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Paris is a remarkable city for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that everyday, in every section of the city, you can walk by centuries old buildings and never know the history that lies inside its walls. As I prepare to move back to the US and settle in Boston I find myself explaining to my European friends that Boston is the most European of all the cities in the US, there is a lot of history there. The words always leave my mouth before I realize how silly that must sound to people who live in a city that has buildings dating back to the 1100’s. The city would probably house even older structures if the majority of it had not been razed by Haussmann and Napoleon III in the late 1800’s.

The Hotel de Sens is one of these buildings that you could walk past a thousand times and never realize the rich history and stories it has to tell. Built in 1474 it was given to Marguerite de Valois after her divorce from Henry IV. Originally it was the medieval residence of the Archbishop of Sens. In the back of the building is a lovely little garden with beautiful roses and a wonderful place to bring a book and relax, or you think this until you hear how Margot put this garden to use. Margot was known for having numerous love affairs – her last ending with the beheading of the Count of Vermond in the above mentioned garden after he killed one of her other lovers in a fit of rage. The Hotel de Sens now houses a library but little is left of the original interior. It is definitely worth a walk by, however, and a peak in the gardens where the poor count lost his head.

More famous than the Hotel de Sens but still frequently overlooked by visitors to Paris is the Place des Vosges. The Place de Vosges, as Ina Caro points out, could be considered “the first urban renewal project in Paris.” Once the religious wars came to an end Henry sat down with his financial adviser and learned the country was 3 million livres in debt. He decided that he would introduce silk manufacturing to France and built the Place de Vosges to be the headquarters of this new industry. Once the structure was built, however, it quickly became apparent that more money could be made by renting out its apartments as the Marais district then, like now, was the fashionable place to live. In addition to his many affairs Henry IV is also credited with the beautification of Paris. He is also responsible for building Pont Neuf (New Bridge) which is ironic seeing as it is the oldest bridge in Paris. If you can imagine it the bridges crossing the Seine were originally covered with shops and homes. This was the first bridge built in Paris for the sole purpose of transport. So, while the Place des Vosges did not house Henry’s dream of bringing the heart of the silk industry to France it did succeed in housing aristocrats and more importantly in being one of the most beautiful buildings in Paris.

No visit to Paris is complete without a trip to the jardin du Luxembourg. It is said of a lot of parks that they are an urban oasis and Luxembourg is no exception. Its beautifully laid out flowers, trees, fountains and statues are well worth the several hours you could spend here. The ample seating (with accompanying footstools) makes it a fantastic place on a sunny day to just go sit with a book and get lost in the story on the pages or the stories unfolding around you as what seems like all of Paris wanders by. Throughout the garden you will see a large palace, the Luxembourg Palace, built in 1611 by Marie de Medici (Henry IV’s widow) to resemble the Pitti Palace in her native Florence. Marie added land to her already sumptuous gardens surrounding the palace creating the present day space. The palace at Luxembourg is now home to the French senate.

These three visits in Paris are all connected to Henry IV and his vision of making Paris the most beautiful city in the world. Personally, I think he succeeded. Sadly, Henry was assassinated on May 14, 1610 in his carriage while stuck in a traffic jam (yes, even then Paris was known for its traffic). Henry was a Protestant and his assassin was a Catholic fanatic.

We are coming to the end of our time in the Renaissance and Reformation of France. Our next stop at La Rochelle will bridge us into the 17th Century and the Age of Louis XIV, the Sun King.

Next Stop – La Rochelle