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.

Maps, The Marais

“Hey There’s a Cannonball in My Wall!”

Hotel de Sens – 1 rue de Figuier Paris 75004

The Marais district of Paris is a goldmine of old buildings and history. The Hotel de Sens, which is situated next to the Seine- has the honor of being one of the oldest original gangstas of flamboyant Gothic Paris architecture still standing.

Before it came to be known as the LGBF/Jewish quarter of Paris, this area was home to French royalty and the medieval palace of Saint Pol, which was eventually demolished when the Louvre became the official digs of Kings.

Map of the Marais in 1450. You can spot the original Hotel de Sens a bit to the left of the green circle indicating the Hotel Saint Pol

The Hotel de Sens we know today was built from 1475 to 1519 by Tristian de Salazar as the residence for the Archbishop of Sens. Now, what the hell is an archbishop you ask? There’s a lot of boring religious vocabulary to sort through to understand this, but to dumb it down for my special readers, here’s a little summary I’d like to call RELIGIOUS CATHOLIC HIERARCHY VOCAB MADE EASY – to start with, we got the head honcho- THE POPE, elected by God and the College of Cardinals. Now the title of POPE is just a fancy way of saying the Bishop of Rome, who controls all the other bishops/archbishops thus leading the Catholic Church. (You still with me?) So since the 2nd century, in the Roman Catholic church; each geographical area is divided into a diocese/archdiocese, which is controlled by either an Archbishop or Bishop. An Archbishop has an Archdiocese of importance, where a Bishop simply controls your regular Joe Shmoe diocese. This is just the basics, there’s obviously more finer details but I don’t want to bore you to death.

1841 and 1914
photo from Paris Marais

ANYWAYS, back to 16th century France- Paris wasn’t a big enough hotshot in the Catholic community to be its own Archdiocese, so it was under the jurisdiction of Sens; which is a quaint city about 100km south-west of Paris. The Archbishop of Sens had his main digs in Paris until 1622 when Paris took over the Archdiocese reigns, thus reducing the power of the Archbishop of Sens who eventually handed over ownership of the hotel to the new Archbishop of Paris Jean-Francois de Gondi, who preferred to reign over Paris elsewhere.

The Hotel was then rented to wealthy nobles before it became national property in 1790 at the start of the French Revolution. One remarkable thing to take note of is the rather unremarkable cannonball embedded into the façade of the hotel.

I admit my cannonball knowledge is subpar at best, but this guy seems a little.. small?

This is from the July Revolution of 1830 AKA the 2nd less carnal but still pretty bloody French Revolution where the people overthrew the government and King Charles X. They besieged the neighborhood area of the Hotel de Ville and shot cannonballs into the old royal part of the city. How one of these iron ballz found itself embedded here, I don’t know- but it was gracefully preserved, maybe to remind Parisians that it ain’t cool to attempt to destroy your own history.

The Hotel de Sens stubbornly remained standing throughout the 19th century and was home to various factories, including one that fabricated jam. It was declared a national historical monument in 1862 and eventually bought by the city of Paris in 1911, who financed restorations in the 1930’s. Today, the Hotel de Sens houses the Forney Library, a research library dedicated to decorative and graphic arts.

Rear view © Pline
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!

ile de la cité, Maps

La Rue Neuve Notre Dame

When tourists go to see Notre Dame Cathedral it’s likely they miss a few sneaky details.. (for good reason, right? HEY KIDS LOOK UP ITS NOTRE DAME!) hidden right below their feet! If you were to be in front of ND prior to 1870, it would have appeared very different from what you see today.

Photo by Max Avans on

For starters, the parvis AKA the huge open area where everyone gathers to take pictures or wait in a massively winding line back when the cathedral was accessible before the BFF (Big Fucking Fire) DID NOT EXIST. You could never really see ND until you were right up against it because the area in front of ND was a Medieval Real Estate Hot Commodity.

Turgot Map from 1739. Notice La Rue Neuve N.D. in the center, then the Parvis N.D. Do you see the lack of public space?

Back in the day of our medieval forefathers, panoramic city views were a privilege, not a right. Besides, who has time to complain about lack of open public space when everyone was too preoccupied with managing typical day to day concerns; like STDs, figuring out what time it was, and how to seek revenge on your asshole landlord when you lived in a constant state of poverty and poor health. Good times!

How Notre Dame would have appeared from the La Rue Neuve Notre Dame. Computerized Image from Muséosphere – Mairie de Paris.

Like the Champs Elysees or Boulevard Saint Germain des Prés today, the Rue Neuve Notre Dame was the main drag here in medieval Paris, dominating the landscape around the cathedral from the time it was built in about 1136 until city planner Haussmann leveled this area in the 19th century. Another long-standing building, the Hospital of Found Children (or Lost Children if you are a cup half empty kind of person) was eliminated with it, thus creating the open space we see today.

Another view from a painting by Edward Gaertner 1826

However, you can still see traces of this former street in the cobblestones below, where the location of the Rue is highlighted with a different stone as well as a discreet marker. I absolutely love to point this out to tourists with their necks angled up. Their delight to look beneath their feet at this hidden in plain sight detail tickles me every time.

Compare these two images of the Rue Neuve Notre Dame

AND THERE’S MORE! You can even view the foundations of the 28 buildings that once lined this street below in my favorite Paris museum you probably never knew, the Crypte Archéologique. (click text for link, or see my post about this hidden gem of a museum in the link below)

Did you know about this detail or are you learning of it for the first time? Please comment below!

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.