Around and About Paris – Secret Neighborhoods

If you’ve seen it all in central Paris, and are ready to explore some hidden corners in outlying areas of the city, now that spring is in the air is the time to do so. You won’t see much glamour in these parts, but unexpected nooks and crannies, and plenty of atmospheric soul. In her internationally acclaimed series, Around and About Paris, author Thirza Vallois takes you on a walk to the area round the Gobelins tapestry workshops, a poor area till recently, as revealed in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Following is a section of this walk. You will find the complete walk and the full story of the neighborhood – including the astonishing history of Les Gobelins – in Around and About Paris/ Volume III, in the chapter on the 13th arrondissement. Start from Place d’Italie and take the Boulevard Auguste-Blanqui to the west. Its picturesque kiosk, motley, cheerful flowerbeds and boules players create a touch of small-town provincialism. A market is held along the Boulevard on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday mornings, adding extra color to the place. If you are interested in the sculptor Rodin, you may wish to walk down to no 68, the site of the studio where he set up Camille Claudel during their passionate love affair. It was located in a charming 18th-century folie, which had been built for one of the King’s councilors, but has unfortunately been demolished, like the other folies that embellished these once bucolic parts. Turn right into rue Abel Hovelacque and left into the dismal rue des Reculettes, whose winding course will take you to rue Croulebarbe, where you will turn right. The windmill of the Croulebarbe family (whose picturesque name probably referred to the overblown beard of an ancestor) is mentioned way back in 1214 and appears on all the maps of pre-Revolution Paris. The street ran along the river Bièvre, an obvious location for the family’s windmill, which disappeared only in 1840. By 1243, this prosperous family is known also to have owned a substantial, profitable vineyard and, by the following century, another property that was located “along the road that leads from Saint-Marcel to Gentilly.” Nobody knows, though, how it came into the hands of the Order of Saint-Martin-des-Champs a few years later, all the stranger since their domain was situated at the other end of town. It still belonged to the Order at the time of Louis-Philippe, which explains why Fieschi, who, on 28 July 1835 had made an attempt on the latter’s life on Boulevard du Temple (see Volume 2, the 11th arrondissement), went into hiding here – he was the concierge of Saint-Martin! In 1827 rue Croulebarbe made the headlines when the goat girl of Ivry, Aimée Millot, was stabbed to death by the mentally unbalanced Honoré Ulbach in the middle of a thunderstorm – an appropriate setting for a melodrama. Aimée would come here every day with her goats and sit reading a book, looking lovely in her straw hat. Her murder aroused outraged compassion all over Paris: even the sensational arrival of the first giraffe in the Jardin des Plantes (see Volume 1, the 5th arrondissement) – the first ever to tread French soil – was overshadowed by the crime. Ulbach was among the last convicts to be put to death on Place de Grève (now Hôtel-de-Ville), the traditional place of public executions in Paris up to the reign of Louis-Philippe. However, after the three-day riots of July 1830 that brought Louis-Philippe to the throne, the new King vowed never again to carry out executions on Place de Grève as a token of gratitude to the people of Paris, who had supported him heroically on that site. Rue Croulebarbe runs along Square René Le Gall. At the back of the garden a row of poplar trees denotes the subterranean course of the Bièvre. The street and the garden make for a peaceful, provincial atmosphere, a blessed retreat on a hot summer day, just off the busy main arteries of the arrondissement, a villagey atmosphere enhanced by the presence of the Basque restaurant Etchegorry, at no. 41, a well-known old-timer. In the 19th century this was a cabaret that belonged to Madame Grégoire and was a favorite with the Romantic writers, especially Victor Hugo. At no. 33 stands Paris’s first skyscraper (see photo), 21 story’s high. Square René Le Gall was opened in 1938 on land that used to belong to the Gobelins workshops, situated to the northeast, and was divided up as kitchen gardens among its craftsmen. It is now named after a member of the Resistance who was shot by the Germans. Rue Barbier-du-Metz branches off rue Croulebarbe to the left and follows the meandering course of the Bièvre, running parallel to the curved back of the Gobelins annex, a building of reinforced concrete put up by Auguste Perret in 1935. A neat, modern building across the street, surrounded by a green stretch of lawn, houses the new Gobelins workshops, which face the north so as to enjoy a better quality of light. A pile of stones lying round in the garden by the street is all that remains of the exquisite 18th-century folie of Jean de Julienne, shamefully demolished recently for no good reason. Julienne’s uncle was a famous dyer, Jean Gluck, who helped Julienne develop his workshop. The painter Watteau, a close friend of Julienne’s, used the place as a base for his walks in the neighboring countryside, a source of inspiration for his paintings. Rue Gustave Geoffroy on your right will lead you to rue des Gobelins. An unexpected sight awaited you at nos. 17 and 19, where, until recently, amidst a medley of shabby workshops and rickety offices at the back of a drab courtyard, rose a genuine medieval manor, dilapidated and blackened by age, a stunning apparition from a fairytale book, and one of the most moving, if not the most moving, secrets of Paris. Alas! No more! The manor is still standing, but it has been cleaned spruced up and is part of a new luxury residence. The stones stand, the soul has left these parts….And the stones have an astonishing story to tell: this was the Domaine de la Reine Blanche, though no one knows for sure who the Queen was. It might have been Blanche de Castille, the mother of Saint Louis, but there are other candidates, for, up until the 16th century, when Catherine de Medici introduced black from Spain as the color of mourning,…
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