An Oasis In the 7th

photo: rue de varenne

The vistas of the Rue de Varenne are not everybody's
idea of a postcard.

Stone Palaces and a Park

Paris:- Friday, 25. January 2002:- Many visitors seem to choose to stay in hotels in the 7th arrondissement, in the area around the Ecole Militaire. If I ask why, they say their guide books recommend the neighborhood around the Rue Cler.

My French guide book barely mentions the Rue Cler. It is noted within a listing for one hotel and in another for the Café du Marché. Otherwise it says, 'the seventh hides itself behind high walls and heavy doors.'

The church owns a quarter of the property and a lot of the rest is occupied by French government ministries and international institutions, like UNESCO. My guidebook also says that the civilians living in the area have been doing so for centuries, and you can see them every Sunday going to or from mass.

The seventh is also the location of the Ecolephoto: the thinker, by rodin Militaire, the Invalides, the Musée d'Orsay, the Foreign Affairs ministry, the National Assembly and the Prime Minister's townhouse which is called the Hôtel Matignon. After the Champ de Mars is subtracted along with its Tour Eiffel, there is little left over for street-like highlife.

Rodin's 'The Thinker' seems to inspire curiousity.

My guide book says there is one lively bar, in an area known mainly for 'zzzzzzzz.' But there is also a 'Club des Poètes,' and not every arrondissement in Paris has one of these. In all, the book has 24 pages for the seventh because of its attractions - while the 14th has five pages more, with only the Tour Montparnasse for a 'big' attraction.

Some readers are not content that I am not a big fan of the seventh and they keep trying to sell its charms to me. They refuse to believe I have been in it more than once and remain unenchanted.

In this season of neither here nor there, while keeping in mind that the customer is always right, even under an overcast sky, I decide the Rue de Varenne may be prototypical for the whole arrondissment and set out for it from the métro Gaité. This starting place may be lucky.

Daylight appears again at the métro station Varenne, which is located near the geographic centre of the 7th arrondissement - beside a blank wall, opposite the fairly unexciting east side of the Invalides. The dome of the church adds its bit of gilded lining to the somber sky.

Half a block away, the Rue de Varenne ends, after starting its 930-metre slice through the seventh from the Rue de la Chaisephoto: ticket stub, entree parc rodin to the Boulevard des Invalides. For Paris, this is an exceeding straight street. If you have long-range zoom-vision you can see of it at once.

But the first thing that attracts my attention is the Hôtel de Biron, right at the corner. It was built over four years until 1731, for Abraham Peyrenc, a one-time wig-maker from the Langueduc who had struck it lucky by participating in Law's banking combine. He died young though, leaving a wealthy widow.

She sold the place to the Duchesse du Maine, Louise de Bourbon, who entertained writers in it until she dropped dead in 1753 at 78. Then Louis-Antoine de Gontaut, the Duc de Biron, bought it and made it famous by giving parties for all his friends.

When he died happy at 88 in 1788, his wife got half and his brother Charles-Antoine de Gontaut the other half, until he got beheaded on Friday, 27. June 1794.

His nephew, who nearly had the same problem, signed a deal with his uncle to take over the whole property - what happened to Mrs. Duc de Biron? - for the tidy sum of 4.2 million livres. How the deal was signed in September 1795, 14 months after the sudden demise of his uncle, the Maréchal Duc de Biron, is unexplained.

This new Duc de Charout, who was also the mayor of the 10th arrondissement, died prematurely here on Monday, 27. October 1800, aged 72. His widow stayed on but rented out part of the place to people like Napoléon - the King-of-Italy-Bonaparte one - and Prince Kourakine, the Russian ambassador, and part of the garden was renamed the 'Jardin de Psyché,' for parties and balls.

In 1820 the Duchesse de Charout sold the whole thing to the Dames de Sacré-Coeur de Jésus, who were the minders of Louis XVIII. Led by Sophie Barat, both the 'dames' and the tenants were all blue-bloods, but she had the nice pictures and the gilding taken out anyway.

For these good works, the 25th of May was given to Sophie by Pope Pious X in 1908 when she became Sainte-Sophie, four years after the congregation was dissolved, and after the property served for a short time as a municipal school.

Following the school episode, new tenants included Rilke, Isadora Duncan and Matisse's academy. The state bought the property in 1910 and Auguste Rodin was allowed to stay on, by donating all of his works to France in 1916, on the condition that they stay in the Hôtel de Biron - and this is today's Musée Rodin - which is mentioned in more detail below.

But first, there is the rest of the Rue de Varenne. For the next bit there are many buildings belonging to the ministry of Agriculture, Fish and Food. Some of these hide in front of 'hôtels' with considerable histories or are themselves housed in these grand, old buildings.

