Latin Quarter Walking Tour

Walking tour guidebooks are common currency in the tourism industry, but Thirza Vallois’ recent publication, “Around and About in Paris,” could qualify as an entertaining textbook. Vallois has lived in Paris for over 30 years and has a post-graduate degree from the Sorbonne. She claims to know Paris stone by stone and has read every book of note about its history and development. The following is taken from Volume One, which covers the first seven arrondissements.

This walk, one of my favorites, starts in the northeastern section of the sixth arrondissement, which, despite the artificial border between the fifth and sixth arrondissements created by Haussmann’s boulevard St. Michel, is still part of the Latin Quarter.

As you walk along rue St.-André-des-Arts, turn left into rue de l’Eperon and right into rue du Jardinet, a serene and romantic alley. This leads to the Cour de Rohan, a jewel in the crown of the sixth arrondissement, with three successive courtyards revealing new surprises as it unfolds before your eyes. The crooked paving, the ancient well, the cascading creepers and the rose bushes will enchant you. The third courtyard is a painter’s paradise with its jumble of balconies, terraces and windows of all shapes and sizes. From the center of the shady courtyard, two trees stretch up their slender trunks, reaching out for the sun, then spread open their leafy branches above the roofs to offer their shade. As you approach the exit allow your eyes to wander over the extraordinary explosion of rose bushes, ivy and honeysuckle that climb above a white cottage with bright blue shutters. A row of rustic garrets, decked out with neat geraniums, completes the picture.

As you leave the courtyard, you will see on the cottage walls paintings of the enlightened representatives of the Siècle de Lumière, including a plywood Voltaire. It is all tourist kitsch but the charm works. You have landed in the alley of the Cour-du-Commerce-Saint-André, the heart of the 18th century Enlightenment, the stronghold of its “Philosophes,” who gathered, notably, at the Procope, the cottage in front of you, where they paved the way for the Revolution. Now that this enclave has been given a facelift it looks like a Disneyland reenactment of history but, taken with a pinch of salt, it is fun, with its colorful flags and shop signs recreating pre-industrial street life. The cobblestones are hard on the feet but essential to the atmosphere. In cold weather you could take refuge and sample the delicious pastry in a cozy British-style salon de thé, La Cour de Rohan, to your right. In warm weather you may prefer the outdoor terrace of a turn-of-the century bistro to your left, with its bright geraniums. There is also a “pub” with a miscellany of Revolutionary references and a British touch.

If you are after history in a big way the Procope is your place. It doesn’t serve outstanding fare but there is an entire history lesson posted in its windows, recording that here is where Robespierre and the Montagnards met on the eve of the Revolution; Benjamin Franklin drafted the alliance between Louis XVI and the American republic; playwright Piron quarreled with Voltaire; and Voltaire created Candide. Few passersby stop to read the information, as the street is full of other distractions: a crêperie to the right, savories from Auvergne to the left, Nadaud’s splash contemporary furniture opposite and music-making on rue St.-André-des-Arts. Who has time to delve into history?

Yet the Cour-du-Commerce-Saint-André is history itself. It opened in 1776, when the intellectual fever in Paris reached its peak. The boulevard Saint-Germain did not exist at the time, and the passageway, lined with picturesque stalls and two long lanes for playing boules, continued as far as the present Carrefour de l’Odéon. Most of the houses still date back to that year and will be of particular meaning to the American visitor, whose early history is so tied up with that of France. A century later the famous writer and literary critic Sainte-Beuve occupied two rooms on the first floor at no. 2, then a lodging hotel. On May 28, 1871, following a week of bloody fighting which ended with the defeat of the Commune, one of its leaders, Jules Vallès, took refuge in Sainte-Beuve’s apartment disguised as a male nurse. A tower of the famous walls of Philippe-Auguste is encompassed within the premises of no. 4, rising up to the roof – a formidable construction indeed. No 8 was the printing shop where Marat published his paper, “l’Ami du Peuple,” which, contrary to its benign name, was a vindictive sheet advocating wholesale despoilment and executions and demanding the heads of 270,000 enemies of the homeland, above all the Girondins.

No. 9, the workshop of the German carpenter Schmidt, was where in April, 1792, Dr. Louis Guillotin first put into practice his theories about his decapitation device by experimenting on live sheep. In October, 1789, at the National Assembly, Dr. Guillotin had already suggested a new, more efficient mode of execution, a proposition rejected at the time. “The blade whistles,” he had told the Assembly, “the head falls, the blood gushes forth, the man is no more – with my machine I shall make your heads topple off in a flash and you will feel but a light breeze on your necks.” His description was greeted by an uproar of laughter. But by 1792 mass executions of the enemies of the “patrie” were envisaged and on March 25 Dr. Louis, the permanent secretary of the Academy of Surgery, was commissioned to carry out Guillotin’s project. After its first experiment on the Cour-du-Commerce-Saint-André proved a success, the machine was tried on three dead bodies at the hospital of Bicêtre (in the 13th arr.) on April 17. By April 25 the “Louisin” or “Louisette” (the early name of the machine, which honored Dr. Louis, an injustice soon remedied) was ready for the first public execution on Place de Grève. The victim was Jacques Pelletier, condemned for assault and theft. Meanwhile, a mechanic by the name of Guillot was working on a more sophisticated machine, equipped with nine blades, that would allow the simultaneous decapitation of nine convicts; but his device, which was tried out the following year, was not quite ready to function. Thus, in an amateurish way, the French Revolution was already working covertly on the use of science and technology for murderous ends on mass scale. Like some Moloch, the guillotine devoured indiscriminately the makers and the opponents of those dark days; even the neck of Dr. Guillotin was condemned to the philanthropic blade he had inverted and offered to France, and was spared only by the timely downfall of Robespierre.

“Around and About in Paris,” published by Iliad Books, is available at local English-language bookstores.


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