latin quarter, Maps

The Forgotten Paris River

Rue Berbier du Metz Paris 75013

This area of Paris is one of my favorites because there is loads of history here that is often overlooked by the tourists who don’t venture past the 5th arrondissement. The neighborhood is known as Les Gobelins and is named after the royal tapestry factory that has existed here since the early 17th century when ornate rugs decorated walls as well as floors. I’ll be honest, I’ve done the museum a few times and I found it to be boring and not very big, but they do interesting expositions from time to time. What really interests me here is the buildings and area behind the museum facade, which are normally off limits to the public.

The Manufacture des Gobelins

The Rue Berbier du Metz is also directly behind the Manufacture des Gobelins and is named after the guy formerly in charge of the Mobilier Nationale which also borders the street.
This place is France’s equivalent of your grandpa’s shed, where you toss furniture you can’t bear to part with in the hopes that someday you’ll reupholster Aunt Fanny’s velvet sofa but let’s be honest probably not.

Mobilier National – warehouse for important home furnishings

Prior to 1935, this street was the ruelle des Gobelins (not to be confused with the nearby rue or avenue des Gobelins) and it dates back to the 16th century. It’s wild to compare it on various maps and see how it hasn’t changed shape through the centuries.

When I first moved to Paris eight years ago, I lived nearby and was intrigued to learn this street was one of the stinkiest in Paris since it once had a river flowing down the middle of it that was more septic tank than quaint canal.

The waters of the Bievre attracted unsavory blue collar trades like fabric dyers and tanners (if you aren’t familiar with how leather is made, look it up) who flourished in this area.

Obviously this river STANK and was a cesspool for all kinds of nasty shiz so they basically kicked some dirt over it in 1912 and hid it away beneath the cobblestone lining the street today.
I always wondered how a river could just be buried and I discovered a few old photos that show the process.

I highlighted the Saint Louis Chapel (built in 1723 for the Gobelins Factory, a classified historic monument) for reference.

Today the Bievre is mostly out of sight, out of mind, SURE, but there is a local association that wants to restore the mighty Bievre to its old glory, minus the odors and mutant pizza eating turtles that undoubtedly currently inhabit it.

latin quarter, Maps

Royal Mistress Un-Finishing School

16 rue Tournefort Paris 75005

You know what I freaking love about Paris history? How limitless it is. Recently I discovered I live in the same area where a teen pre-royal mistress spent a few years in boarding school.

I’ve been in the 5th arrondissement 6 out of my 8 years here and I’m still discovering new historically significant locations like this one at 16 Rue Tournefort, a street that I use almost daily. Running laterally to the Rue Mouffetard, this quiet rue is Quaint AF with its cobblestone pavement and 16th/17th century buildings. But what is behind these doors is even better..

A secret garden oasis that dates back to the 17th century.

Rue Tournefort, not a modern building in site!

See the maps below to compare how little this area has changed in 300 years. 

La communauté des Filles de Sainte-Aure was founded by a priest in 1637 to “rehabilitate promiscuous young girls by offering them an education and putting them on a righteous path to God”. They would move to this hotel particulier in 1707 where the program to put working girls on the “straight and narrow” would grow until they were replaced with more respectable young ladies. 

This whole area encompassing the current Rue Tournefort/Rue Amyot/Rue Lhomond/Rue Pot de Fer in the 5th arrondissement would eventually welcome a few different convents dedicated to the upbringing of young society ladies. 

If you can get inside the door, you’ll see a beautiful wood beamed entry

However if its true that Good Pious Girls go to Heaven, you could say that Bad Girls go Everywhere Else. Even into the beds of Kings!
Not every Sainte Aure pupil would graduate with honors; a certain Jeanne Bécu would be expelled in 1758 after spending nine years here. Eventually she would go on to become the mistress of King Louis XV and later be known as Madame du Barry.

Madame du Barry in 1782, painted by Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun
Madame du Barry portrayed by Asia Artengo in the Marie Antoinette film

The school was sacked during the French Revolution but later returned to its religious roots at the start of the 19th century. The old chapel and a basilica that was built in the 1930’s would be destroyed in 1976 (Gallo-roman era wells were discovered there at this time) after the government gave up the rights to take care of it. The remaining buildings were modified into apartments in the 1980’s. 

Sure everyone wants the quintessential Paris balcony for the views, but if you are smart you know that a terrace is peanuts compared to your own semi-private garden oasis like this one here hidden from street view. Most Parisian buildings have some sort of small communal outdoor space, but having a backyard with a 300 year old history is worth more than a tiny balcony in my opinion!

latin quarter, Maps

Deceptively Skinny Paris Buildings

You either love or hate the uniformity of Parisian buildings, where about 60% of what you see is characterized as the classic architectural style “Haussmann”. The typical six story creamy stone facades with wrought iron details are as synonymous to the idealized image of Paris as the Eiffel Tower and baguettes. Sure the city could use a bit more PIZAZZ but there are quite a few architectural oddities if you know where to look for them. My favorites are the deceptively skinny buildings you can find in the 15th, 12th, and 5th arrondissements Known in French as “façades bègues”. 

