Around and About Paris: Walking the Open-air Markets

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Rue Descartes, and its continuation rue Mouffetard, follow the course of the ancient Roman way that led to the south. A city gate was built here in 1200, La Porte Bourdelle, and rue Descartes was known as rue Bourdelle up to 1809. Before continuing into rue Mouffetard, you may like to see where Ernest Hemingway lived. If so, turn left into rue du Cardinal-Lemoine, where in 1922 he and his young bride Hadley occupied a tiny flat on the fourth floor of no 74: a dingy, dark place with no running water and smelly toilets on the landing. Hemingway also rented a tiny room to work in on the top floor of 39 rue Descartes, claiming it to be the very one in which Verlaine had died. From June to October 1921 James Joyce lived in a third floor flat at no 71 across the street, which belonged to the literary critic Valéry Larbaud. He was finishing Ulysses, a task accompanied by plenty of drink, and often had to be escorted home. Before you walk back, take a look at the countrified hotel at no 75, Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles, a heavenly patch of provincial France, surrounded by a charming garden, hidden from the din of urban life and very reasonably priced. Retrace your steps and continue into Place de la Contrescarpe, the ‘village’ square of the neighbourhood. ‘Apache’ territory in Heminway’s day and since time immemorial the haunt of students, youths and humanity in all its variegated forms. Although the square itself was not created until 1852, this had always been a very busy junction — a jumble of sedan-chair carriers, horses, servants, and others, particularly those on rowdy outings to taverns beyond the city walls, where wine was untaxed and therefore cheaper. The most famous of those taverns was La Pomme de Pin, mentioned by Rabelais and frequented also by the Renaissance poets of La Pléaide who had united to promote the French language. The tavern was not at no 1 as the inscription inaccurately states, but on the corner of the present rue Mouffetard and rue Blainville, where there is now a Häagen-Dazs ice-cream parlour — incongrously perhaps, but in keeping with the times.   Rue Mouffetard is the backbone of a picturesque neighbourhood of narrow streets that criss-cross down the eastern slope of La Montagne Sainte-Genevieve. If you want to see its lush food stalls, avoid coming between 1 and 4 pm, Sunday afternoon and all day Monday, when most are closed. This is one of the colourful spots of Paris, albeit somewhat marred by an invading rag trade, Balkan restaurants, Latin American night-life and North American ice-cream parlours. Unquestionably, this is no longer the genuine ‘village’ that catered to locals, many of whom prefer to shop at the nearby market of Place Monge. However, the lower part of rue Mouffetard and such side streets as rue de l’Arbalete, have kept their authenticity and are full of charm — a riot of succulent food stalls through which a hotch-potch of humanity elbows its way. Here leeks and potatoes can by bought from a friendly Tunisian, Brazilian food from a native of the Ivory Coast, while three energetic young Jews in their age-old black attire stride across the street for the evening prayers in a nearby synagogue. Yet, despite this rich ethnic mosaic, somehow the neighbourhood has remained essentially Parisian. Not so long ago this used to be a poor man’t district, close to the oozing and malodorous waters of the Bievre that had long lost their primeval purity. Before the 15th century the borough of Saint-Médard lay by the happy river and took pride in its vineyards and bucolic surroundings. Some of the most prominent Parisians even built splendid country homes in these sunny parts. But when the butchers, dyers, and tanners came over, they ravaged the Bievre, which from then on gave off a nauseating stench, mouffettes or moffettes, possibly the origin of the name rue Mouffetard. With the pollution of the river came social havoc, and with the presence of hot-tempered butchers and rowdy youths inebriated with cheap wine, brawls and scuffles were the daily and nightly lot of the area. In the early 18th century the authorities sensibly stationed the gardes françaises at no 36, down the street on your right. No 61, where the garde républicaine is now stationed, on the other hand, was a humble convent, built in the middle of the 17th century.   By the early 18th century it was threatened with ruin and was rescued by the devout Madame de Maintenon, who responded to the Mother Superior’s appeal by sending the Marquis d’Argenson, the head of the police, to supervise the work. Alas, on one of his visits he met a young novice… The Mother Superior hearing that the lovers were plotting to elope, tried to stop them, but the wrathful d’Argenson refused to give way: if the Mother Superior wished to see her convent restored, she would have to renounce the novice. Having little choice, she complied. The area was just as dangerous in the early 20th century, when George Orwell was living at no 6, rue du Pot-de-Fer, off rue Mouffetard, which he describes in Down and Out in Paris and London (1928). Orwell gives a frightening account of his street, where no policeman would venture on his own after dusk. He describes his street as “a ravine of tall, leprous houses, lurching towards one another in queer attitudes, as though they had all been frozen in the act of collapse.” Amidst a population of destitute Arabs, Poles, and Italians, and unhindered by the noise and dirt, “lived the usual respectable French shopkeepers, bakers, and laundresses and the like, keeping themselves to themselves and quietly piling up small fortunes.” This was the social composition of the area in a nutshell. Haussmann had already endeavoured to keep the plebeian segment of…
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