Bievre river



The Bièvre river was running in Paris as two parallel flows - from parc Kellermann to Austerlitz
From the book " sur les traces de la Bièvre Parisienne " - Ed Parigramme

This stroll can be rather considered as a ghost one, since we walk along a small river now all buried under the pavement when it enters Paris: its name – la Bièvre. When Atget took pictures of it at the beginning of the last century, it was still partially visible in the southern part of Paris, in the 13th district, between Poterne des Peupliers and rue des Gobelins before it was completely buried and integrated with the sewer network of Paris.
The river begins at Guyancourt in the forest of Versailles, flows through the cities of Jouy en Josas, Bièvres, then becomes an underground river in Antony, flows through Fresnes, Arceuil, Gentilly and finally enters in Paris where it joins the Seine river. It is thought that its name, Bièvre, comes from the fact that in the past many beavers (beber in Celtic) were living in the river. However, this is not attested and it is also thought that the name would come from its brown color due to the sludge (boue or bourbe in French) it contains.

The course of the river mapped against the today Paris was starting in the south under boulevard Kellermann, then was following a large meander around a hill, Butte aux Cailles. In this area, called la Glacière (the ice-house), there were flood-meadows, where the water was easily transforming into ice during the winter. Then, the ice was cut and kept in the stone quarries to be later sold during the summer. Leaving the Butte aux Cailles , the river was running along the Gobelins Manufactory, settled on its banks. All polluted by the dyeing activity of the manufacture and also by many of the tanneries settled along the river, it was finally running along the Jardin des Plantes to end into the Seine between the Austerlitz bridge and the Charles de Gaulle bridge.

During the 12th century, the Saint-Victor Abbey was permitted to divert the Bievre river in order to power their mills and water the gardens of the monastery. This diversion called the Canal des Victorins was starting from the National Museum of Natural History, then flowing up to Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet church and was finally running along the today rue de Bièvre to end into Seine river at the level of Cathedral Notre-Dame.

Our walk in the streets will follow its route even though it is today integrated into the sewer network, from parc Kellermann up to Jardin des Plantes, and finally along the former Canal des Victorins and end rue de Bièvre.

I could not miss passing by the Eugène Atget street, essentially stairs, between la Butte aux Cailles and boulevard Auguste Blanqui.
The French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans described well the misfortune of the overexploited and polluted river by all the tanneries, the leather-dressing factories and the dye works and its sad end into the sewer. His descriptions match perfectly with the pictures taken by Atget.

Parc Kellermann

Bièvre river – Poterne des Peupliers – Area of fortifications
Atget - 1913
(Musée Carnavalet)

When going out of the metro at Maison Blanche, let’s cross avenue d’Italie and enter into jardin du Moulin de la Pointe. In the past there were many mills along the river Bièvre. This garden reminds of the mill (moulin)  which was built at the end of the path (de la Pointe)  leading to the Fontainebleau road, today avenue d’Italie.
We now cross boulevard Kellermann and we enter in another small garden, Jardin du Monument aux Mères Françaises honoring the French mothers raising their children alone after the first World War. Then, we are reaching parc Kellermann where we arrive directly on the bastion of the old fortifications built in the 19th century. From there, we have an overall view over the park, built on the former bed of the Bievre river.
Where there is the pond today, the river was divided into two parallel flows: the native flow (slower, so-called Bièvre morte - Dead Bièvre) and the artificial one (with a higher water flow, so-called Bièvre vive - alive Bièvre). These two river flows were winding in parallel and finally joining the Seine river. With the division of the river, the water flow was then higher in order to supply the mills built along its banks.

Here in this park, between Gentilly and Paris, the river stayed uncovered until 1935, long after  the last open-air section of the river within Paris was finally covered in 1912 and completely integrated within the sewer network.

The picture taken by Atget is showing the Bievre river (the artificial arm of the river) leaving a peaceful countryside to enter in Paris through the wall of the fortifications. The view is very bucolic, constrasting with the other side of the wall where the river was absorbed by the polluting city.

Let’s follow rue Max Jacob along  the stadium and take on our right rue de la Poterne des Peupliers.

  • Parc Kellermann
    On the left, bastion of the old fortifications

Between rue de la Poterne des Peupliers and rue de Tolbiac

Square des Peupliers

Rue de la Poterne des Peupliers follows the old curve in the Bièvre (natural arm). We are walking under the Poterne des Peupliers bridge, formerly going through the walls of the fortifications. The second bridge was formerly below the railway of Petite Ceinture (circular railway supplying the fortifications). The Bievre river (natural arm) was entering Paris through these two openings.

 We now continue on rue des Peupliers up to place de l'Abbé Georges Hénocque, then on our right in rue Henri Pape up to rue du Moulin des Prés (Mill in the meadows). On the ground, a medallion ancien lit de la Bièvre (former bed of Bièvre river), indicating the bed of the former river and indicating where was the mill from which the street got its name.
The charming little houses, place Hénocque, rue Dieulafoy, rue du Moulin aux Prés, square des Peupliers could be quite somewhere else than Paris. As a local several years ago, I was dreaming indeed to be the lucky owner of one of these houses. When arriving on rue de Tolbiac, let's turn on our left,  and continue up to rue Vergniauld where the artificial branch of the river was flowing.