Thus I pass the Petit Hôtel de Broglie, the Hôtel de Villeroi, the Petit Hôtel de Castries, the Hôtel de Châtillon, the Grand Hôtel de Broglie - also known as the 'Hôtel Juillet' - and the Hôtel de Castries, the Ancien Hôtel dephoto: 56 rue de varenne Clermont - also known as the Hôtel Seissac or d'Orsay, the Hôtel of the Marquise de La Rochefoucauld, the embassy of Holland in the one-time Vielle Auberge du Bourbon, the Hôtel de la Marquise de Jaucourt, the Hôtel de Prat, an address with dual hôtels, both with many names, the Hôtel d'Ourouer, the Hôtel de Gouffier de Thoix, the Hôtel de Matignon, the Hôtel de Gallifet, the Hôtel de Boisgelin, the Hôtel de Narbonne, another Hôtel de Biron, the Hôtel de Narbonne-Pelet, and the location of the tapestry factory once owned by Raphaël de la Planche.

Typical for the Rue de Varenne, the entry of the Hôtel de Gouffier de Thoix.

At about where the Rue de Bourgogne comes from the left, from the rear of the National Assembly, into the Rue de Varenne, I begin to see the obvious signs of the government - national police are scattered about, keeping watch on these 'hôtels.'

This makes me think one I am looking at is the Prime Minister's headquarters, but it is probably either the Hôtel Seissac or the Hôtel of the Marquise de La Rochefoucauld.

Except for the police, there are not many pedestrians. Every couple of minutes a small burst of traffic comes along, mostly from the direction of the Invalides. Occasionally a big state Renault glides into or out of one of the 'hôtels.' When these are gone, there is only me, the police and the video cameras.

Finally I am across the street and facing the front of the Hôtel Matignon. It doesn't look a great deal different from some of the others - a high wall, a big entry door, a pop-up steel column to discourage the vehicles of uninvited visitors, and beyond, a cobbled courtyard for the state cars and facing it, a building with a modest front similar to many others in this street.

But, my guide says, 'without doubt, the most magnificent residence in the Faubourg Saint-Germain.'

It was built, starting in 1721, by Jean Courtonne for the fourth son of the Maréchal de Luxembourg, who was known as Notre-Dame's carpet-layer. His son's real name was Christian-Louis de Montmorency, who was also known as the Prince de Tingry on account of being a 'Maréchal de France' who did good stuff for Louis XIV in his time.

But he didn't get a promotion he wanted - he won battles but didn't realize promotions came by other means, namely by being at court and amusing certain ladies - so he sold the place in a snit to Goyon de Matignon and moved to the Rue Saint-Dominique.

Goyon de Matignon, Count of Thorigny and governor of Normandy, died two years after moving in and his son finished its building. When he died in turn, 26 years later, the hôtel passed to Honoré-Camille, recognized as the sovereign Prince of Monaco, and Duke of Valentinois.

The place was seized by the state in 1793, then returned to the family and they sold it in 1804, and the newphoto: les bourgeois de calais, by rodin owner sold it to Talleyrand in 1808. He was under orders from the emperor to give receptions four times a week, so he sold it to the state in 1811 and went to find peace and serenity in the Rue Saint-Florentin.

Even though you can see 'Les Bourgeois de Calais' for free, try the park anyway.

In 1816, Louis XVIII traded the Hôtel Matignon for the Elysée Palace, which was owned by the Duchess de Bourbon. She had Brongniart fix up the Matignon a bit, and died in 1822, leaving it to her niece, Louise-Eugénie who was also known as Princess Adélaïde d'Orléans because she was a sister of Louis-Philippe.

The Duke de Montpensier was the next owner, with tenants such as General Cavaignac and Baroche, who was president of the Council of State.

The following owner, the ultra-rich Duke of Galliéra passed it on to his wife and she let out the ground floor to the Count of Paris, Philippe VII, who was chief of the royal house of France after the death of Henri V, who was also known as the Duke of Chambord.

Anyway, the Count of Paris gave one party too many - this was in Republican France after all - and there was a 'reactionary' agitation by those who thought the republican laws making princes illegal in France, should be enforced. So the Duchess de Galliéra willed the place to the Emperor Franz-Joseph who used it as the embassy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, until the unfortunate episode that began in the summer of 1914.

In 1920 the Hôtel Matignon was loaned to the arbitration committee created by the Treaty of Versailles, and in 1935 it became what it is today - a republican building functioning as the Prime Minister's office.

My guide also says it has the 'biggest private park in Paris.' It goes all the way through to the Rue de Babylone, but an ordinary pedestrian cannot see this from the Rue de Varenne's sidewalk, like one can see the front door of 10. Downing Street.

There are number of 'historic site' signs posted along the street, but these become fewer after passing the Rue de Bellechasse. The 380 metres of walls since leaving the Boulevard des Invalides have made me thirsty, so here is the first opportunity for a refreshment, and a game of pinball if I were in the mood.

