Paris News

Stroll through Paris: Nation Square & Picpus Cemetery

This is the 26th installment in a captivating series of walking tours uncovering the hidden gems and historical tales of different districts in Paris. Stepping out of the metro station at Place de la Nation, I was immediately struck by the vast roundabout with numerous exit routes, a scene that confirmed my decision to never attempt driving in Paris. Yet, beneath the surface, there was a richness waiting to be explored, hinted at by the square’s intriguing past names: Throne Square and The Square of the Upturned Throne. The prominent statue of Marianne at the center serves as a poignant reminder of the transition from monarchy to the core French principle of la République.

The origins of the square trace back to June 1660 when Louis XIV sought to make a grand entrance into the city with his new bride. While plans for a grand arch were never realized, a nod to the square’s royal history can be found at Avenue du Trône, where statues of 13th-century monarchs preside over the road. Fast forward to 1841 when Louis-Philippe reinstated monarchic statues in an attempt to assert royal authority. However, it’s Marianne, the symbol of the Republic, who now commands the square, gazing towards the historic Place de la Bastille where the Revolution ignited.

The Triumph of the Republic statue, erected in 1889, embodies the ideals of the Revolution with its symbolic figures representing work, the nation’s future, justice, and abundance. The square’s renaming to Place de la Nation came as part of a wave of republican gestures during an era that embraced the tricolore and mandated the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité on public buildings. Unsurprisingly, Place de la Nation has become a focal point for protests and demonstrations, echoing its revolutionary roots.

Delving deeper into the square’s history unveils a darker chapter from the Reign of Terror. The former Place du Trône witnessed horrific executions, with Robespierre’s ruthless campaign culminating in over 1300 lives lost in a matter of weeks. The nearby Picpus Cemetery serves as a somber reminder of these tragic events, where victims were laid to rest in mass graves after facing the guillotine.

Venturing into Picpus Cemetery revealed a poignant narrative of sacrifice, bravery, and remembrance. From nobles to commoners, each tomb told a unique story of lives lost during the tumultuous times of the Revolution. Names from illustrious families intertwined with tales of heroism and tragedy, including the resting place of Marquis de Lafayette, forever linked to the American War of Independence.

The cemetery’s walls whispered tales of resilience as visitors paid tribute to the Carmelite nuns and other victims. A walk through the grounds, past worn tombstones and forgotten memorials, painted a haunting picture of the atrocities buried within these hallowed grounds.

As I concluded my solemn journey through this historic site, I couldn’t help but reflect on the shadows of the past that still linger in this corner of Paris. Each grave, each plaque, stood as a testament to the enduring memory of those who faced unimaginable trials and tribulations over two centuries ago.

Lead photo credit: Panoramic view of the Place de la Nation. Credit: Francoise de Gandi / Wikimedia commons

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