You Can Look for the Bièvre

photo: rue paul mery, butte aux cailles

The Rue Paul Méry is one of the Butte-aux-Cailles'
renovated streets.

Or Visit the Butte-aux-Cailles Instead

Paris:- Friday, 7. September 2001:- On Wednesday I had to go to a place on the edge of the 5th arrondissement, and to get there I started out from near the marché at the foot of Mouffetard, beside Saint-Médard and went in a southerly direction along the Rue Broca.

In this street it occurred to me that the river Bièvre might be under its pavement. After doing what I'd intended at Port Royal, I descended from the boulevard to the Rue Broca again and followed it to the Boulevard Arago.

There I turned left and went a block before turning right into the Rue Pascal, opposite the Hôpital Broca, going past some remains of the Abbaye des Cordelières, set up in the late 13th century. There are a lot of names attached to this, but the little that is left is within the grounds of the Broca hospital now.

Further down, five streets join Pascal, making an open non-square, non-roundabout, non-place - faced with two cafés, a bookshop and the Lycée Rodin. One café - Le Pascal - has an interesting decor devoted to Serge Gainsbourg in it and a sign outside telling students not to bring in their own food.

From this non-place, a block to the right, edging the Rue du Champ de l'Alouette in the Rue desphoto: cordeliers, ruins, r pascal Tanneries, is the still standing old Convent of the 'Filles-Anglaises,' who arrived in this street in 1644.

These were in France to pray for the reestablishment of Catholicism in Britain and this they did until the Révolution transformed the building into a prison for more well-known ladies, many of whom lost their heads. The 'Filles-Anglaises' didn't, and were moved to Vincennes before being deported back to Britain.

The remains of the Abbaye des Cordelières in the grounds of the Broca hospital.

Finally, still feeling that the river Bièvre could be underfoot somewhere, I came back out on the Boulevard Auguste Blanqui by way of the Rue Vulpian. Here I chose west, which turned out to be wrong.

The Bièvre as a river on Paris' left bank has a long history, but there isn't anything to see of it because it was buried in stages from 1828 until 1910.

It begins about five kilometres from Versailles, from two dozen springs and three fountains, and flows for 32 kilometres before pouring into the Seine. Bièvre means beaver, and it waters Bièvres, Buc, Jouy, Igny, Fresnes, Cachan, Gentilly - and it seems to disappear from sight near the edge of Antony.

As near as I can make out, it enters Paris underground somewhere to the east of the Parc Montsouris, possibly splits into two parallel courses, wiggles around, and loops west around the Butte-aux-Cailles before running under the park called Square René-Le-Gall and past the west side of the Gobelins, then loops east just short of Saint-Médard and pours into the Seine near the Gare d'Austerlitz.

The Romans called it the 'Beveria' and it had the advantage of guarding the east flank of the Sainte-Geneviève hill, at a time when its course paralleled the Quartier Latin and it poured into the Seine about where the Rue de Bièvre lies today.

The river flooded often, as it did on Sunday, 8. April 1579 on the occasion of 'le déluge de Saint-Marcel,' rising five metres in 13 hours, causing havoc and killing 25 people. It repeated this behavior in 1626, 1664, 1885, 1901 and 1910.

From the end of the 14th century the river suffered from its use by textile dyers, but these werephoto: passage barrault, butte aux cailles preceded by all sorts of butchers and tanners of hides, which transformed the Bièvre into a putrid sewer.

On the Butte-aux-Cailles, the Passage Barrault is one of Paris' several village lanes.

Despite this the banks of the river were also famous for their breweries and guinguettes, which were first operated near the Gobelins tapestry complex - which employed Flemish workers. The beer was reported to be one of the least bad of all Paris, and it actually attracted drinkers from other parts of town - although few Parisians cared much for beer.

By 1860 the banks of the Bièvre also hosted a paper mill, three starch works, a wool-cleaning depot, two distilleries, several industrial laundries, a gunpowder factory, three paint factories, a glue works, a warehouse for hides, two flour mills, three breweries, three cotton-spinning works, another one for wool, two cardboard factories, four old-cloth laundries, eight other big laundries, a soap factory, an acid plant, a candle factory and 24 tanneries.

