There I was. Up high in a tower overlooking the city of Paris with a stunning view of the Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Up high on a tower where in the years before, barely anyone had climbed up, and yet I was one of the lucky few to be able to make use of an opportunity that had just now arisen within Paris. An opportunity which barely lasted even a few weeks at a time when I was lucky to be in France for. And I was aware that I had embarked on a historical adventure that even my Aunt in France had not thought was possible. I can still remember the confusion on her face when I told her where I was going that day, and a touch of jealousy that she had to go to work and wouldn’t have been able to tag along. It was in that moment in time that I felt like the true Parisian in comparison to my family because I knew for a brief moment more of what was going on in the city than they did. And so there I was, fortunate to be standing on a tower that hadn’t been accessible to the public in many years. A newly renovated Gothic structure with a central view of the city like no other. So which tower was it, and why was it a big deal?
Back in 2014, I decided to make a personal trip to Paris to see my family and take time to go see places I hadn’t before, despite having literally been to Paris 3 years in a row with my friends and brother. Having that year become more involved with languages and the joy they bring (having started studying Japanese at university), I fell back in love with French and wanted to practice more of the language. So on a whim, one evening when I sat on my Aunt’s couch, I decided to do my city research in French, typing into Google looking for tips and tricks on what to do – looking for something new with a culturally rich heritage. And so this on-the-whim search led me to discovering a wonderful website dedicated to bringing to attention little known arts exhibits and historical building tours – Des Mots Et Des Arts. This cultural business had barely just started up, but what I found was truly a pot of gold that gave me information to discover and uncover parts of Paris that I hadn’t known about before. Even now I still subscribe to their monthly emails and always get excited for events I can’t go to due to other commitments. I highly recommend subscribing and using them as a resource for planning trips to the city, and what’s great is that now they also provide information in English. So no need to learn French or make use of limited high school language knowledge like I did!
So as I was doing my research, one particular tour stood out, a tour to climb up the Tour Saint-Jacques, located near to the Notre Dame and the metro station Châtelet. This tower stands alone up high in the square of Tour Saint-Jacques, and is surrounded by trees and a small park. In a way this means it goes somewhat unnoticed, and when you have other big tourist sites nearby, there is very little reason to actually end up in this square. Yet the structure of Gothic architecture is absolutely stunning, and the history this place holds is fascinating. Even if you aren’t able to climb up on the tower, I definitely recommend just visiting this square to take this beautiful structure in.
Now I remember when I arrived and went to the pop-up registration desk having to blag my French and let the attendants know that I’d be fine not really understanding anything. To be honest, I was more in it for getting up high and taking city shots, than learning about the history. After all my French ain’t so great, and back then I had little confidence in understanding the tour so I was prepared to look things up on my own later. However, I actually ended up nicely surprised as I understood about 70% of what was being said, with the remainder being vocab I did not know, but stories which could still be pieced together. So of the little bits I learnt on that tour, I had a great time. It’s a really interesting place to take in, with a rich history and impact on Parisian culture, and I’ll quickly tangent to say, don’t give up seeing a place just because the tour is in a foreign language! You never know, you might be nicely surprised like I was. Anyway so for the history of this place, let’s start off with a fun fact about the square itself. It was the first square of its kind in Paris! For such an unassuming place to hold title to the first square in Paris, how cool is that?! It’s also practically in the center of Paris so every monument or place of significance can be easily seen from atop the tower, making it my favourite high-rise place of the whole city. Now the tower itself was actually financed by the Butcher’s association, and one merchant in particular who pioneered it because he wanted a local and close church to go to. This meant that back in the day this tower actually held church bells of such craftsmanship that they wouldn’t have lost out to those in the Notre Dame. The tower housed a carillon with 12 bells, and was one of the finest sets of church bells within Paris. Unfortunately these bells no longer exist, but the flamboyant Gothic architecture can still be seen. Now this tower was reopened in 2013 after years of restoration work taking place from the 19th century, and is only open for entry June-August, but its history dates back much further than that to the 16th century. Actually the tower is now the remnants of a church which had existed there before, and we are actually fortunate that the tower still exists because during the French revolution it was almost decided that it would be knocked down. Legend has it that it only survived the rampaging of angry French mobs against the clergy because the tower was used by Blaise Pascal to experiment on gravity thereby giving it scientific importance – you’ll find a statue of a scientist at the base of the tower which probably reflects this bit of legend. The area of the square had been turned into a stone quarry in the french revolution in 1797 and that’s when the church was demolished leaving only the tower behind. Go forwards in time by a century and in the 20th century it was used as a weather station by the Municipality of Paris who had bought the place in 1830. And finally, in 2001 it was closed and underwent restoration to become what it is now, an awesome garden square with a picturesque tower to the sky.
The experience of being able to climb this tower is an amazing one that I certainly won’t forget, especially as so few people are able to go up each year. The view from up top is more than worth the 300 or so steps it takes to get there, and really the views of Paris from here are what made this place my favourite destination. So why not follow Des Mots Des Arts to plan your own trip to Tour Saint-Jacques, and of course to see what other special cultural events are taking place.
And thank you for reading another Story Day Saturday post. What did you think about this place’s history? Anywhere else in Paris you would recommend for city views that I don’t already cover in the blog and Instagram posts? Comment down below and let’s share in each other’s top travel tips.
Editor: Leonardo Buter
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