In Part of the Rue Saint-Jacques

photo: au petit marche grocery

Roman legions marched into Paris past this shop long
before portable phones were invented.

This Spring's Last Stroll

Paris:- Wednesday, 20. June 2001:- Last week I spent some time with Marcel Proust but it didn't matter much because the weather was perfect for not searching for lost time. Today, it seems like spring has decided to pack all it has into one day, the day before summer begins.

I feel like I've been underwater for the past three seasons. The monitor I'm looking at while doing this is swimming a bit too, so I think I can combine two jobs here by getting out in the sunlight - while on my way to see what I can do about this lousy, flipping screen.

Outside the sky is good and blue but not quite shimmering. The plane tree leaves are casting spattered shadows on the sidewalks, a bit like olive-brown camouflage. It is warm too, another rare novelty.

Once I see the Marco Polo fountain is not spraying its waterworks around I decide to follow the Rue Saint-Jacquesphoto: creperie, bike from the Boulevard de Port-Royal down to the Latin Quarter, where there are students - and where there are students there are computer monitors. Rather, there may be monitors and people who know something about them.

An almost perfectly-ordinary crêpes café on Saint-Jacques.

So I turn into the Rue Saint- Jacques - not where it begins about a block south of the Seine - but somewhere on its way to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. As far as Paris of this trip is concerned, I start is where the street officially ends - but the whole thing used to be part of the old pilgrimage route.

Even before this, even before Romans came along and built bridges over the river, this was a well-travelled path. The Romans, great fixers, made it a highway to 'Genabum,' or Orléans as it is known today. Since the Romans fixed it up before there were any saints, they called it the Via Superior.

According to my source the Romans gave it good, study paving and made it their standard nine meters wide. Since good old Roman times, things have never been quite the same and some of the Rue Saint-Jacques has shrunk to only seven meters in width - like, I guess, people who get smaller when they are more than 100 years old.

After the Romans went home to become Italians, the 'dark ages' settled on their Via Superior until about the 12th century, when it was called the 'Grande-rue du Petit-Pont' for a time - only a hundred years - and then it was the 'Grande-rue Saint-Jacques-des-Prêcheurs.'

These names were followed by another seven variations, or different names entirely, until 1806 when thephoto: 279 rue st jacques nonsense stopped. Great parades were held in the street, especially when France's kings died out of town - plus it was used by the Pope's various ambassadors, and Chancellor Duprat in 1530, and the Cardinals of Florence and Barberini when they came for visits a long time ago.

The yet-to-be cleaned house flanking Val-de-Grace on the right.

On account of this, plus the fact that the street seemed to be a suburb - a 'voie sublime' - for almost a dozen religious orders - and these always wrote everything down so their histories are long - my 'history' today would start at number 151, where the city gate was in 1200 - extending all the way, with moats, to number 171 - which was outside the city limits.

As a lesson on how to handle insurrectionists, Philippe le Bel had seven 'bourgeois' strung up here in 1306. That the good people of Paris were annoyed at him for devaluing the money is neither here nor there - he had three other sets of seven 'bourgeois' strung up at each of the other city's gates to make sure nobody overlooked the message that Philippe ran the mint.

Nearly next door, at number 156, used to be the location of the convent of the Dominicans. This produced 12 Saints, four Popes, 58 Cardinals, and Jacques Clément, who bumped off Henri III. The church of this convent also was home to the remains of 22 kings, princes and princesses and other luminaries. Before being demolished over a 50-year period after the Révolution, part of it was used as a dance hall.

Okay, beyond number 171 was out of town in the 13th century. In the 18th century the area was reputed to be dangerous after dark. Not only this, but the 'great' street has become narrow somehow, which was inconvenient to the 40 wagons loaded with wine that came this way into the city every day - not to mention other wagons filled with salted fish, sugar, spices, wool and other stuff from the Indies.

History's first best-selling author lived near where number 218 is today. I know this because a plaque on the wall says so. It says Jean de Meung wrote the 'Roman de la Rose' in the late 13th century, and it was popular in the 14th and 15th centuries.

When printing was finally invented, it was even more popular. However it seems as if it was written by two authors. One of these, Guillaume de Lorris, wrote 4000 verses and 40 years later, Jean Clopinel - born at Meung-sur-Loire around 1280 - added 18,000 more, some of which were somewhat mean-spirited.

Resting between two nearly identical buildings, with a somewhat odd number of 277-bis, is the Val-de-Grace. In the 14th century it was the location of a set of townhouses called the 'Séjour des Valois,' and in 1385 it became the 'Maison de Bourbon.'

In 1621, Anne of Austria wanted a quiet place to get away from the Louvre, and her husband, Louis XIII - who didn't like her much either - so she bought the 'Maison dephoto: val de grace church Bourbon.' At first she had a little weekend house built for herself, but in 1624 she laid the first stone of its monastery.

