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On the Line 5 platform going to Bobigny travelers can still see remains of the eastern moat of Bastille prison, destroyed on July 14, 1789 and replaced with an elephant – also destroyed, in 1846.
The Bastille, a fortress built between 1370 and 1383 to defend the city’s Saint-Antoine entrance, acted as both a stronghold and arsenal. Originally composed of four towers, it was later fortified and had eight in 1789. Today, special paving on the ground at Place de la Bastille indicates the former location of the fortress, which was 66 meters long, 34 meters wide and 24 meters high. The moat surrounding it was filled by the Seine river.
Over the centuries, the Bastille was used as a reception hall, an arsenal, a royal treasury, and lastly a prison which could only hold 45 people at a time. Important people, aristocrats and rich bourgeois inmates received special treatment: they were given several rooms, fine meals, servants, and could receive guests. Among those held, for a time, was the great writer and philosopher Voltaire. Poor inmates, however, were held in awful cells, sometimes chained, and depended on public charity for food, which most often consisted of bread and soup.
A symbol of royal power, the Bastille was seized on several occasions, including the Day of the Barricades in 1588 and in 1649 during the Fronde civil wars. Its end finally came on July 14, 1789. The day the Bastille fell, which became France’s national holiday, marked a decisive moment in the French Revolution, as important then as the fall of the Berlin Wall two centuries later. The attack was led by the people of Paris to commandeer the gunpowder held there and free seven prisoners. An entrepreneur by the name of Palloy oversaw the demolition of the structure. Some of the stone was sold as souvenirs. Models were also made, some of which are on display today at the Musée Carnavalet. One year later, Palloy held a party to celebrate both the takeover and the Federation: among the ruins, under a tent, a banner read “Here, we dance” – the first of many July 14th fireman’s balls!
During construction of the Line 1 metro in 1900, remains of the badly-named Freedom Tower were unearthed and relocated in Henri-Galli square, where they can still be seen today. Remnants of the counterscarp on the ditch are still visible on the platform of Line 5.
Original plans to erect a column in honor of freedom in Place de la Bastille were replaced with... a guillotine. In 1808, Napoleon commissioned the creation of a gigantic bronze elephant for the square, but only a life-size plaster model was ever made and installed in its center, in 1833. It is here that Victor Hugo’s fictional character Gavroche from Les Misérables finds shelter.
The July Column was built in 1840 to commemorate the overthrow of Charles X on July 28-30, 1830. Gavroche is said to be seen certain nights, hiding among the stones, reciting lines written by his creator. Or so it’s said...