Not Finding Paris' Oldest Tree

photo: square rene viviani

In the Square René-Viviani - possibly the oldest tree -
but with conflicting ages.

So You Can Go Straight To It

Paris:- Wednesday, 31. March 1999:- When one of the world's earlier tourists, Hernán Cortés, disembarked in Mexico in the late spring of 1519, he hardly realized he was visiting a land which had been populated for more than 4,500 years.

It wasn't until quite recently that I learned that 7,000 year-old pots had been dug up at Paris' Bercy redevelopment site. In other places, I have seen 20,000 year-old pieces found in France and some paintings in caves. But, when you are thinking about - say 2,000 BC - there isn't a lot of difference between the 'old' world and the 'new.'

As Rome collapsed, abandoning their nifty Cluny baths in Paris, Mayans were flourishing and building cities. While Europe was having its 'dark ages,' Toltecs were taking over from the Mayans. As Europe emerged from its slump, the Aztecs founded Mexico City - Tenochtitlán - in 1325.

Paris was already a city then, and one house, still standing, is thought to date to around 1300. There are older official buildings - churches, bits of hôtels, palaces - but few of these are relatively original. Almost everything has been through several major renovations; which continue constantly.

Two houses are competing for title of 'oldest.' The one mentioned above, at 5. Rue Volta, and the house of Nicolas Flamel at 51. Rue Montmorency, whichphoto: maison nicolas flamel is dated fairly precisely to 1407. Both are in the 3rd arrondissement and they are not too far apart. The two houses have had their renovations too, but they are still pretty much as they were.

The ground floor of Flamel's house is a restaurant, so you can go inside and see how people have been treating the place for all these years. Otherwise, it is a house; but what I started out to look for was some old - living - thing.

Nicolas Flamel's 585 year-old house at 51. Rue Montmorency in Paris.

Within sight of Notre Dame in the Latin Quarter, there is a little park called the Square René-Viviani beside the Saint Julien-le-Pauvre church; which began as a religious place sometime in the sixth century.

I was led to believe the propped-up tree in the park beside the church was Paris' oldest, but this does not seem to be the case. If I'd done the reading before the looking, I would have read that the oldest tree is in the Jardin des Plantes, because I've been there looking for the second oldest tree. So what I saw, was the third oldest tree.

In fact, there are different 'facts.' The information posted near the 'robinier' in the Square René-Viviani says it was planted around 1601. It is sort of a great-great grandfather of a tree, and even with a lot of props holding it up, its leaves see the sun. It was, in its prime, 15 metres high and 3.5 metres in circumference. Another 'fact' in another place, contends it was planted in 1680.

The name comes from Robin, the botanist, who is thought to have brought it from America. He may have been the first American 'tourist' to visit Paris! This Robin, was the director of the king's apothecary garden in the Rue de l'Arbalète - the species of tree was named after him and it is a 'false' acacia.

By pure chance, the other, really oldest, tree is also a 'robinier' and it is in the botanical garden inside the Jardin des Plantes; planted possibly in 1636 between what are now the mineralogical and botanicalphoto: cedar, jardin des plantes galleries. This is news to me and I haven't seen it - because of looking for another oldest tree in these gardens - a very healthy-looking and huge cedar.

This was planted quite recently, in 1734. Its story is that it was planted by Bernard de Jussieu, from seeds given to him by an English colleague named Collinson, after a round-about trip from the Lebanon.

At age 265, this cedar is not the 'oldest' tree in the Jardin des Plantes.

The three De Jussieu brothers, a nephew and a great-nephew, sort of invented botany in France. None were born before the 'first' tree, and the others would have been young within their lifetimes and therefore unremarkable; so I don't think we can blame this family for the 'first' tree confusion.

But before this 'oldest-tree' dispute gets out of hand, there is a verifiable 'oldest' tree in Paris; although it is dead. This is a 2,000 year-old California Sequoia, also in the Jardin des Plantes. Cross-sectioned, its rings are marked to correspond to dates in history. The only thing that seems clear about this 'oldest' tree business, is none of them are French.

The houses though, are not only French, but Parisian. And since Paris is Paris, the title for 'oldest' seems to be in dispute too.

