The Place du Châtelet is a historic square in the heart of Paris at the site of a former fortress, the Grand Châtelet. The square is flanked on either side by a theatre.
Located on the border of the first and fourth arrondissements of Paris, Place du Châtelet sits on the right bank of the River Seine.
The public square stands on the land that was once the site of the medieval fortress of Grand Châtelet. The fortress was built around 1130 by King Louis VI at the Pont au Change (a bridge) to defend the Île de la Cité, Paris’s historic center.
Later, under the rule of Phillippe-Auguste in the twelfth century, the fortress became one of the city’s most dreaded prisons and home to the Prévôté (provost marshal) of Paris, a sub-division of the tribunal, presided over by the Bailli, a representative of the king. It is said that some of the worst tortures known to mankind were inflicted upon prisoners at this facility.
The area around the fortress was one of the city’s most dangerous and criminality was rampant in the neighborhood. During the rule of Napoleon, in the year 1808, the whole neighborhood including the Grand Châtelet was destroyed in an attempt to eradicate the criminality. After the area was cleared, the idea for a public square was devised and carried out.
Upon approaching Place du Châtelet, the first thing one will notice is the large fountain that sits in the center. Known as the Palmier Fountain, it was built in 1808 and erected to pay homage to Napoleon’s victory in Egypt. A golden winged figure sits atop the column in the center of the fountain and a number of sphinxes surround it, each commemorating a famous battle, including the Siege of Danzig (1807, Prussia), the Battle of Ulm (1805, Austria), the Battle of Marengo (1800, Italy), the Battle of the Pyramids (1798, Egypt), and the Battle of Lodi (1796, Italy).
On either side of the Place du Châtelet sits a theatre. The first, Théâtre du Châtelet, is reserved for music and dance and has been host to myriad operatic and ballet productions and, more recently, a number of popular Broadway-style musicals.
In contrast, the Théâtre de la Ville, which sits on the other side of the square, is dedicated to theatrical performances, both classic and contemporary. This theatre was once owned by actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was born and died in Paris and lived much of her life there.
The two theatres were designed by the French architect Jean-Antoine-Gabriel Davioud, and built around 1862 in an effort to attract more upper-class people to the area. The two buildings are almost mirror images of each other.
It’s quite easy to reach the Place du Châtelet as underneath this public square lies one of the largest transportation stations in Paris, with five metro lines and three RER lines all converging under the square.