So far the only overtly commercial establishment has been the cultural service of the Italian embassy. The next, I think, is an old laundry, and then life picks up as the Rue de Bac is neared. The last long block is eventually intersected by the Boulevard Raspail, and then there's only one little block on the other side of it.

Luckily this is near Sèvres-Babylone, where there a métro station, life, shopping - the Bon Marché - the big hotel, buses and Raspail's traffic. It is like arriving in an open town on a market day after being in another one on a Sunday.

A lot of the residents and owners of the long list of 'hôtels' above were definitely not republicans. My guide book says they still are not. They were here before the Révolution and if they survived it, or emigration, and they returned from either, they chose to return here.

In the 19th century, while 'les nouveaux riches' were moving into Haussmann's sanitized Paris, or inhabiting new property developments like 'Nouvelle Athénes,' the old gang were sitting behind their walls in the 7th, hoping to be invited to one of the Count of Paris' little parties.

The Assembly National, for example, sits in the Palais Bourbon. This was originally built in 1728 for Louise-Françoise de Bourbon, who was known as the 'Mademoiselle de Nantes.'

The imposing part you can see on the Quai d'Orsay facing the Pont de la Concorde, was ordered to be built by Napoléon, to be kind of a match for the Madeleine church. It is a false-front.

The real entry is in the back, in the Place du Palais-Bourbon. The palace was owned by the Bourbons, in the form of the Prince de Condé, before the Révolution. Then it was confiscated, but when things cooled down - after Napoléon's departure - it was returned to the Bourbon-Condés.

The République rented it from this family, then bought part of it in 1827 - so the deputies could continue using it. After the last Prince de Condé, who was living in the other part of the palace, died mysteriously in 1830, the state bought the remainder.

In all, the state paid the Bourbon-Condés 10,547,475 francs for a property it had seized it from the same family during the Révolution.

France is famous for its symbolism and its symbols, but I am having a bit of difficulty trying to figure out how the République has its deputies sit in a palace, its Prime Minister sitting in a 'hôtel' once owned by the Duchess de Bourbon, and its Président's official residence is a 'palace.'

Just to round things off, you might remember that the Hôtel Matignon was 'traded' for the Elysée palace. On the right bank, this was built for the Count d'Evreux and bought by the Marquise de Pompadour in 1753. When she died it was a while before it was bought again and fixed up by the court's banker, Beaujon.

This fellow had the palace laid out so he could wheel-chair around in it, while confining his diet to spinach. His doctor was paid 12000 livres per year, but only so long as he kept his patient alive. This terrific incentive worked fine and Beaujon sold the Elysée, before croaking, to the king, who bought it for the Duchess de Bourbon-Condé.

This 'Elysée-Bourbon,' my guide says, was confiscated by the Révolution. But the Directoire let the Duchess remain in a part of it until she went into exilephoto: laundry, rue varenne in 1798. It's park was turned into a pleasure garden called the 'Hameau Chantilly,' and the palace was subdivided into apartments, until Murat bought it in 1805 and kept it until he became the King of Naples.

The Rue de Varenne is also a street with few or no coin laundries.

Josephine lived in it before moving to Malmaison and Czar Alexander stayed in the Elysée in 1814, and even Napoléon 'the First' passed a couple of nights there before taking a one-way trip to Sainte-Hélène in 1815. Then it was given back to Duchess de Bourbon-Condé who traded it for the Matignon.

This all tends to proves that even in a republic history doesn't have to make perfect sense - or it proves that French republicans can be very pragmatic about mere buildings even if they are palaces.

However, all of this is off the point of the 'prototypical' Rue de Varennes being long and boring. If you will recall, the first building I have seen today, and the last one in the street, has been one of the two Hôtels de Biron.

This is the home of the splendid Musée Rodin. Although you can see his 'Les Bourgeois de Calais' set of figures from the sidewalk - through the only glass in the entire street's walls - it costs the modest fee of only 1euro 3 sign to enter and tour the park.

In the big garden behind the hôtel there is also a café with outside tables near a modern toilet facility. Other pieces of Rodin's major works are scattered about, such as the 'Thinker' and 'La Port d'Enfer,' and there is a neat oval pond to reflect the hôtel.

If you find the deserted walls of the 7th arrondissement lack much interest, here is an oasis of major proportions. If you can find the Rue de Varennes, just off the Boulevard des Invalides, the 7th can give you its money's worth for less than a dollar.

The Musée Rodin - also has a Web site, as well as an annex museum in Meudon. In Paris, it is open daily in winter from 9:30 to 16:45. At 77. Rue de Varennes, Paris 7. Métro: Varennes. InfoTel.: 01 44 18 61 24. In Meudon, at the Villa des Brillants, 19. Avenue Auguste-Rodin. Only open from May to October, only on Fridays and weekends. Hours are 13:30 to 18:00. Take the RER 'C' to Val Fleury and then the bus 169 to Paul-Bert. InfoTel.: 01 41 14 35 00.

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