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Rue du Cardinal-Lemoine is an unassuming street in the 5th arrondissement. Extending from the Seine, up the slope of the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, this lesser-known thoroughfare is tucked away, backstage behind the showpieces of the Sorbonne and the Panthéon. However, the Rue du Cardinal-Lemoine reveals some of its own secrets and arcane gems as the street crests at the Place de la Contrescarpe.
The street bears the name of Jean Lemoine, a cardinal to the 13th-century Pope Boniface VIII. Lemoine was the first to formulate the legal principle of the presumption of innocence. A college bearing his name was founded in 1302 and the street was opened on what was once the college grounds.
Largely hidden from site are the vestiges of the wall of Philippe II Augustus, a fortification dating from the end of the 1100s, which define the street’s shape. Remnants of this stony wall are found in basements and back alleys. The street also hides villas and gardens behind heavy carriage doors that the casual flâneur can’t see.
As you walk, the face of rue du Cardinal-Lemoine changes as the hill rises. The rue begins at the corner of the Quai de Tournelle where the first notable address is the Tour d’Argent. Hailed as the oldest restaurant in Paris, the legendary Tour d’Argent dates back to 1582. Sixteenth-century nobles visited the inn looking for a smart place to eat. The story goes that it was because of these dandies in their immaculate starched ruffs that the fork became commonplace in France. (This amazing, and ever-so-useful, piece of cutlery was imported from Italy to France by Catherine de Medici.) The Michelin-starred Tour d’Argent still shines brightly today and has remained an elegant place to eat. Alas, in 2022 it’s under renovation and so tightly wrapped it’s as if the late Christo has had a hand it its binding. (Read our recent interview with the restaurant’s owner here.)
The writer and poet Paul Verlaine lived on the fourth floor of 2 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine for a year commencing August 1870 following his marriage to Mathilde. Verlaine had rushed hurriedly to the altar to get a married-man’s deferment from the army. Nevertheless, Verlaine had to serve in the National Guard during the siege of Paris. Mathilde would never be the loving wife Paul dreamed of, and their conjugal compatibility failed. They returned to her parents’ home where they lived until Verlaine was introduced to Arthur Rimbaud.
This stretch of rue du Cardinal-Lemoine remains a very quiet and personal space. At 7, rue du Cardinal-Lemoine is 5e Cru — a quintessential Left Bank experience, where the delicious food is fresh and organic and the owner has great suggestions when it comes to wine.
There are a handful of esoteric bookshops here including the Librairie L’Amour du Noir at 11 rue du Cardinal Lemoine. A workshop replicating ancient wooden details is hard at work across the street at number 14.
Le Puits de Legumes at 18 rue Cardinal Lemoine is a source of vegetables in a sea of less-than-veggie-friendly restaurants. It’s easy to spot because its façade is a lurid pea green.
At Number 24 is a red brick building which stands apart from its neighbors. It’s the Rognoni College – Le Collège des Enfants du Spectacle. This school has the peculiarity of offering a flexible curriculum to children who’ve had their education interrupted by their activity in the arts – performing on the stage, the circus, or actively pursuing competitive sports. Less than 250 students are enrolled. Its founder, Raymond Rognoni (1892-1965), a member of the Comédie-Française, established the collège, worried that the “children of the show” could not go to school.
Next door to the school at Number 28, and comprised of the former buildings of the Cardinal-Lemoine college, is the Paradis Latin cabaret. Originally the Théâtre Latin built in 1802 during Napoleon’s reign, it was a “literary watering place” where bourgeois and intellectuals mingled with merchants, workmen, and students. Balzac, Dumas (both senior and junior), and Prosper Mérimée were habitués. However, it wasn’t until 1889, when Gustave Eiffel rebuilt it to a cathedral-like elegance, that the Paradis Latin became known as a music hall. It’s the oldest cabaret in Paris and its popularity waxed and waned as the cabaret nightlife moved to the Right Bank. It was refurbished to Eiffel’s plans in 1973. Energetically reviewed and sometimes risqué, the burlesque performances of half-clad men and women entertain as many as 720 guests in the hall, seated cheek by jowl.
The neighborhood turns into more of a bustling tiny-town, as rue du Cardinal-Lemoine intersects with rue des Écoles, rue Jussieu, and rue des Fossés-Saint-Bernard. There’s a post office and the fire station and the Cardinal Lemoine Metro is nearby. The boulangeries, pharmacies, and news agents bring the real Paris to life.
Louis Braille, educator and inventor of the Braille system of reading and writing for the blind, lived above the post office at 30 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine. In the basement of the post office is the remains of an arch of the Philippe II Augustus’s wall. More of the wall crops up in the fire station.