The Val-de-Grace church, as seen from outside its iron fence.

In her little hideaway she kept up a correspondence with her family in Spain, with the English court and the 'Maison de Lorraine.' In 1637 Richelieu set off the 'Scandal of the Val-de-Grace' by ordering the premises searched for compromising letters, and Anne had to sign a confession. She was pardoned by her husband the king, but forbidden to stay at her place of refuge.

Anne got revenge, by giving birth on Thursday, 5. December 1638 - after 26 years of marriage - to the future Louis XIV. Richelieu died four years later and the king, Louis XIII, a few months after. Anne was so happy that she had her modest monastery remodelled into a 'splendid' abbey.

Formerly scatter-brained, Anne luckily inherited Jules Marazin from Richelieu, who had nothing wrong with him except for speaking poor French and having a great deal of plain greed. But he played the game of 'fall guy,' and along with Anne they bested the state's opponents - which were in disarray anyway.

This doesn't mean Anne and little Louis XIV didn't have to flee to Saint-Germain-en-Laye on 5. January 1649 to escape the Fronde. A few months later she came back with the Prince of Condé and they besieged Paris, which was full of 'Parlementaires,' the bourgeois - still! - the 'devouts,' Anne's former allies - and the great lords - all Frondeurs.

Marazin had the Prince of Condé arrested the following year, then a two-year revolt followed. Condé was finally nailed for not turning up for Louis XIV's declaration as king in September of 1651. But the Fronde continued and foreign invasion came right up to Paris' gates, along with famine and plague.

This triple-blow convinced Parisians to side with the young king, and Marazin fixed the rest by pardoning the Frondeurs, as well as bribing them to 'be nice.' This set the stage for local peace, Paris-style, which lasted until the Révolution. Unnoticed, in the midst of all this, Marazinphoto: 277 rue st jacques also signed the Treaty of Westphalia, which left Spain free to concentrate on war with France.

This ended with the 1659 Treaty of the Pyrenees. Condé was pardoned for no good reason, and a dowry of a half-million écus came with Marie -Thérèse of Spain for her marriage to Louis, in return for his renouncing any claim to Spain's throne. Spain never paid the dowry.

The cleaned-up house flanking the right, or north side of Val-de-Grace.

Back at the Val-de-Grace - this was begun by Louis XIV himself, by laying the first stone when he was seven. Mansart was the architect, but he was replaced by Jacques Lemercier in 1647. He was followed by Pierre Le Muet until his death in 1654, and Le Duc finished it off in 1665, without quite finishing it. During the Révolution it was taken over and turned into a hospital, but without its original decorations being altered.

When I step inside its high iron fence, I am politely told I cannot photograph it because it is a military installation. To me it looks like a church. Around Malaga's airport there used to be signs forbidding photography because there was a military airfield next to the civilian one - but this was in Franco's time.

But I am told I can take photos if I do it from outside the iron fence. Otherwise, I can ask the Minister of Defense for permission to do it inside the fence. From both sides of the fence it looks like a church and not a guided missile depot.

The Val-de-Grace church is very impressive where it faces the Rue Saint-Jacques. Behind it somewhere, is France's premier military hospital, with its main entrance in the Boulevard de Port-Royal.

A fair amount of traffic threads its way up the street, up from the river. Many of the shops in the street are unusual in one way or another. I guess the drivers don't see many of these because of the street's varying widths that require some extra attention.

But above, along the roof-lines, up where the chimneys are, you can see that the Rue Saint-Jacques - while not really looking quite as old as it is - is not overbuilt with a lot of faceless concrete boxes and steel-framed glass.

On one hand, it is a narrow European street that hasn't been carefully planned - as it is now, not as it was whenphoto: chinese rest & parking tennis the Romans were around - and on the other hand it is acting like an open drainway, as an outfall for the convenience of the drivers of tin cans on rubber tires, that runs through a sort of inhabited monument.

An ordinary garage and an ordinary Chinese restaurant - or are they?

Maybe Paris has so many streets like this that one more or less doesn't matter - in fact, other ones could be even more annoying to motorists. Paris may not have kings anymore, but it still has its motorists.

You might think this is plain 'back-to-the-old-days' nonsense. But I wasn't in the Rue Saint-Jacques today just to be in this street. I have been using it and my legs to get myself someplace.

I could have done it a lot quicker by taking public transport. But today has also been perhaps one of the best of this year's spring, so I decided to walk instead. I do not know how much of my walking time was spent not walking, but waiting for cars to get out of the way. It is really tiresome.

If you ever take yourself into the Rue Saint-Jacques for a casual 'look around' - and it is worth it - you'll see what I mean. This doesn't mean this street is any more or less polluted by cars than others. It is just that the street itself is the 'sight' and its traffic is a blot on it.

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