The dating of the house in the Rue Volta is based largely on architectural deductions. It is believed the lease-holder of the rural domain of the Bourg Saint-Martin-des-Champs, was registered in 1292 in the Rue Frépillon - but, hmm, there is only supposition here. No text links the house to the date or to this leaseholder.

Certainly it was built in the time of Philippe le Bel. The housephoto: 5 rue volta is odd, because it has no cellar. There were two shops at street level, and there are four floors above, plus a mansard roof, with a gable; now gone and replaced with another mansard. The interior ceilings are two metres high, floors are tiled, and wood beams are used throughout.

This wood construction was forbidden after 1560, for fear of fire. A height-limitation introduced in 1667, required the gable to be removed.

This may be Paris' 'oldest' house - around 700 years old.

The two shops indicate how business was done in the 14th century. The shop-front was open and the merchant stood outside. The law at the time required transactions to be in public and in daylight. Selling fish by candlelight was forbidden. Paris probably smelt so strongly, it was impossible to buy fish by odor - so seeing them in daylight was essential.

At the end of the day, the shop became the rudimentary kitchen and then the bedroom. The shopfront changed a bit in the 15th century, but it was not until the 17th that glass windows were installed.

Today, the left-hand shop has 'Pho' written on one window-pane and the right-hand shop is a hairdresser's salon. The Rue Volta, between Rue Réaumur and Rue au Maire, has five Chinese or Thai restaurants, one with two outlets; a jewelry shop and a bistro, all within its less-than 100 metre length.

Nicolas Flamel's 'Maison du Grand-Pignon' at 51. Rue Montmorency is believed to have been constructed in 1407 because '1407' is chiseled into its stone front.

In 1909, renovation plaster was removed to reveal carved figures in the stone and an inscription, "Nous hômes et fèmes laboureurs demeurans au porche de ceste maison qui fu fée l'an de grace mil quatre cens et sept: sommes tennus chacû en droit son dire tous les jours une pastrenote et un ave maria en priant dieu q de sa grace face perdô aux poures pescheurs trespassez, amen."

At the time, the idea was to build a house and rent out the ground floor to a business for a high rent, and let out living space on the floors above for free, to poor daily laborers who worked in nearby fields.

The 'big gable' fell in the 17th century when the others did in Paris. Nicolas Flamel did not live in the house and when he died, he willed it to the Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie church. His figure is carved on the front of the house, surrounded by praying workers. As these prayers were their 'rent,' maybe the phrase 'getting by with a prayer and a song' comes from this time.

The ground floor of the house is now a restaurant which bills itself as Paris 'oldest auberge,' although it apparently opened in 1993 after the premises had been abandoned for a lengthy time.

The food is not as old as the house, but the operator's decorator decided diners should sit on copies of Louis XIV chairsphoto: rue cloche perce for some unknown reason. The reviews I've read generally agree the food is good, the prices are fair, even for expensive wines, and from what I saw it is a cozy place. Closed Saturday midday and Sundays. Tel.: 01 42 71 77 78.

At the 'Pho' in the Rue Volta, there are no Louis XIV chairs, probably no fine wines, and you needn't bother with a reservation. If it is full, just try the next place; about five metres away.

A man in the rain, coming out of the 750 year-old Rue Cloche-Perce..

One of my sources thinks that you will have to go to Nicolas Flamel's to see Paris' oldest house if the one at 5. Rue Volta succumbs to drastic 'renovation,' but he was writing in the late '50's and I think 5. Rue Volta will be with us for a long time to come - maybe propped up like the 'robinier' in the Square René-Viviani, but not dead like the Sequoia in the Jardin des Plantes.

And not dead in 1547, and virtually forgotten in his own time, like Hernán Cortés.

Norman Barth of 'The Paris Pages' suggested I find out about the 'oldest' tree in Paris. After doing the tour of the two houses, which I decided to add as a bonus, looking for the tree in the Jardin des Plantes - there are a number of 'old'-looking trees there - and then speed-walking to the Square René-Viviani, I had no energy left to write the piece for the last issue. The houses and tree photos were all taken on Friday, 26. March. The other 'old' photos in this issue are from this past week.

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