These disappeared - slowly - along with the river, as did the many big religious orders in the area. Actually, they more or less owned most of Paris when it was vastly smaller and was contained within its series of walls - until the Révolution.

Until the middle of the 19th century, the whole area along the river was one of Paris' poorest - an industrial slum surrounded by the worst sort of residential slums, as well as prisons for the wicked and asylums for the insane.

The area got its treatment from Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Resif de la Bretonne, Victor Hugo, Balzac, Joris-Karl Huysmans - especially the river - the Goncourt brothers, Paul Claudel, Henri de Montherlant - and even the cartoonist Léo Malet, writing of the arrondissement's transformation in the east, as recently as 1978.

But to the east of the river and to the south of the tax collection line - the present Place de l'Italie, Boulevard Auguste Blanqui - it was 'out-of-town' - was the village of Petit-Gentilly, with its few isolated buildings and its country cafés, and its windmills on the Butte-aux-Cailles.

This was where I didn't get to Wednesday, and where I am today. Named for its wild birds, this mini-mountain hasn't much history itself other than having been mined for buildingphoto: two bikes, butte aux cailles stone and being the landing spot for the Montgolfière balloon flight of Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes, on Tuesday, 21. October 1783.

A hundred years later, still without any monuments for historic flights, the 'butte' still had its haphazardly 'zonard' aspect, as shown in photos by Eugène Atget taken at the turn of the last century.

More 'village' - no cars or people, only two parked bicycles.

The quickest way to get up to the 'butte' is from the métro Corvisart. Cross the south half of the Boulevard Blanqui and enter by the passage that cuts through the huge building, to the Rue Engène Atget and then climb the stairs, which will bring you up to the Rue des Cinq Diamants.

The longer way is to come from the Place de l'Italie, by way of the Rue Bobillot. You can take any of the streets going off it to the right or keep on going to the place across from the municipal pool. This is heated by an artesian well, so its water is a nice 28 degrees.

Turning right again here puts one on the 'butte,' in its village, with its breezes as a reminder of the reason for windmills being here.

It is still an area of low buildings, cafés and restaurants, and old streets and alleys - and at my time of day there are never many people out and about. Except for the breezes, it seems to be a place where not much happens, pretty slowly.

This means there is not much traffic, which means you can wander around its little streets for a good look around without worrying too much about noise or anything happening fast - a place where cats wander around as if they own it.

The Butte-aux-Cailles got its renovation about five years ago - which was happening the last time I was up here. I don't know what it was like before - maybe there is new paving, maybe some of the corners are 'fixed up' a bit to prevent parking - but I think it is not much changed.

There are a fair number of cafés and restaurants, and probably there is a fair amount of animation in the evenings and especially on weekends. But in the afternoon, it is pretty sleepy.

Fine with me. Fine is to go into a nearly empty café and wait patiently for somebody to finish reading a newspaper story before another customer interrupts his singing to announce the arrival of a potential client.

I ask to photograph the floor tiles and the checkered tablecloths, and the singer gives me tips aboutphoto: basque cafe, chez gladines the local sights, none of which are more than 500 metres away. The Rue des Cinq-Diamants for example, has no history. It is thought to be named after a sign hung out in it.

If you get thirsty coming up from the métro Corvisart, this is your first possible oasis.

Around the corner from the café, down the alley that leads to a little park and the way back down to the métro Corvisart, the buildings you can see to the west - probably in the Rue Barrault - are probably sitting very nearly on top of the Bièvre. Or it might a bit further west.

There is going to be an exhibition at Bagatelle about the Ile-de-France's 'disappeared' châteaux and jardins soon. Maybe there will be another one for disappeared rivers someday. As Victor Hugo wrote, paraphrased, 'As the view is worth looking at, nobody looks at it.'

Well, not exactly. Sometime around 765 Pépin le Bref had a property on the Bièvre, before he died three years later - leaving his kingdom to his sons Carolman and Charlemagne. Somebody looked at the view, sometime.

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