Think you know Paris? Ask someone who plays Assassin’s Creed
I’m 65 metres above ground at the top of the towers of the Notre Dame Cathedral, staring out across the Île de la Cité through the protective netting. Despite the summer rain today, there is seemingly no shortage of tourists milling about below and the City of Light looks resplendent in any weather.
I’ve been to Paris quite a few times and I know my way around the main bits, but my teenage son beside me has an even clearer map of the city in his head.
“Over there is the Pantheon,” he points out. “Mirabeau was buried there…. and there’s the Hotel de Ville. Robespierre was shot in there and his brother jumped out the window on the right and broke his legs. They were both guillotined.”How does he know all this? Assassin’s Creed is how. The online game is immensely popular amongst the global teenage gaming community. Essentially, it follows the fortunes of a series of assassins as they find their targets at various points in history. From the Middle East via Renaissance Italy, the Golden Age of Piracy and the American Revolution, the games feature real historical settings and characters and they teach their players an enormous amount about history that they would never retain through conventional school classes.
The latest version Unity is set in Paris. French-based makers Ubisoft have reconstructed accurate detailed interiors of buildings for the first time. For example, their virtual Notre Dame Cathedral took 2 years and over 5,000 man-hours to build. Not as long as the 200 years and countless man-hours the original took to build in the 12th century, but an impressive effort nonetheless.
My son next leads me unerringly down the street to the Sainte Chapelle. Built by the 13th-century King Louis IX (known as Saint Louis) as his own private royal chapel, it has just finished a seven-year dose of restoration and is looking particularly splendid. Downstairs is the Lower Chapel for the servants, inside of which no royal foot has ever set. It has a colourful interior of frescoes – some restored and some original, including the oldest fresco in Paris (it’s down at the end on the left).
Up a short stone flight of stairs, however, is the stunning pièce de résistance: the Upper Chapel, which boasts the single most important collection of mediaeval-era stained glass in the world. There is so much coloured light flooding into its open-plan interior that your eyes tend to ignore what’s on the floor or the walls and simply stare around you at the tall windows that seem to reach into the sky. I’ve never before seen a teenager get so excited about a church.
He points out the spot in the floor below the main altar where (in the game) a trap door opens up just as the assassin falls towards it. I tap the floor with my foot but there’s no sign of a hollow.Almost right next door is the Conciergerie. Like the Sainte Chapelle, it’s another real gem of a building that many visitors to Paris miss completely. Originally built by the saintly mediaeval king to house his royal guard, its eerie interior served as revolutionary court during the Reign of Terror. Innocent citizens were made to sit on straw awaiting swift justice here. The vast majority were found guilty and brought to a room where their last possessions were taken from them. The napes of neck were then shaved, their collars were torn open and they were put on an open cart for the slow final journey to the Guillotine on the Place de la Révolution.
Today, there’s nothing left of the horrific scenes of mass decapitation that took place before a baying crowd on the Place. Instead, the renamed Place de la Concorde contains an Egyptian obelisk at the centre (a heavy piece of booty brought back by Napoleon), around which a constant stream of traffic circulates.
My son was slightly disappointed to not even find a false Guillotine on site so we went onwards to the Pantheon.
This impressive and imposing edifice was originally built as a church but became a secular temple at the time of the Revolution and has remained so pretty much ever since.The interior is like a cathedral with no seating and which features statues dedicated to a variety of French political, scientific and literary heroes. My son was more keen to get to the crypt and he knew exactly where the staircase to it was located.
There are many famous people interred below ground level in the Pantheon, including some revolutionary figures. According to my son, both in real life and in the game, a certain Comte de Mirabeau is buried right at the end of the long burial basement. We made our way through the fascinating tomb site, stopping to have a look at the final resting places of famous names such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire, Marie Curie and Resistance hero Jean Moulin.
When we reached the end, there was no trace of our man – only an information panel in French telling us that he was the first man interred in the vault only to be removed and re-interred 3 years later in 1794. In reality, it was because it was discovered that Mirabeau had had secret dealings with the king while publicly working with the Revolution. In Assassin’s Creed, he is the Grand Master Assassin who is poisoned after a falling out with another assassin.
Over 220 years later, the jury is still out on whether Mirabeau died of natural causes or not and today nobody knows where his body was moved to… Surely a point where fact meets online gaming fiction.
Assassin’s Creed Tour of Paris
Get Yourself There:
We travelled by Aer Lingus. With direct daily flights from Cork and Dublin to Paris Charles-de-Gaulle, the city centre is accessible in about 40 minutes via the RER suburban train service.
We stayed in the Best Western Marais Bastille; a superior-level 3-star establishment with funky décor and a good business-level standard of service, including a fine breakfast, free WiFi, morning papers and use of PC. Nearest metro: Bréguet-Sabin.
For lunch on the Île de la Cité, the simple but understated belle époque interior of Le Petit Plateau (+33.1.44.07.61.86) is matched by a simple and reasonably-priced menu with home-made quiche as the mainstay. The experience is enriched by a view across the Seine to the building that is the Assassin’s hideout in the game.
For dinner, we tried Le Paris just down the street from the hotel on Boulevard Richard Lenoir (+331.47.00.87.47). They do some solid fare; well-presented and inexpensive, with an occasional promotional formula offering starter + mains or mains + dessert for €15.
For a more cosmopolitan location, try Le Hide. Although Japanese owned and run, it excels in traditional French cuisine of the type Maman used to make in a genuinely convivial ambiance. For a situation so close to the Arc de Triomphe, the price is extraordinarily good value.
If you find yourself there on a Friday night, then don’t miss “Pari Roller” for a roller-blade communal tour of Paris by night, weather permitting. All are welcome and the streets are blocked off to accommodate the huge horde of happy roller-bladers that swish trough the City of Light on a course that changes from week to week.
Find out More:
www.parisinfo.com (excellent official Paris tourism site)
www.monuments-nationaux.fr (National Monuments site covering many Parisian sites)