The street rises into a steep but short walk. At number 47 rue du Cardinal Lemoine is the Hôtel Le Brun, a pretty building which stands out on its own and is set back from the street behind iron railings. Built by the nephew and heir of the artist Charles le Brun on lands owned by his uncle, this hôtel particulier dates from 1700. Among its tenants were the artist Watteau, Georges-Louis de Buffon, naturalist and superintendent of the Royal Garden of Medicinal Plants at the nearby Jardin des Plantes. In 1805 the painter Élisabeth Vigée LeBrun, renowned portraitist of Marie Antoinette, moved in. The hôtel was listed as a historic monument in 1955. Work to transform the building into a rental space recently took place and today the 18th-century mansion is a conference space with meeting rooms and incredible gardens.
Above the Sapeurs-Pompiers at 48-50, is Bilipo. Accessed from rue Jacques-Henri Lartigue, the Bibliothèque des Littératures Policières is the only European institution dedicated to crime literature, and contains samples of the genre dating to 1900. The collection contains over 100,000 books, including novels, reference books, and police-themed periodicals. In its archives are 1,000 iconic posters from the cinema. There are comics collections — think Nestor Burma or Tintin — for young people and foreign works. Many of Bilipo’s collections can be consulted in their study room. This library is mainly open in the late afternoons.
Next to Bilipo, the former buildings of the École Polytechnique are now occupied by the Institut des Civilisations at the Collège of France. Across the street at number 59 is Le Foodist, which according to TripAdvisor is the No. 1 destination for cooking classes in Paris. Le Foodist offers all manner of techniques and tips that students can take back home with them. There is a wide range of instruction offered, from preparing a three-course meal from food bought in a morning-market, to an afternoon making macarons. There are food tours and wine tasting as well. All classes are in English.
Located at number 65 is the Collège des Écossais, the Scottish College, a building dating from 1662, which strangely has two facades stacked on top of each other. This peculiarity is due to a leveling of the street in 1685, after the construction of the building. Apparently, the schoolyard is accessed from the building’s second floor. The Collège des Écossais is one of a number of national colleges into which the University of Paris was divided, but it was shuttered during the French Revolution. It is now the primary school, the École Sainte-Geneviève. The school has the curious honor of housing the brain of exiled King James II of England, given to the school by a contingent of Catholic Scots. It’s in a lead casket in the mausoleum of the school’s chapel. In Paris, there’s history at every turn!
Librairie Pages Anciennes is an antique bookshop with prices ranging from 10 euros to upward of 1000. There’s something for all budgets and for all tastes… from science to travel, from novels to philosophical essays. But the geographical dictionary from the time of Napoleon is gone. I have it.
Mathematician and master of prose, Blaise Pascal, lived at number 67 in a tidy building with shutters and floral window boxes. Adding to the Who’s Who of the street is the polyglot and poet Valery Larbaud. He lived there at number 71, down the attractive passageway, from 1919 to 1937. But his fame as a tenant was eclipsed when he played host to the Irish writer James Joyce who worked on his novel Ulysses there in 1921.
On the plateau atop rue du Cardinal-Lemoine is a façade with a bright blue door. It was behind this door at number 74 that Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, lived from August 1922 to January 1923 in a small apartment on the third floor. The building is adorned with a commemorative plaque on which is engraved a phrase by Hemingway taken from Paris est une fête (A Moveable Feast): “Such was the Paris of our youth / when we were very poor and very happy.”
On Hemingway’s corner are few gems frequented by locals. Pie, cakes and impeccable pastries are found in the tearooms of Enclos de Ninon. The absinthe bar l’Eurydice at number 79 features intriguing cocktails, mead, medieval wines and more than 60 types of absinthe in a wide range of strengths. They feature jazz, poetry and chansons accompanied by an accordion. But give the place a wide berth on Saturday night. There’s Rollins Pub and the welcoming, slightly funky and slightly down-at-heel Bistrot l’Époque with the two charming tow-headed servers. From the terrace at the Café Descartes — where one can enjoy an impeccable omelette — the vista down the rue du Cardinal-Lemoine opens up. It takes its name from René Descartes whose Parisian pied-à-terre is down the pedestrian Rue Rollin.
Behind the unobtrusive green doors of 75 rue du Cardinal-Lemoine is the Hôtel des Grandes Écoles, renowned for being one of the prettiest in the city. It was once a popular place to rent for professors and academics at the nearby Sorbonne, Collège du France and Lycée Henri IV. Threatened with ruin between the World Wars, the Grandes Écoles once cheaply housed American students before becoming one of the most popular places to stay in the Sorbonne area. It is a true oasis in the city and it’s almost unbelievable that the relentless evening hubbub of the Place de la Contrescarpe is a mere 100 meters away.
An hour on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine is well worth the time. It’s a slice of Parisian life to explore when the pulse of touristic Paris has worn you out.
Lead photo credit : Hôtel des Grandes Écoles. photo credit: Hazel Smith
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