One should never judge a book by its cover. Despite its modern aspect by the Seine, the district of Bercy witnessed a unique and festive history that still echoes today.
Some very ancient pirogues
Try to imagine : In Bercy a man standing on a canoe is about to harpoon a fish. He stumbles, falls in the water and his boat sinks in the swamp. This probably isn’t just antasy ! In 1991, construction work in Bercy uncovered ancient pirogues and a bow dating from 6 500 years ago. These artefacts are among the oldest ever found in the Paris area and are now conserved within the collections of the Musée Carnavalet.
Later on, in the days of the Gaul and Romans the area was still covered with swamps and mostly uninhabited.
According to the legend, the origin of the name “Bercy” comes from an island located on the estuary of the river Seine called “Belsinaca” where Celtic tribes established some huts, circa 850. They abandoned their island to escape to the Normans and made a stop near the Parisiis, our Parisians ancestors.
From Percy to Bercy
In the 12th century, the name of Bercy – then wrote Percy – is officially quoted as “Insula Berciliis” in a donation act from Louis VI to the monks of the Abbey de Montmartre.
It is then mentioned in 1172 to name a new seigneury : the barn of “Bercix”. Yet the final spelling will only be established in 1415 to describe the “Seigneurie de Bercy”, a domain belonging to the Montmorency family.
This fiefdom successively hosted fortifications, leisure accommodations for nobility, until the construction of a magnificent castle in the 17th century. This château was the property of Charles Henry de Malon, lord of Bercy and Colbert’s grand-nephew. Although nothing remains of the building today, it was described as a splendid palace designed by Le Vau, with terrace gardens on the Seine banks drawn by Le Nôtre; almost matching Versailles.
the sun king’s will
The destiny of Bercy took a turn in 1704, when Louis 14th came to attend a mass in Notre Dame de Bercy. As the ceremony was going by, the king suddenly noticed someone standing among the kneeling crowd. This was a crime of high treason! The standing man was immediately brought to the king to meet his judgement… until everyone realized the man, giant-like, was in fact kneeling all along.
After the mass, the giant – known according to the legend as Martin, a wine-grower from Burgundy – used this unique occasion to meet the Sun King, and to complain about the taxes preventing him from selling his wine. Amused by the entire situation, the king released Bercy from the main tax, the “octroi”, to enable Martin’s wine business to prosper.
The first wine cellar of Bercy was born.
Perfectly located along the Seine – one of the main transport route from Burgundy – Bercy became the entitled district for wine merchants.
The world’s largest wine market
After the Revolution, the number of wine cellars increased and the district was reorganized by Violet le Duc in 1878 to become the “Entrepôts de Bercy” ( the Bercy warehouses ).
It was then the largest wine market in the world, sitting on 43 hectares. The Parisians were frequent visitors to the district, where wine was free of taxes and numerous bars and “guinguettes” flourished. With all these festivities, Bercy became known for its conviviality.
Wine merchants, customers, workers, artists like Daumier, met with the “canotiers”. Young boys and girls mingled in Bercy to row along the river Seine dressed as mock sailors, wearing a straw hat known as “le canotier” one of the most famous symbol of the Parisian life.
People met at the Rocher de Cancale or at the Marronniers to seal a deal or to relax with a glass of “Bercy wine”.
The image of the “Joyeux-Bercy” survived through the artists inspired by the district and its inhabitants. Daumier’s caricatures, Eugène Atget photographs and Julien Duviver 1951 movie Sous le ciel de Paris, have contributed to capture the image and essence of Bercy.
Bercy in jeopardy
Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine Bercy as an enclave, enclosed behind walls, where traffic is limited to wine merchants and their clients, immersed in the smell of wine, wooden barrels and sulphur…
A unique universe which has survived many catastrophes, fire, flood. In 1910, the river Seine overflowed and Bercy became for a while a lake village where some barrels were even perched in the trees and the roofs.
After 1960, as the wine grower started to bottle and sell their production themselves, the merchants started to leave the district. Bercy was progressively abandoned and marginalized and became insalubrious and ill reputed.
1980-1990 : the birth of a new district
In 1979, the construction of new sport and concert venue, Bercy Arena was decided, triggering the reorganization of the eastern part of Paris.
Most of the wine cellars were demolished yet the Pavillons de Bercy, one of the most outstanding warehouse plant were preserved.
The new district of Bercy is now organized around a of the largest city park created in Paris since Haussmann. The 14 hectares romantic garden somehow recalls the charming aspect of the 19th century Bercy.
Nowadays, this once decaying district has become a cultural and economic hub in eastern Paris with the metro line 14, Bercy village and its cinema, restaurants and shops.
FROM THE LHEUREUX WAREHOUSES TO THE PAVILLONS DE BERCY
The former Lheureux warehouses, now renamed « Pavillons de Bercy » enable us to image what the wine business was like in 1896 with merchants, workers, wine barrels, noisy chats, coming and going horse carriages.
The buildings, restored to their original condition, are a perfect example of 19th century industrial architecture with millstones walls, arched brick openings and iron beams designed by Louis Ernest Lheureux, a contemporary to Gustave Eiffel.
Today it is composed of 6 buildings for a total of 8200 covered sqm on a global site of 1,5 hectares. It includes 2 private streets with 12 823 cobbled stones, a marbled piazza and 17 centenarian plane trees!
The former Lheureux warehouses have been listed among the French « inventaire supplémentaire des Monuments Historiques » since 1986.
Renewing the art of festivities
The Pavillons de Bercy – comprising the Musée des Arts Forains, Théâtre du Merveilleux, Salons Vénitiens and Magic Mirror – are reviving the festive atmosphere of Bercy by hosting an entertaining museum dedicated to the traditions of fairground and performing arts across Europe.
The display was carefully supervised by Jean Paul Favand with the collaboration of the exhibition designer Pierre Catel (for the buildings and objects), the architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte, and the musical and plastic artist Jacques Rémus.
Information reference : Book “Bercy” by Jacques Champeix and Lionnel Mouraux – © Editions L.M. 1989.
Published on 09.01.17