Paris’ Second – and Long-Forgotten – River

If you have spent any time at all in Paris, you must have crossed at least one of the bridges over the river Seine at some point. Every tourist has strolled across the Pont Neuf taking in the hue of the city’s beautiful stone buildings at sunset. Incidentally, despite being called the “New Bridge” it is today the oldest bridge still standing, because it was the first to be made out of stone.

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However, very few people know of Paris’ second river: La Bièvre.

It dissected the Left Bank of the city, flowing in from Stade Charléty, past La Buttes aux Cailles and through what is now known as the Latin Quarter until it eventually joined la Seine near Gare de l’Austerlitz.

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It was a natural waterway which stretched for 33 kilometres (approximately 21 miles) and provided a livelihood for the communities which sprung up on its banks.

Namely, Les Gobelins tapestry works (for centuries, the official suppliers of fabrics to the French royal family) which would not have survived without a good source of water.

Neither would a whole host of dyers, mills and leather tanneries have chosen this area to set up business had it not have been for the Bièvre.

-> Incidentally there were so many watermills that the river was straightened to accomodate them all. Many street names in this area still bear the mention “moulin”! <- 

The market-sellers on rue Mouffetard received their deliveries by boat.

These businesses also enjoyed the tax credits that came from being located just outside the mediaeval city limits. (See here about the history of wine in Montmartre.)

When reflecting on the rise of industrialisation and urbanisation in Paris, there’s no denying that the river Bièvre was key.

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Unfortunately, what was the river’s strength also became its downfall. Because of all this industrial activity, it became so horribly polluted that in the late 1870s Baron Haussmann, that radical rebuilder under Napoleon III, decided to put an end to its days. The stinking river was transmitting disease and illness to those downstream. It had become too much of a health risk.

Bit by bit, the river was culverted (the technical term for “built over”) and nowadays the regenerated city of Paris leaves next to no trace of what still flows underneath. The only signs that a pair of sharp-eyes might spot are a couple of medallions dotted in the pavement.

The photo above was taken on rue Censier, a road which was itself only created after the river was sacrificed. For those who are particularly interested, the road was inaugurated in 1913.

The Bièvre still flows but now it does so under our feet, as part of Paris’ sewage system.

Which Is The Oldest Street in Paris?

The oldest street in Paris is the rue Saint Jacques, in the 5th arrondissement.

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Leading from the Île de la Cité, where Paris was founded, the rue Saint Jacques passes through the Sorbonne University, the Pantheon, Port Royal and finally reaches Denfert-Rochereau.

Over two and a half kilometres (= one and a half miles) long, this route has been trodden since at least the 1st century BC.

In Roman times, it was known as the Via Superior.

In the Middle Ages, it was one of the way-points for pilgrims on the Camino di Santiago (or in French, the Saint Jacques de Compostelle.) They would meet at the Tour Saint Jacques (right next to the rue de Rivoli) and then make their way down the rue Saint Jacques.

Now, still just as steep as ever, it is predominantly populated by students, tourists and Starbucks.

Le Marché aux Puces de Saint Ouen with Discover Walks

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It’s rare that I’ll be standing outside a McDonald’s at 10.45 on a Saturday morning. On this occasion, coming at the end of a full week of fun birthday festivities, the smell of greasy oil was almost enough to turn my stomach. However, the reason for standing there on this particular morning was to meet our Discover Walks guide for a tour around the flea markets of Saint Ouen.

I had tried to venture into the Marché aux Puces once before, with a group of friends shortly after arriving in Paris in 2011. Despite having tried as best we could to read about the different markets online, the five of us ended up, after just thirty minutes, stressed, overwhelmed and LOST!

This time, it was a dream. Our guide took us round the Marché Vernaison, Marché Dauphine, Marché Paul Bert and Marché Jules Vallès. We covered furniture, antiques, silver, vintage posters, old newspapers, designer clothes and everything in between. The two hours flew by.

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At the end, he shakes our hand, says goodbye and leaves us to retrace our steps back to whatever may have caught our eye during the tour. (In my case, it was a coffee and a lamb sandwich!)

More personable than professional, it was like having your friend show you round town. An inexpensive orientation to an area that is otherwise very difficult to navigate as a first-timer and we learnt some interesting titbits along the way.

