Making Sens of it all

Being from the UK, it’s fair to say I’m a big fan of a sturdy ol’ stately home, practically dripping in history and tales of yore. France, of course, is a veritable castle-sized library of chateaux, with thousands of stone masterpieces dotted throughout the landscape in various states of repair. Paris, as we sometimes discover though, does have some glaring holes in her CV, and a lack of castles is one of them. At least when it comes to remaining in the forcefield that is the péripherique; visiting chateaux Vincennes and Versailles mean bravely stepping outside the city limits to get your history fix, and us capital dwellers know just how much of a scary prospect that is.

Head to the 4ème though (1 Rue de Figuier, metro Pont Marie or Saint-Paul), and you’ll find medieval pile Hôtel de Sens will more than indulge any castle-y desires one could harbour. Translation trickery might lead you to believe you could spend a night sleeping in the lord’s private chamber, but hôtel in this case refers to its original status as a hôtel particulier or private mansion. But long gone are the days of the Gallic dukes, and the building now houses something way, way more valuable – books a-plenty as it’s now home to the Forney art library.

Not quite an authentic brick-by-brick medieval original, though a hôtel of sorts has existed on the site since 1345, when the first building was conceived as a private residence for the Archbishop of Sens (a city 100km south-east of Paris). Later to be inhabited by kings, it was destroyed after Team Royalty preferred to hot-foot it to the Louvre, but a replacement appeared in the late 15th/early 16th century.

Playing host to aristocrats galore for a hundred years (most famously Margaret of Valois who sensationally abandoned husband Henry IV of France), its golden hour came to end when Paris became an archdiocese in 1622, and the religious folks from Sens weren’t so inclined to make the trip. The revolution plunged it into much darker times when it was confiscated by the state, and years of neglect pushed it into a state of disrepair. It was only in 1862 when it became officially protected, and its progressive decay was addressed, being properly restored in 1930.

Unlike many of the classic stone behemoths of the motherland, having a poke around inside to see four-poster beds of old delightfully demonstrated by scary starey mannequins, isn’t the go here. Unless the library is hosting one of its small occasional exhibitions, you’ll have to make do with the outside, and amuse yourself with turrets and knot gardens instead. But luckily it’s on the outer walls where there are a couple of gems to be seen, if you look hard enough.

Head to the front door (non-garden side) and cast your eyes above the heavy iron gates, and locate the hole-come-chute. Pigeon cubby? Unfortunate design oversight? Nope. As legend has it, this handy channel was used in the event of unwanted guests, when hot oil was poured down it onto their heads to shoo them away. Drastic, but efficient I can imagine.

And they were right to assume the building would be under siege, cast your eyes up and to the left (just to the right of the turret where the wall meets the roof) and you’ll hopefully spot a cannonball wedged in the wall, a remnant of the July revolution or (2nd French Revolution) of 1830, with the date dutifully engraved underneath. Hard to know if it was a decent shot or not… For those less inclined to ponder on violent histories, the gardens round the other side make a lovely spot for a moment of calm contemplation, or at least a nice spot for a jambon beurre. Chance of attack in 2019 happily greatly reduced.

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