You might easily mistake this inconspicuous stairway for the entrance to an underground parking garage — which, in fact, is what it was originally meant to be.
Here where the ancient Romans lived, worked and bathed from the first to the fourth centuries AD, here where tens of thousands of people lived in the Middle Ages, close to where the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris was built starting in 1163 AD, here where the authorities in the 19th century had already destroyed hundreds of buildings and displaced their inhabitants, the authorities in the 20th century came up with a typical 20th century plan — to build an underground parking garage for automobiles!
Not everyone thought this was a good idea, however, so as a compromise archeologist were allowed seven years, from 1965 to 1972, to excavate the site and see if there was still anything worth keeping. What they found were the remains of foundations and vestiges of buildings which were constructed between the Gallo-Roman period and the 18th century.
To the annoyance of the automotive lobbies, it was decided to preserve some of these archeological remains and roof them over, forming a pedestrian zone at ground level and a crypt underneath. This was done in 1974, and in 1980 the crypt was opened to the public.
The car-lovers also got their parking garage, however, so now their sacred vehicles can be parked adjacent to the remains of buildings from many centuries. When future archeologists re-discover fragments of these vehicles thousands of years from now, I wonder what theories they will come up with.
Although only a fraction of the original foundations still exist, the effect on us non-archeologists is quite overwhelming. Fortunately, the curators have provided labels, signs and models to help us understand which remains are from which centuries, and what the buildings were used for in various epochs. Also there are audio-guides available in three languages, French, English and Spanish.
There are also large wall posters (though these may change from time to time) explaining the development of the city through various epochs. This one shows a bird’s-eye view of Lutèce, which the Romans called Lutetia, as it was being transformed into Paris in the fourth century AD. To the right in the picture is the Roman arena, which has now been partly reconstructed and is known (in the plural, for some reason) as Les Arènes de Lutèce. Also visible on the right is a small river called the Bièvre (= Beaver), which is now buried in tunnels for its entire course within the city of Paris.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2020.
See more posts on the Island of the Cité in Paris.