Touring the Latin Quarter with Thirza

Thirza in the Cafe de Cluny
In the Café de Cluny, Thirza Vallois talks to
the owner, out of sight to the right.

More Details per Metre Than You Can Shake a Stick At

Paris:- Friday, 27. June 1997:- Thirza Vallois knows a lot more about Paris than I do. I can tell this right away when I walk into the Café de Cluny at the corner of the boulevards Saint-Germain and Saint-Michel.

This café, which everybody in the world has been past thousands of times, is a very classy "Lit." café. It has a zinc bar, it has palms, it has inside and outside terraces and it has a big upstairs. 'Messieurs' is not a plaque on the door, it is script inlaid in tile on the floor; as I noticed when I was coming out - luckily, out of the right doorway. And this Café de Cluny is a place Thirza Vallois knows and I don't.

Thirza first came to Paris to study at the Sorbonne, stayed to get married and have two kids; stayed 30 years and walked every street in town after looking it up first. Thirza wrote a book about Paris which took her eight years to do. It was so big, so full of details, it became too big to edit or publish in one volume; so there are three. And you thought I write a lot about Paris! So did I; but not as much as Thirza.

Thirza now lives in London, but she comes to Paris a lot; sometimes to give her famous 'tours.' She was last in town to sign her third book at W. H. Smith's, and I forget to ask her about this.

We chit-chat about Baron Haussmann and his 'social' engineering of Paris while waiting for the downpour to stop. Before she has to run off to see some people from Hollywood about a film, we are going to 'do' a little tour. I want to hear how an expert does it right; compared to how I do it 'off the cuff.'

It rains a long time. On the way upstairs and back I get a good look at the café. The mirror behind the bar says 'Fondé en 1869' and this leads to me asking the owner for permission to photograph it. He gives it and a modestly-printed history as well - and this will be another story someday. The rain stops, and The Cour de Rohan, number 3 on the boulevard Saint-Michel Thirza wants to know 'how much' tour I want.

How should I know? I've never been on one, except the ones I take myself on. I don't know how long they are going to be either.

In the Cour de Rohan, Thirza senses a missing tree.

Down at the place Saint-Michel, we start on the west side by going into the courtyard-like rue de l'Hirondelle, which I don't remembering noticing before. She wants to look in a door but it is locked; she says the whole building has been cleaned since she saw it last, about two years ago. It is the hôtel de la Salamandre with a carved one over the entry - the sign of François 1st. Today's Salamandre may be a reproduction.

It looks very old, if clean, but Thirza is right when she says the actual building is 18th century. The street itself is from 1224. The narrow, 50 metre-long street's paving looks pre-18th century.

Almost opposite we look at the doorway of the 'Caveau de la Boulée.' Thirza does a rapid history, which includes that it was founded as the 'Collège d'Antun' in 1341, was the scene of a cut-throat murder in 1530, and after a five-day trial the murderer's hand was chopped off and nailed to the door here before the rest of the culprit was burned alive at the place de Grève. Later on, in 1767, this location was the Ecole Royale Gratuite de Dessin, and it had 1,500 students. Still later, as a cabaret, one of the clients was Baudelaire and his girlfriend, Jeanne Duval, who was known as the 'Vénus Noire.' Whew!

This is just the essence. Thirza makes many other comments as well; about society then and how it worked - how splendid palaces were routinely pulled down to make way for newer, more fashionable ones. Fortunes rose and fell but real estate speculation was a constant. Much of the original Quartier Latin property owners were religious organizations, and as population pressed, they sold out to subdividers and made more off this than they had gained from their kitchen-gardens.

Walking along we are ranging - in sights and in commentary - from the present - what has changed in the past couple of years - to the distant past, and what changed then and why. Always change, and you should remember this is a Paris constant if you have not been here for a while.

After the tiny street, we turn left into rue Git-le-Coeur and number 12 sets off another avalanche of history and gossip. When we turn into rue Saint-André des Arts I think this is going to be 'it' and it will take us a couple of weeks at least to get to Buci, but we turn left into the rue de l'Eperon.

This 13th century 130 metre-long highway was called Vicus Galgani in 1267, rue Gaugel in 1294, plain Gaugain in 1296, Cauvain in 1300, Gougaud in 1521, Goyani in 1543, Gavin in 1551; and to throw you off, in 1430 it carried the name of rue du Chapperon; in 1485 du Chappeau, in 1521, Chapon and around 1550 it settled on its present name, due to a local shop sign. So much for names.

