La Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in the 5th

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La Montagne Sainte-Geneviève in the 5th
November 1 and 11 are holidays in France. November is not as good as May, but after all, in May you get up to 4 paid holidays. It’s not a sure thing since the Catholic holidays related to Easter are, in the end, tied to the Jewish lunar calendar. So the date changes from year to year. But in May you’ve got at least May 1, May 8 and Ascension. Pentecost sometimes falls in May, sometimes in early June. I’m not complaining. This November 11, I had planned to do a walking tour that had been written up in my weekly arts and television guide, Télérama. I call Télérama an “only in France” publication. By this, I mean it’s an ultra left-wing socialist, ultra progressive television guide, published by the Catholic Press (it’s hard to imagine the Catholic Church in the U.S. ever publishing a magazine with, even once, art photos displaying nude female breasts), that basically tells you why you should not watch television. It’s an institution and très intello. I “religiously” follow the film reviews and by now have learned to decipher the codes. “This is an American, superficial, overly sentimental film.” (“Wow, this sounds wonderful, funny and sincere.”) Or, “What an insightful study of the dark psychology of a tortured soul.” (“Good Lord, you couldn’t pay me to see this artsy fartsy pretentious film.”) I subscribe to Télérama and eagerly await each issue. At any rate, I wanted to follow their guided tour of the 5th arrondissement, covering an area with history dating from Roman through Medieval times. It was written in true French for the French style. What this means is that the bare essentials are given, but “you’re supposed to know” all the background and/or fill in all the gaps yourself. Thank goodness I have a detailed map of Paris–one of those red booklet things that has one or two pages for each arrondissement and is for sale at any newsstand in Paris. Using that, I assiduously read the tour and added in the missing details and directions. I phoned a friend that morning simply to say hello and we decided to do the tour together. This friend happens to be the friend with the Doberman (see “Three Dobies in the Bar”). The dog’s name is Django, and I would say that the animal he most resembles is a deer. In short, he is a noble dog and wouldn’t hurt a fly (although I wouldn’t recommend threatening my friend in any way, or put yourself next to a cat). It’s like following a rock star on tour. French people do not normally smile at strangers. In fact, they do not often see anyone outside their immediate circle. They do, however, see Django. And smile and say hello and even talk to us. It’s a nice change from being invisible. Following in Django’s wake, we took the Métro to Cluny where the walking tour began. Officially you’re not allowed to take dogs in the Métro, except if the dog is carried in a sac. This is a bit unrealistic with a Doberman pinscher. But I guess all the security guys are dog lovers, since not one has ever said a word to my friend. So we arrived bright and eager at Cluny, admired the beautiful fall day, and looked forward to a two-hour walk immersed in the past. Because Django was with us, and also by choice, we decided not to go inside any monuments. If you do, allow more time, of course. Here’s how the tour went, including the missing “details” not mentioned in Télérama! At Cluny, the tour begins with the remains of Roman thermal baths just outside the Museum of the Middle Ages. Then you need to find the rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève. Walk down the boulevard Saint Germain as it goes alongside the Museum’s medieval garden, planted fairly recently using graphic and written references to flowers and plants of that period. Continue to the Métro Maubert where the rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève begins and turn right. This is one of those Parisian streets that hasn’t changed much since the Middle Ages. At the top is a small, hidden square facing the garden of the former école Polytechnique. There take the rue Descartes, sloping gently downhill, and turn left onto the rue Clovis. Further down the rue Clovis are the remains of Philippe Auguste’s protective wall that encircled Paris in the 12th century. Very chunky and medieval looking. Turn left at rue Cardinal-Lemoine, and at the Métro of the same name turn right onto rue Monge. Down this street, on the left side, is an entrance to the Arènes de Lutèce–the remains of a Roman arena that seated between 10-15,000 people all gathered together to enjoy gladiator fights and/or dramatic spectacles. At the other side of the arena, we had to wander around a bit (even with the map) before finding the rue Rollin. We eventually found it at one end of the rue Navarre, beginning with steps going up. After the climb, you’re on a pedestrian street that, like rue de la Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, has basically remained unchanged since the Middle Ages. René Descartes used to live at No. 14 (which has a very impressive door). At the end of rue Rollin is the Place de la Contrescarpe. The name goes back to the Middle Ages when one of the gates in Philippe Auguste’s wall around Paris stood just beyond the Place. Outside the gate was a moat that rose to another earthen wall or counter escarpment, thus the name. I love to imagine those days when the area on the other side of the moat was a no-man’s land, and even the square was dark and dangerous at night. It’s rather amusing when you look at the Place today–one of the safest, most charming and touristy area in Paris. From the Place de la Contrescarpe, take the rue Blainville, then the rue l’Estrapade and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a labyrinth of streets where medieval scholars once held sway. Turn right on the rue Clotilde that runs along the Lycée Henri IV, built in what was once the powerful royal Abbey Sainte-Geneviève, founded by Clovis himself. At the summit of the hill is the imposing mass of the Pantheon, originally meant to be the new church of…
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