  • Rue Dieulafoy

  • Place de l'Abbé Georges Hénocque

Rue de la Colonie

Rue de la Colonie, viewed from rue de Tolbiac
Atget – 1900

The picture taken by Atget in 1900 shows that the Bièvre valley was already partly recovered. With a closer look to the photo, we can guess where was the bed of the river: on the right of the street lamp, between the house and the excavation slope where rue Vergniaud is today. The small house on the left with the shuttered windows was located at n°2, rue de la Colonie (meaning the community). The name of the street is due to the existence of an important community of rag men settled on the bank of the river where they could wash the clothes.


Rue Vergniaud - Rue Daviel

Villa Daviel

Let's now continue on rue Vergniaud which follows the Bièvre Valley, then rue Daviel on our right where we stop at the n°10, to take a look at the Petite Alsace named from the half timbered houses typical from the Alsace region. On the other side of the street, let's also have a look at the quiet Villa Daviel. The two groups of small houses were built in 1912.

Let’s stop at the top of the street at the junction with rue Barrault; from there we can guess where was flowing the Bièvre river. One arm (the artificial one) was flowing at the level of the Petite Alsace houses and the other arm (the natural one) was flowing at the level of the café with the red shade at the corner of the street.

Rue de la Butte aux Cailles

Rue Buot

Let’s turn on our left onto rue Barrault, and let’s enjoy the nice rue de la Butte aux Cailles, up to place Verlaine. Meanwhile, when crossing rue Buot, let’s enjoy the view, which makes me always think of being somewhere in Italy. The church that we see is the rear of the church Sainte Anne de la Butte aux Cailles that we could see when we were rue de Tolbiac.   

Butte aux Cailles - Place Paul Verlaine

Artesian well of Butte aux Cailles
Atget – 1900

The artesian well of Butte aux Cailles, at the corner of rue des Moulins des Prés and place Paul Verlaine was decided in 1866. The well had a double purpose: the first one was indeed to supply water to this district located on a hill; the second was to add extra water to the river during summer. It was planned that the underground pipeline following rue du Moulin aux Prés could release six thousand cubic meters of water in the river per day. However, the project was delayed due to many difficulties and when it restarted in 1903, it was too late as the river was starting to be covered. The idea of a swimming pool was found to use the artesian well. Together with public baths, the swimming pool was built in 1924.

Today, the artesian well is a meeting point for the inhabitants who can bottle a clear flowing water extracted six meter deep.

  • Swimming pool of Butte aux Cailles

  • Supply of clear flowing water at the artesian well

  • Butte aux Cailles

Rue Eugène Atget

Now let's take rue Simonet, then rue Gérard on the left, and rue Jonas on the right which leads us to the garden Brassaï which ends into rue Eugène Atget.
An opportunity here to address a special thought to this great photographer of Paris, whose photos are an infinite source of inspiration for my strolls. I cannot be tired of going to the spots captured by Atget more than hundred years ago. I love looking at the photos taken by Atget because they remind me somehow the Paris of my childhood and they are linked to the Paris known by my beloved grand-parents. I definitively feel a sweet fascination for the photos taken by Atget; Superimposing his mysterious Paris with photos of today Paris give me the sensation to play a hide-and-seek game with ghosts.

Boulevard Auguste Blanqui - Rue Barrault

Let's turn on our left onto boulevard Auguste Blanqui. Let's stop at the junction with rue Barrault, at the Nr 1, where the adjacent building of the nursery is an old tannery; it still has its flat roof, its base made in bricks, its oak joists. The wooden shutters evoke the general shape of the old movable wood battens used for drying the skins.

91, boulevard Auguste Blanqui

The picture taken by Atget shows the two arms of the Bièvre river (the artificial one on the right) and the two archways across boulevard d’Italie (today boulevard Auguste Blanqui).
Compared to today environment, the natural arm of the river was going through the nr 91 boulevard Auguste Blanqui and the artificial arm was between nrs 85 and 89.

  • The Bièvre river – Bd d’Italie
    Atget – ca 1890

Let’s now cross the boulevard. In front of us, slightly on the left we can see the offices of the newspaper Le Monde, designed by the architect Christian de Portzamparc and its facade illustrated by the cartoonist Plantu.   

Where there is today the block between the streets Edmond Gondinet and Paul Gervais, there was an island  between the two arms of the river. The natural arm giving the winding shape of the rue Paul Gervais and the artificial arm giving the straight shape of rue Gondinet that we are going to take.  

Rue Edmond Gondinet

The picture taken by Atget in 1890 is showing the Bièvre river upstream. The slope on the right was separating the artificial arm of the river from the natural one. The building on the left is a tannery where the sheepskins, the goatskins and lambskins were softened and bleached in flour and eggs preparations.

Let’s now proceed onto rue Croulebarbe.