Rue Gay Lussac, Paris 5

Depending on the angle you are viewing them from, you might have the impression they are part of a Hollywood-esque movie set or the homes of ex-Victoria Secret models or Matthew McConaughey circa ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ until you change your perception and realize all is not as it seems.

Rue Monge Paris 5

There are a few reasons for this! 1. The architect simply had to make do with a narrow piece of land

Rue Beauregard, Paris 2. Photo Paris Zig Zag. This building dates to the second half of the 17th century and is known as the Pointe Trigano. It is considered the narrowest building in Paris

2. There used to be another building or structure that was previously adjoined but has since been removed, leaving the existing building awkwardly exposed. 

Rue Charonne Paris 12. Photo Paris Zig Zag

One perfect example is in the Latin Quarter at 14 rue Thouin, where this curious building dating from 1688 once leaned upon the fortified defensive wall built by Philippe Auguste that encircled Paris from 1190 until it was mostly destroyed in the late 17th century. If you can manage to sneak to the back when the gate is open, it’s possible to still see remnants of this wall today. 

latin quarter, Maps

Passage du Clos Bruneau

Passage du Clos Bruneau Paris 75005

I’m going to let you in on a little secret about Paris topography. The streets you see in front of you are just the surface; there are often entire old worlds discreetly hidden behind the facades of elegant Haussmann buildings that line the streets today- especially in the older areas of Paris like the Marais or the 5th arrondissement.

Walking through an open doorway or passage like this one can often give you the impression you stepped back into time. Here on the Rue des Écoles between Rue Monge and Rue Saint Jacques there is a secluded staircase only a few steps high, marked by a sign that says Passage du Clos Bruneau.

All that remains today is a short alleyway, but prior to the 12th century this was the location of a vineyard before becoming the Rue Judas in 1248, and finally the Rue du Clos Bruneau in 1838. Eventually the grapevines were replaced by books and printers to serve knowledge hungry students as more and more universities popped up in this neighborhood.

Rue Judas seen from the Delisle map dated 1716

When the Latin Quarter found itself modernized in the mid-19th century, the wide and illustrious Rue des Écoles bulldozed through the narrow medieval streets that once used to run through here, erasing them and all the history they were built on.

Rue du Clos Bruneau in 1865 during construction of Rue des Ecoles, taken by Charles Marville.

The Rue du Clos Bruneau was fortunate and instead of being entirely demolished; it was just shortened and hidden behind the grand Haussmann buildings you see on the Rue des Écoles today. But not all was lost!

If you look at old photos taken before this area was leveled, you can still see a few surviving buildings that were spared, giving you a rare glimpse into pre-Haussmann Paris when you take this hidden passage detour. Look closely at the old photo and see if you can recognize the same buildings that remains today from the 1865 photo taken by Charles Marville. Match and compare the colored arrows.

latin quarter, Maps

Thomas Jefferson and the Moose Part 2

Recap: 1780’s France VS USA: Who is physically superior ?

So Thomas Jefferson ran in the same Paris social circles with his friennemy Buffon and one night while dining at Chez Buffon, TJ decided to challenge his ridiculous claims that America’s moldy wetlands produced degenerate people and animals with a bold rebuttal. “You think America is inferior to France eh? Well you know what wise guy, we got Mooses so big that your pitiful French excuse for a Moose is small enough to walk under our big-ass Moose!”

F. Scalberge, Jardin du Roy pour la Culture des plantes médicinales à Paris (1636) © Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

Being a man of science as well as politics, Thomas knew his mouth couldn’t write a check his ass couldn’t cash, so he set out to prove himself right. However measurements or descriptions wouldn’t suffice and he wanted tangible evidence; something he could literally shove in Buffon’s face to say “THY FICTITIOUS ALLEGATIONS ARE AS RIDICULOUS AS YOUR LOW PONY TAIL BETCH”.

For over a year and despite other preoccupations like the American Revolution and his role to muster support in France; Thomas almost obsessively sought his proof. He begged hunting enthusiast friends to send him a moose with specific instructions. NEED MOOSE: MAKE IT BIG! The Governor of New Hampshire finally pulled through and a 7-10ft moose was shot and shipped to France.

Excerpt of a letter from Jefferson to John Sullivan, taken from “Mr. Jefferson and the Giant Moose” by Lee Dugatkin

When its carcass arrived months later, the moose was rotting, wearing impostor antlers, and most of its skin gone. But a BIG ASS BIGGER THAN FRANCE MOOSE it was. We don’t know too much about Buffon’s reaction to the moose after he received it with a post it stuck that read KEEP TALKING SHIT AND I’LL SEND YOU BIGFOOT; he died shortly after.

Photo of a statue of Buffon at the Jardin des Plantes taken from their website

As for the moose itself, it seems to have disappeared, probably stuffed away somewhere in the vast caves of the Museum of Natural History of Paris. It is interesting to note that 250 years later, jokes on France for their reputation of having small stature. If you think about it, the only mega-fauna France is known for are giant rats and Gerard Depardiue.

If you are interested in learning more on this wacky but true subject (I only covered the surface), check out “Thomas Jefferson and the Moose” by Lee Dugatkin, click on the image here.

Special thanks to Lee for responding to my random message and sending me a signed copy of his fascinating book!