Monday, March 28, 2011

Place Dauphine

17-century pavilions stand guard over the narrow entrance to Place Dauphine.

Place Dauphine
was laid out in 1609 as part of a city planning project by King Henri IV that included the adjacent Pont Neuf, the oldest surviving bridge in Paris today. The original design was a triangle of three rows of residences, which conformed to the tapering shape of the western extremity of the Île de la Cité.

Two centuries earlier several small islands adjacent to the Île de la Cité had been joined together and filled in, allowing an expansion of the island west of the Conciergerie and Royal Palace. One of these islands, the Île de Juifs, had been where Philippe IV ordered and watched Jacques de Molay burn at the stake in 1314, thus ending the illustrious history of the Knights Templar. This new tract of land became the Jardin du Roi (Garden of the King), later converted to the first botanical garden by Marie de Médicis, the second wife of Henri IV. Their son, the Dauphin (who became Louis XIII), was thus honored when they named this new square after him.

Place Dauphine is shaped like a funnel, and entry is gained through a narrow opening between two striking pavilions built of brick with limestone quoins, which face the bridge and an equestrian statue of Henri IV, the centerpiece of the Place du Pont-Neuf. Once entry is gained, Place Dauphine opens up in a triangular shape, where two angled sides flank a small grassless park. Locals often play petanque, a form of lawn bowling, under the canopy of trees.

The eastern edge of Place Dauphine was later demolished to open the square to the façade of the Palais de Justice, ruining the original intimate design. This mistake was later diminished by the planting of a double row of trees along the footprint of the line of razed buildings, thereby screening off the somewhat pompous Palais de Justice.

Few tourists penetrate Place Dauphine, which provides an oasis of calm from traffic noise and city activity, even though a small hotel and several restaurants line the perimeter. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret made Place Dauphine their lifelong home.

On the other side of the Pont Neuf sits an equestrian statue of Henri IV, who appears ready to trot into Place Dauphine. Next to the statue are steps that descend down to the needle shaped Square du Vert Galant, a grassy expanse lined with willow trees that divides the two spans of the Pont Neuf. It's often described as a pointed "tongue" that sticks out into the Seine. From this choice spot tourists can view the river from the original level of the Île de la Cité, which has risen more than 2o feet over the centuries, as new buildings and streets were built atop foundations of older ones.

This little square also pays homage to Henri IV, a notorious philanderer. Its name, Square du Vert Galant, means "randy youth." It is said that Henri fathered 70 children before an assassin stabbed him while his carriage was stuck in traffic. Henri was a wildly popular ruler, and his equestrian statue was put up just four years after his death, a remarkable tribute.

Two views of the prow-shaped Square du Vert Galant