In contemporary French language, if you are going through a rather dodgy and unsafe area, you might hear someone say: “wow, mais c’est le zone!” I had always thought that it was some kind of abbreviation for “war zone” but it turns out that “the zone” actually refers to the stretch of land between the Boulevard des Marechaux and the Peripherique, which was (and still is rather) a No Man’s Land.

Having someone who knows their way around, who can keep you out of trouble and steer you in the right direction is invaluable.

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One of the really curious facts of history that we learnt was that up until March 2014, Saint Ouen was run by a Communist local government. It’s for that reason that this area is known as the ceinture rouge (red belt) and it’s also why this area has not had the same real-estate development boom that other suburbs of Paris have been experiencing recently. The idea of ploughing any profits from building projects straight back into the public purse was rather discouraging, to put it lightly, to any private investors.

Thank you Discover Walks for giving me the the opportunity to do something that in the four years that I’ve been in Paris, I hadn’t done myself.

To check out their website and book this tour for yourself, the link’s here.

 http://www.discoverwalks.com/paris-walking-tours/

P.S. For more photos of the markets, that’s this way.

The History of Wine in Paris

Picture yourself in 18th century Paris. The streets are narrow, smelly and just as ridden with vagabonds, ragamuffins and the more-than-just-occasional four-legged rodent as they are today.

Now imagine that the Eiffel Tower has not yet been constructed, nor has the Montparnasse Tower. Haussmann has not been born and thus the entirety of the city ressembled what we refer to as the Latin Quarter today. There is a large hill in the background so far to the north that it is considered the countryside. The 42,000 hectares surrounding this mediaeval town are planted with vines. The vineyards stretch to as far as the eye can see. This was the most important viticultural area in France.

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By the end of the nineteenth century, there were no fewer than 4450 wine merchants operating in the Paris area and around 11,000 “débits de boissons” (drinking holes.) The reason why cabarets, bars, and other establishments of ill-repute (i.e. the Moulin Rouge) flourished in the area of Montmartre to such an extent was because alcohol tax was not payable outside the city gates and the city limits did not yet stretch that far.

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Le Clos de Montmartre, the vineyard situated on the hill behind the Sacré-Coeur, can trace its history back to Roman times. Records suggest that wine was being produced in the area even as far back as that. In the sixteenth century, we have more records and the inhabitants of the area now known as Montmartre were mainly labourers. There were around fifteen fully operative windmills at this time – however, you may not have realised that they were not being used for grinding grains into flour, but for pressing wine.

This was all about to change. The arrival of the railways brought about an invasion of wine from the south (from warmer climates, where the wine was marginally more drinkable) to this northen town. Bit by bit, Montmartre was urbanised, criminalised and turned into an infamous hedonist’s playground, with its numerous cabarets and taverns of various forms of iniquity. Wine was still being consumed, but the drink of choice had moved on to absinthe.

By the start of the 20th century, not a single vine was left.

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It was only in the 1930s that the “Vieux Montmartre” group, vociferally led by Mr Francisque Poulbot (more commonly remembered nowadays for his illustrations, above) pushed the Montmartre Council to replant the vines. The first harvest finally took place in 1934.

The principal grape varieties are Gamay and Pinot Noir and what is most remarkable is that the vineyard, just as before, is entirely north-facing. The wine itself is not particularly note-worthy, it’s rather more what it stands for and its scarcity that makes it popular.

The 80th Fete des Vendanges (“Harvest Celebration”) took place in 2012. Almost 2000 bottles were sold and the proceeds were then ploughed back into the welfare projects in the 18th arondissement.

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Little Pieces of Trivia

There is actually second wine producing vineyard in Paris – “La Vigne de Paris Bagatelle” – a private vineyard in the 16th arrondissement.

The Goutte d’Or is so called as a reference to the golden colour of the white wine that this area produced. In mediaeval times, the City of Paris would traditionally give the King a gift of this golden wine.

Emile Zola’s L’Assommoir (1877) based around the theme of alcoholism and poverty in the late 19th century was set in the Goutte d’Or.

Find out more about other tiny vineyards in Paris here.