Just before we get to the boulevard Saint-Germain, we turn right into the tiny rue du Jardinet, which is also old, which also had a handful of names, but which mainly leads to the Cour de Rohan.

Rohan is a modification of Rouen; the archbishops of Rouen had a mansion here at the beginning of the 16th century. The 'Cour' is actually three courtyards all equally agreeable to look at. The metal gate has a discreet 'private' plaque on it, but it seems as if a few people use the Cour as a shortcut from the rue de l'Epernon to the Cour de Commerce-Saint-André.

The second courtyard is supposed to have a 'pas-de-mule,' or montoir, but if Thirza mentioned it, I've forgotten. It is supposed to be one of the last in Paris, and it is simply a block of stone, to aid ladies, abbots and old-age pensioners to mount horses. The archbishops of Reims had a hôtel in this courtyard, before those of Rouen Cour de Commerce Saint-Andre moved in during the 14th century. The fellows from Rouen had a renaissance hôtel which is visible from here, and also from the third courtyard.

Former bowling alley, the Cour de Commerce- Saint-André is usually more lively than this.

This last in turn, has the gate to the Cour de Commerce-Saint- André - which was the moat of the Philippe-Auguste wall. Parts of the wall are visible in the courtyard and one of the wall's towers remains inside one of the buildings - from number four of the Cour de Commerce-Saint-André the tower is inside, with its circular rooms.

In the third courtyard Thirza is certain one of the large trees has been removed - possibly to let in more light - but we can't find any obvious repairs to the old paving stones. They look uniformly old.

There are no shops in any of the three courtyards; they are all residential, and therefore private. It is a generous gesture to leave the gates unlocked - in the daytime - to let people pass through, and rubberneckers like us to give it all a long lookover.

The bits of Philippe-Auguste wall remains are classed as monuments, but I don't doubt all three of the courtyards should be. Perhaps they aren't, because real people have residences here. Having your house 'classed' can be a practical nuisance because it is impossible to change anything afterward.

Thirza does not say a lot about these courtyards. They are simply one of Paris' sights for eye-pleasure, requiring no entry fee and have no guestbook, and no guards looking over your shoulder. In order for it to stay this way, respect for private property has to be maintained and it has to be voluntary - if it breaks down, then the gates will be locked.

Landing in the Cour de Commerce-Saint-André right behind the Café Procope, launches Thirza into about a dozen related stories, because this was once the intellectual centre of Paris. The jeu de paume - tennis court - de l'Etoile was on one side and this ancient moat was a bowling alley - so the café's location was Terraces above the Cafe Procope perfect for Paris' first. When local sportsmen tired of tennis, the Comedie-Française installed itself in the tennis court and the café was a runaway success.

Terraces above the Café Procope, seen from the gate of the Cour de Rohan.

The dudes of the day played boules, drank café and sat around watching the actors and especially the actresses across the street at the theatre. They also hatched some revolutionary plots - much to the annoyance of the king.

Standing behind the Procope, Thirza ripples off names like Danton and Marat, and I can also see them coming down on their way to the café - but this café is another story.

The sun is shining in the Cour de Commerce-Saint-André where two oriental ladies are busily painting. After taking a look of the contemporary wreckage of the Comedie-Française we come back to the cour to take refreshment in the tea room, 'A la Cour de Rohan.' There is another tea room facing it, and in the passage which comes out at the rue Saint-André-des-Arts, there is the bar where the Irish used to be. It doesn't look as wild as it used to.

Thirza talks and I listen and I talk and Thirza listens and this could go on all day, but suddenly the time is up and she has to go and see the people from Hollywood. I don't even finish my pot of - café. We babble all the way to métro Odéon and do it some more at the top of the entry steps and I step down two so we are face to face and - stop. You have to know when to stop; we don't and she's going to be late.

Danton is up on his pedestal there, hidden in the trees, and Thirza's 3 books I pop off a shot of him - knowing that the bright sky will ruin the exposure but not being able to do anything about it. Since I am nearly late too, I follow Thirza into the métro and probably whisk under her feet as she races along the Champs-Elysées to her rendez-vous with fame.

If you want to know more than I do about Paris - a lot more - I suggest you take a look at Thirza Vallois' Web site and her 3-volume collection, Around and About Paris. This site also has practical information about how to acquire the books, no matter where you happen to be on this small planet.

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