Let’s continue our philatelic visit of the streets of Paris. For this second episode of the series I have chosen, not a street, but a place, which is located at one of the extremities of Boulevard Arago that I presented last time. This place, located in the 14th arrondissement, is probably more famous among tourists who visit Paris than the boulevard because it is an important crossing point in public transport. It is called Place Denfert-Rochereau, in tribute to Colonel Pierre Philippe Denfert-Rochereau.
Who is Pierre Philippe Denfert-Rochereau?
Pierre Marie Philippe Aristide Denfert-Rochereau was born in 1823. After graduating from the Ecole Polytechnique he started a military career. In 1870 he was nominated governor in Belfort, a city located in the east of France. During the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, he led a heroic resistance in Belfort during 103 days against the enemy. He finally surrendered on the 18th of February 1871 following the order from the French government.
Recognized as a national hero, he was later elected as a deputy and died in 1878.
One of the plates indicating the name of the place
Place Denfert-Rochereau is a wide place and is the intersection of several large boulevards including Boulevard Arago that I described in the first article of the series. The place received the name Denfert-Rochereau in 1879, one year after the death of the Colonel. It was previously called Place d’enfer (Hell’s place) and was the location of the “Barrière d’enfer” (Hell’s gate), a gate where, a long time ago, you had to pay taxes when bringing goods into the city.
(In the past, the area located on the south side of the place was not actually Paris, but Montrouge (the city were I live!). Paris has expended, and Montrouge has shrunk, but this area is sometimes still referred as the little Montouge.
It is interesting to note the phonetic similarity between the old and new names of the place (“d’enfer” and Denfert-Rochereau); I guess this is not by pure accident that this place was chosen to pay tribute to the Colonel, the hero of the 1870 war.
One of the first things that you notice when you go to the Place Denfert-Rochereau is the statue of a lion, located just in the center. This statue is a replica of a larger sculpture called “The lion of Belfort” located in Belfort. This status was realized by Frédéric Bartholdi (yes the same one than the Bartholdi who realized the statue of liberty that is in New York!) as a tribute to victims of the 1870 war and a tribute to the resistance organized by the Colonel Denfert-Rochereau.
It is said that Barthodli took inspiration from the Egyptian Sphinx to realize his statue. One funny thing to be noticed is that there is no tongue in the opened mouth of the lion.
The replica is in copper and is one third of the size of the original statue. It was also realized by Bartholdi and installed in Paris in 1880.
On the pedestal of the statue you can see a medallion that pictures a portrait of Philippe Denfert-Rochereau. The Parisian version of the Lion of Belfort has been renovated in 2001. I remember very well when they removed the statue from the pedestal to have it cleaned and repaired, and when they put it back. It was rather impressive.
Another replica of the same lion exists in Dorchester square, Montréal, Canada!
Also located in the center of the place, there are two buildings that are the remaining parts of the former Hell’s gate. One of the buildings is famous among tourists, since this is the official entry of the Catacombs of Paris.
The Catacombs of Paris are the famous underground ossuary in Paris, located in the former quarries of Paris. Even though the cemetery actually covers only a small section of the underground tunnels, we often refer to the entire networks as the catacombs. The ossuary was created in 1786 when it was decided to move bones from the largest Parisian cemetery (Les Innocents cemetery) that was saturated to a point where its neighbors were suffering from disease due to contamination caused by improper burials. In the 19th century the catacombs were open to the public on a regular basis. This is still a famous touristic attraction if I rely on the huge queues I can see in front of the entrance during the touristic period. I remember having visited them once, when I was a small kid, and I was really impressed by the number of skulls and bones that you could see there! A very strange place, very impressive.
Denfert-Rochereau is also the name of the tube station which is located under the place. This is a crossing point between two important tube lines (line 4 and line 6). This is also a railway station for the local express train (called RER). If you ever came from Roissy Cahrles De Gaulle airport with the train (B line of the RER) you have stopped at Denfert-Rochereau! This is the oldest railway station of Paris still in use; it was inaugurated on the 23rd of June 1846
Starting from the place and going further towards Port Royal, there is also an avenue that bears the name of Denfert-Rochereau.
The stamp that I showed at the beginning of this post was issued on the 16th of November 1970 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the siege of Belfort. It pictures a portrait of Colonel Denfert-Rochereau and the Lion of Belfort.
The Lion of Belfort first appeared on a stamp issued on the 1st of August 1917, a stamp bearing surtax for the war orphans. Other versions of the same stamp have been issued later (1922 and 1927) with and without surcharge.