee their urban surroundings and imagine themselves as the actor in a play set in a Paris of times long past… In this invitation to a historical and architectural journey, sightseers can take a walk through the magical extravaganza of Paris’ squares and hear the echo of their past.
The cultural difference:
In French, the word “square” stands to describe a small urban green space not large enough to be called a “parc” (where fields of grass are prevalent) or a “bois” (a green space with a more forest-like appearance). Following the pattern established in other European languages, such as Spanish (“plaza”), German (“platz”) or Italian (“piazza”), the French word “place”, on the other hand, is used to describe an English speaker’s equivalent for a “square”. In a nutshell, the French “square” will definitely not be called “a square” in English in contrast to the French “place” which would match an Anglophone’s definition of a “square” pretty accurately.
The largest one:
Designed in 1755, Place de la Concorde is Paris’ largest square. Initially named Place Louis XV to honor the sovereign of the time, the square was renamed “Place de la Révolution” during the French Revolution. The guillotine was later erected here and it was on this square that King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were decapitated. Renamed Place de la Concorde in 1795 as a sign of reconciliation after the mayhem caused by the French Revolution, the square is now famous for the giant Egyptian obelisk which once marked the entrance to Egypt’s Luxor Temple. In 1836, King Louis Philippe had it placed where the guillotine used to stand during the Revolution. In 2000 French urban climber Alain “Spiderman” Robert, climbed the obelisk all the way to the top, using only his bare hands and no safety devices.
The oldest one:
Built by Henry IV to celebrate the wedding of Louis XIII and Anne of Austria, Place des Vosges is Paris’ oldest and classiest square. Located in the Marais district, this early 17th century chef-d’oeuvre was the prototype of all future European residential squares. What was different about it back then were its pretty identical red brick house fronts built over vaulted arcades erected on square pillars. If you were to walk the square’s surrounding galleries today, you would pass by Victor Hugo’s ex-home, a number of fine art galleries, a few restaurants and a bunch of musicians who please the crowds with their melodies…
The curious fact:
Honoring the memory of sculptor Pigalle, the famously “kinky” Place Pigalle created in 1827 and located just at the foot of Montmartre was famous for its “models’ fair” where painters used to seek inspiration and hunt for models – an institution which disappeared in 1910.
Not to be missed:
Looking for a truly unique square? Then how about going for something hidden, rare and “triangular” (Place Dauphine)? For a really cozy one, enjoy the cheerful village-like charm of Marais’ Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine, a preferred hub for chilling out and having a drink under the Chinese mulberry trees. Known as “the jewelers’ square”, Place Vendôme is the center of Parisian fashionable life and one of the city’s poshest locations famous for its deluxe hotels such as the Ritz. If it’s an animated spot you’re after, the pretty roundabout of Place de la Contrescarpe should be the one for you. This square, formed in 1852, is the epicenter of a very animated quarter which hosts many cafés famous for the artists who once picked them out as their favourite haunts. You are in an artsy mood? You can’t go wrong with Montmartre’s eternal classic Place du Tertre (“the square on the hill”) where art is always in the air with all the aquarelles, melodies, live shows and the simple joie de vivre which saturates the creative feel of the square…