Lost and Found In the rue Saint-Roch

Overlooked Old Street Worth a Look

Paris:- Friday, 15. November 1996:- Somebody told me this was Beaujolais Nouveau Day and from the avenue de l'Opéra I intended to go past the Marché Saint-Honoré, to a bistro à vin just below the market. Instead of going west on the rue Gomboust and finding the right way, I turned left and south into the rue Saint-Roch, thinking that I could cut through to the right.

One block further over on a parallel street I could have done this and arrived exactly at my destination - but on the rue Saint-Roch there were no roads to the right. I didn't know this because this was my first time in this street.

Often I figure out things beforehand and check maps for routes before setting out, but today I am sort of going along by instinct as far up as the frontier of the 2nd arrondissement while staying mostly in the 1st.

It is not that I have time to kill - it is just better sometimes to let instinct take over - and sometimes fail - and in this way I get to see new things that I would have missed if I had be running on perfect planning.

St Roch & Argenteuil

My first thought on the rue Saint-Roch was, 'What a sad old street.' It looks like a place time forgot. This top part dates to 1495 and the first sight I come to is the sharp angle between it and the once-intersecting rue d'Argenteuil, dating to a 7th century trail that lead out to the Monastery at Argenteuil.

If I get this right, the building on the angle - at street level now called Bar Garter's Club - was once the residence of Charles-Augustin de Ferriol, Count of Argental; diplomat and great pal of Voltaire's. There was a theatre here on the Saint-Roch side that both knew well, as Voltaire's piece, 'Charlot ou le Comtesse de Givery' was performed in it.

Joseph Le Bon probably lived in the rue d'Argenteuil, but he is worth mentioning here because he was an ex-parish priest from near Arras and is famous because he was the first priest to marry - which he did to his first cousin - but also, in the early, good days of the Revolution, dreamed up the idea of wearing the trademark red bonnet, which became obligatory.

Another interesting fellow who lived near this corner was François Gamain, who introduced Louis XVI to the art of locksmithing by building him a safe at the Château Tuleries - which safely contained papers that were no help to Louis at his eventual trail.

The rue Saint-Roch starts at the rue de Rivoli and runs exactly 390 metres, to the avenue de l'Opéra. Along its short and narrow length there are a few shops and a few 'bistro'-style restaurants, with modest menu prices, and the history mostly reads simply as 'old houses,' meaning that they are distinctly old, but without much other distinction. In ten years, they will be still old, no doubt, but 'discovered' and looking like some decorators did well here.

shops

Near where the rue Saint-Roch meets the rue Saint-Honoré, on the church side, there are more 'old houses' that can be seen in the extreme left of the photo - they pre-date the present version of the church. Next to them, there is the printer's shop - somewhat renovated - and further along, a one-time salon de coiffure seems to be built into the side of the church. It dates 23 years before the first stone of the 'new' church was laid in 1653.

The furnishing of the property for the old church was done on 13. November 1577 by Etienne Dinocheau. In 1622, the hôtel de Gallion on the Grand-rue Saint-Louis - now the rue Saint-Honoré - was purchased to make way for the new church, designed by Jacques Lemercier who did part of the Louvre. He turned its orientation from the traditional east-west to north-south. Louis XIV posed the first stone on 28. March.

Money was short, and the work was long - especially after Lemercier died in 1662. Construction resumed in 1705 with some money gained from a lottery and was accelerated in 1719 by an injection of 100,000 livres by the banker John Law, in a manoeuvre designed to gain the post of comptroller-general of state finance. The church was finally finished in 1740.

The church had a bell tower of three stories, but it was knocked down in 1875 and never replaced. Its bells went to Sacre-Coeur. In all, the church looks - on the outside - old and dirty, and cramped in its position, having no large space around it. In fact, it is a very big church - 126 metres long, only five metres shorter than Nôtre-Dame - and it has many unique features; multiple chapels, sculptures, assorted treasures and paintings. This was also the 'church de la mode' in the 18th century, and many famous people are entombed in it.

Front view St Roch

On 5. October 1796, Napoléon was called by Barras to rid the front of the church of the royalist sections from Le Peletier and the Filles-Saint-Thomas quarters, who were threatening the Convention, holed up in the nearly Tuleries.

At four in the morning, Napoléon opened fire at point-blank range at the insurgents and by six it was all over, with 200 dead and wounded on the 13 steps at the front of the church, and about the same number of casualties on the government's side. Some signs of this battle remain on the church's facade. This was also the action that launched Napoléon on his way to becoming Emperor.

Of course I didn't know this as I was trying to get back far enough to photograph the front of the church - and besides there are more than enough bullet-holes in stone walls scattered around Paris.

The end of the block faces the entrance to the Tuleries, and the arcades of the rue de Rivoli stretch away in both directions. It is chilly and there are not many people about.

In the café Le Welcome a block further along towards Concorde, I learn that it is not the day of Beaujolais Nouveau and the barman does not know when it will be - so I quit looking for the bistro à vin that got me started down the rue Saint-Roch, and call it a day.

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