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Slicing upwards from the Gare Saint-Lazare on an ancient Roman route towards the town of Argenteuil, the rue du Rocher is a path of passage and pilgrimage and certainly no picture postcard street. Nothing seems eternal in this nondescript thoroughfare where the past has never been able to place an anchor.
Take the example of Jules Renard, a 19th century writer and Parisophile. Renard once wrote “ajoutez deux lettres à Paris, c’est le Paradis“, but it would be difficult to find traces of paradise in the footsteps he left in the city. Renard lived and died at number 44 rue du Rocher, but his home has now been replaced by a brutal, massive block of concrete.
Sharing the site of this modern building is a Bains Douches (public baths), one of only 18 such institutions remaining in the city. The baths, decorated with spirals of barbed wire across the entrance, are distinctly unwelcoming and are accessible only by taking a chance along a service road under the building. Despite the efforts of the staff who work here , it is another sign that the rue du Rocher does not encourage people to stop and relax.
Immediately next door, a pointed rooftop could previously be seen peeking over a high wall. A solid wooden door barred access to the building, and the slide-across peephole was firmly shut. A sign on the door, the ‘Congrégation des Sœurs de Notre-Dame du Bon Secours’, gave a clue to what lay behind. This was the home of a congregation of nuns who offered basic nursing skills to the local community.
In a street lined today with ubiquitous Haussmannian structures, this chapel was one of the only remaining illustrations of another aspect of the area’s past. Left unprotected, and sold by a community which could not resist the temptation to cash in on their prime real estate, the building was demolished in late 2010. A new structure of apartments is due to be completed here in 2011.
Continuing upwards, across a viaduct that flies above the street below, one might reflect on another of Jules Renard’s remarks. “On vieillit plus vite quand on est mort” (we age more quickly when we are dead) he wrote, a sentiment that has perhaps driven the rue du Rocher to always move forwards. What could the street wish to hide? The answer is at the end, a point where the street sinks down to become a monument to the dead, a place that marked history then made sure it could never be found again.
Stretching across what today forms four streets—the boulevard Malesherbes, the rue Monceau, the rue de Miromesnil and the rue du Rocher—was the Cimetière des Errancis, a hastily constructed cemetery which had a gruesome role to play in the French revolution. The cemetery was positioned in the shadow of the ancient city limits, but the first visible object—a sign which read simply “Dormir, enfin” (Sleep, at last)—gave little notice as to the horrors that lay behind. Beyond this point was a communal burial pit, where the headless corpses of the Robespierristes, including Danton, Desmoulins and Robespierre himself, were dumped. The bodies were then covered over with quick lime to ensure that they could never be dug up in the future and identified. In 1840, 30 years after the cemetery had been shut down, an attempt was made by subsequent Robespierristes to recover the remains, but time and chemistry had done their job. Today this plot is covered by a forest of buildings, seemingly little aware of the stories that lie beneath.
The rue du Rocher reaches its conclusion shortly after this point, and city walkers may stop and look back on the path climbed. Are they now in paradise? No, just Paris.
Adam Roberts has lived in Paris for so long that he has now managed to disappear. He runs the Invisible Paris blog which celebrates the parts of the city which would be refused entry to the ville musée today. He also creates self-guided walking tours of Paris that you can download and use for free
More tips for sightseeing in Paris:
City Segway Tours are great for seeing Paris in a different light. You’ll see more, have more fun, and not feel tired at the end of it. These are highly recommended and truly a great thing to do during your stay.
Fat Tire Bike Tours are another great way to see the city. You’ll get the company of an expert guide, the use of a super-comfortable bike, great tips and advice about what to do while in town and an exciting, informative and educational experience.