From Prison To Opera House – 11 Surprising Things About The Bastille

It was once a dreaded prison, now it's only a column. On July 14, 1789, 633 angry French citizens stormed the Bastille in Paris (a prison somewhat equivalent to the Tower of London), capturing its munitions, releasing its seven prisoners, lynching the governor and demolishing the fortress. This was the dramatic start of the French Revolution.

"Place" is the French word for plaza or square.

Yes, there were only seven prisoners! But the Bastille prison tower was a symbol of tyranny. The monument that stands today in the center of the Place de la Bastille commemorates not the original French Revolution, but another, later, revolution.


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1. The Bastille Column

the Bastille in Paris

The Bastille Column has nothing to do with the French Revolution of 1789

The Colonne de Juillet was erected at the former location of the Bastille prison as a monument to another revolution that took place in 1830. In this so-called July Revolution, which lasted only three days, the French absolute monarchy was finally overthrown.

It was during this revolution — called la Trois Glorieuses — that the French monarchy was finally overthrown.

French king Charles X abdicated on August 2, 1830 and a constitutional monarchy was instituted. The current column stands as a symbol of liberty and a memorial to those who took part.

It's made of heavy cast drums and includes an interior spiral staircase. Names of Parisians who died during the 1830 revolution are engraved in gold on the column. Atop the column is the god Mercury astride a gilded globe.

2. Bastille Day

The Bastille in 1420

Most Bastille Day activities do not take place at Place de la Bastille.

In France, Le Quatorze Juillet (Bastille Day, July 14) is celebrated with parades, fireworks and dances, but few of them take place at Place de la Bastille. The Bastille Day military parade actually starts from the Arc de Triomphe, then follows a route along Champs Elyées to Place de la Concorde. Fireworks take place in the evening on and around the Eiffel Tower.

But the place is the site of parades and demonstrations throughout the rest of the year. Because of its connection with (capital-L Liberty, Place de la Bastille is the center of political action in Paris when it takes to the streets with protests, speeches, and political rallies.

3. Opera de la Bastille

A Performance at Opera de la Bastille

The modern opera house at Place de la Bastille is a building with plenty of intrigue.

Exactly 200 years after the famous riot that started the French Revolution, this landmark opera house was inaugurated in 1989 by President Mitterrand. Today, it is the main opera house of Paris, and one of the largest in Europe. It is not, however, without controversy.

Some initial attendees complained about the acoustics, other people complained about the Burgundian stones falling off the sides of the building. Complain as they might, but every seat at the Opéra Bastille offers an unrestricted view of the stage and every seat is almost always filled.

Some folks prefer the ornate and luminous decoration of the more traditional Palais Garnier, the former opera house now used mostly for dance. It seems that although the French stormed the Bastille at some level they prefer the old-fashioned approach. See for yourself. Today the Opera Bastille is home to many operas and ballets.


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4. The French Revolution Walking Tour

The French Revolution walking Tour in Paris

You can relive the events of the French Revolution on this historical Paris walk, as you visit the sites of that historic era, including the Bastille, and learn about its fascinating history, like the capture of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI.

Post-lockdown, this activity is available as a private tour, for just you and your group. Learn more at the link below.

Bastille – More of the History & Lore

Bastille fotress in 1420

5. Not intended as a prison. The Bastille was originally built as a fortress to defend the city of Paris from the English threat during the Hundred Years' War. Work began on 1370. (Illustration shows Bastille fortress in 1420.)

6. Instead of battling the English, as was intended, the Bastille experienced a lot of internal French conflict, with wars between Burgundians and Armagnacs, and the religious wars of the 16th century.

7. More fortress than prison, it wasn't until 1659 that the Bastille was used as a state penitentiary. Most of the inmates were the upper class who disagreed with Louis XIV.

8. When the Bastille was built in the 13th century it was admired and copied as a modern, powerful fortification that pioneered important such advances as four sets of drawbridges.

7 More Secret Truths

9. Contrary to popular belief, the conditions for prisoners in the Bastille were exceptional. The Marquis de Sade arrived with an elaborate wardrobe, artwork, tapestries, perfumes, servants, a small library, card games, and a selection of wine.

10. The Bastille prison wasn't destroyed in a day. It took the work of a committee and months of debate to dismantle it. So, it wasn't until November 1789 that the prison was destroyed.

11. In 1793 a revolutionary fountain with a statue of Isis (which you've probably never heard about, but can be seen in the illustration above) was built on the former site of the fortress/prison and the square was forever after known as the the Place de la Bastille.

Bonus Secret. There is absolutely no evidence of torture at the Bastille. Remember the Marquis de Sade with his servants, library & wine collection? Torture? — just didn't happen.


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Cruise the Seine, the Canals… and UNDER the Bastille

Seine River Cruise and Paris Canals

Did you know that you can take a slow boat ride on the canals built by the Napoleons and pass right underneath Place de la Bastille? Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the construction of Canal St Martin and associated waterways. Half a century later his nephew, Napoleon III, modernized Paris, including sending part of this famous waterway underground!

You board a special canal boat in northeast Paris at Parc de la Villette, pass through a large artificial pond and then the boat enters a tunnel and passes right under Place de la Bastille before finally emerging into the Seine. (Some of the cruises go the other way, starting in the Seine and ending at Villette.) It's unusual, fun, and surprisingly relaxing!

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