Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The last bastion standing

For nearly 80 years, the city of Paris was protected by thick walls and bastions known as the enceinte de Thiers or the fortifs. Today only one significant element of these fortifications remains standing, although this seems to be more by accident than design. Where is the Bastion n°1 and what purpose does it serve today? 

The history of Paris is marked by an ever-widening ring of protective walls, even if few ever served a practical purpose beyond the collection of taxes and the suppressing of the city's inhabitants. The enceinte de Thiers was the most recent fortification, dating from the middle of the 19th century, although its replacement - the périphérique motorway - still does a pretty good job of separating the city from its suburbs.

These particular fortifications were named after French Prime Minister Adolphe Thiers who launched the construction project in 1841. Paris was still traumatised by the invasion of the Prussians and Russians into the city in 1814, and it was believed that a strong band of stone would prevent such an event occuring again.

The ring was 34km in circumference and included 94 bastions of this type as well as 17 major controlled gateways, several more minor entrance and exit points and sections broken up by railway lines, canals and the river. On the opposite side to Paris, the walls were further protected by a ditch 50 metres wide, and an exclusion zone covering a further 200m. 

This particular bastion was in the town of Bercy alongside the river Seine.

The remaining walls are remarkably well preserved if not the easiest thing to find in Paris, primarily because they stand just alongside the cacophonous Bercy interchange (as the Google Maps image below shows). Motorists - concentrating entirely on trying to avoid other vehicules coming in many unexpected directions from complicated sliproads - rarely notice these walls, and pedestrians simply don't come to this part of Paris. Curiously though there is a bus stop just at the foot of the walls (for the 24, 109 and 111 buses - and even the N32 night bus for those seeking a thrill), although who gets on and off here is not clear.

Most of the Thiers defences were pulled down immediately after the First World War, although longer-range artillery had showed that the walls served little useful purpose as far back as in 1870 (when the Prussian army once again humiliated the city). Following the Commune in 1871 - when the defences were used as points from which to launch attacks on the citizens of Paris - the walls fell into disrepair and the exclusion zones became city slums of temporary wooden huts, camps and cabbage patches.

Whilst most of these fortifications were eventually pulled down and replaced by a ring of social housing, schools and sporting facilities - and in parts the périphérique motorway - this bastion was seemingly overlooked. Indeed, it seems that it even became partially buried, and was only fully dug out again in 1987, by which time the bastion had been declared a protected historic monument.

Visiting today, it seems like a cross between a public park in preparation and a camp for the homeless. Stairways and pathways have recently been added, but up in the bastion the grass is long and the trees offer shelter, even if the noise from the busy road system alongside is incessant.

There are traces of campfires throughout, dotted amongst the strangely aligned trees. The fortifications are obviously still providing defences to fragile and displaced members of society, although the protection is seemingly from the harshness of the city rather than the invading armies from elsewhere. 

It is a population that has always existed on the edges, in unmarked, purposeless spaces. This bastion may soon be transformed into something more traditional - a park with benches and a play area - although who would come to sit in the centre of a motorway system remains to be seen.

It would be a shame to scrub this environment and rinse away its inherent mysteries. Where does the small doorway lead to and what lies beneath the chimney pot that has forced its way though a grass bank?

Protected for many years as a storage space for materials and equipment for nearby construction projects - motorways, warehouses and more recently the tramway - it now seems to be a space in search of a new identity. A camp for the homeless, it also acts as a canvas for artists, although it seems almost a shame to touch these walls.

The construction may have been a monumental waste of money, the conception of a paranoid city and later used as a tool to oppress, but here the walls are also the survivors. Instead of pitching them into ridicule, perhaps we should listen to the stories they have to tell us first.


urbansquares said...

After every post I just wish I am in Paris and going to explore on my own what you are fabulously writing about. One more excellent post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy the way these hidden places are so often right in front of our eyes (or headlights in this case). Always fascinating, thank you.

Adam said...

Anonymous - you've just exactly summed up the concept of the blog!

Peter Olson said...

You have of course the Poterne des Peupliers, some now very visible parts where they are building the new Palace of Justice – and nearby…

Adam said...

Hi Peter, and welcome back!
Yes, there are still other traces of this wall around, but this one for me has a unique atmosphere and is the most complete. It is quite interesting to think that the parts that survived only did so because they had somehow been overlooked or absorbed into other developments. It was not a wall that I think Paris was ever particularly proud of either, and even if it didn't last very long, it has left quite lasting scars.

Carol in Humboldt Co., CA said...

Thank you for uncovering these Parisian treasure mounds. Your writing and your discoveries brighten my day!

Carol in Humboldt Co., CA

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