  • Bièvre river - Bd d'Italie -
    Gone away in 1891, today rue Edmond Gondinet

Rue Croulebarbe

Tannery and the Bievre river
Rue Croulebarbe
Atget – 1899/1901

Comparing with the photo taken by Atget, rue Croulebarbe stands where was the bank and the artificial river (called here the Gobelins river). Where  was the garden of the Gobelins Manufacture behind the wall on the left is today the public garden René le Gall.

Square René Le Gall

Passage Moret, ruelle des Gobelins
Atget – 1926

In the past, the space between the two arms of the river, was called l'île aux Singes (the Monkeys island). Why monkeys? there is no clear explanation. Some give the explanation that some monkeys would have been left by animal trainers. Others give the explanation that in slang a monkey mean a boss, the boss from the Gobelins Manufacture.

In the upstream part of the island, there were gardens dedicated to the Gobelins workers. The artificial arm of the river was flowing behind the wall along rue Croulebarbe; the natural arm of the river was flowing where are today the wall along the Rodin school and the one along the Mobilier National building. The river was going through the Passage Moret, today rue Emile Deslandres. This passage was rather a slum, a court of Miracles inhabited by leather workers as described by the writer J.K. Huysmans. The area was completely transformed in the 1930s, the gardens replaced by the public garden René le Gall and the slum demolished and replaced by the Mobilier National building.  

Now let’s take the exit of the public garden located rue Emile Deslandres and turn on our right ioto rue Berbier du Mets.     


  • La Bièvre – Passage Moret
    Atget - 1900
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Rue Emile Deslandres

Rue Berbier du Mets

The artificial arm of the river was then flowing where is today rue Berbier du Mets (former ruelle des Gobelins), at the foot of the Gobelins Manufactory buildings and of the chapel (at no 3, rue Berbier du Mets).

This part between 18, rue Berbier du Mets and boulevard Arago was the last one to stay uncovered within Paris, due to legal actions brought by two determined inhabitants. Finally their resistance ended with a measure of expropriation and the river was completely covered in July 1912. The photo taken by Atget shows the forebay, viewed from downstream. On this photo we can also see a roof above the houses at the end of the left bank. This is the roof of the brick building at n°18, boulevard Arago.

Let’s now proceed up to rue des Gobelins on the right.

  • Bièvre river
    ruelle des Gobelins.
    Atget - May 1900
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue des Gobelins

Château de la Reine-Blanche
17 rue des Gobelins
Atget – 1898
(Musée Carnavalet)

Rue des Gobelins (formerly called rue de Bièvre) is one of the oldest streets in Paris. It still has old houses built between 1450 and 1750, like the one located at no 3 bis, which was the Gobelins master house.
At no 17, through the gate, we can have a glimpse of the chateau de la Reine Blanche in the back of the long yard with bricks buildings. Guided visits are offered during summer and the Heritage days, including visits of the yards and the tower (entrance rue Gustave Geffroy).
Together with the house at no 19, this building was also owned by the Gobelins family and was known as the house from down, versus the house at the top at no 3. As shown by the photo taken by Atget, we can still see today a building which looks like a chateau with its dungeon and roofed half timbered gallery. However, this very old house built ca 1500 is far to be a chateau, it is only an industrial building which was a dyeing manufacture when owned by the Gobelins family and later a tannery during the 19th century.
Though not proved, it is said that before this austere and elegant building, it was the castle of the Queen Blanche de Castille, the mother of King Saint-Louis who died at the close Cordelières convent.

From rue des Gobelins to rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

Square Adanson
Former tanneries

We now continue along avenue des Gobelins, then rue Monge. The Bièvre river was flowing through no 116, rue Monge, after the pont aux tripes (the Tripe bridge) and was reaching what is today square Adanson, where its was the Photographie forebay going up to rue de la Clef. At the back of square Adanson, we still can see old tanneries.

Let’s take rue Censier on our right up to rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. At no 32, rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, the yard of Maison Soeur-Rosalie was built over the bed river. Rather than proceeding rue de Buffon which follows the last part of the Bièvre river before ending into Seine river, I rather stay rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire to follow canal des Victorins, up to rue de Bièvre. This canal was built in the Middle Age to bring water to the Saint-Victor abbey.
For the ones who prefer to stop here, in front of Jardin des Plantes, they can enjoy a glass of mint tea with oriental pastries at the Mosque Paris.  

Following former Canal des Victorins up to rue de Bièvre

For the ones who follow, we continue along rue Linné, then on the left along rue Jussieu and rue des Ecoles. We find back rue Monge on our right, then rue des Bernardins along Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet. We take boulevard Saint-Germain on our left, and then on our right rue de la Bièvre.   

Starting rue Geofrroy Saint-Hilaire, we have then more or less followed the Saint-Victorin canal, built during the 12th century to bring water from the Bièvre river to a mill and to the gardens of the Saint-Victor abbey. The diversion canal was starting at the level of where is today the Jardin des Plantes, was joining Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet, then following the present rue de Bièvre to which it gave its name and finally ending into Seine river in front of Notre-Dame. Receiving a heap of rubbish and garbage over the centuries, the canal really became an open sewer and was finally covered during the 17th century.

Our stroll is ending here rue de Bièvre.

  • Rue de Bièvre
    Atget – 1900
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Street art ...

I have already shared some street-art works, found during my stroll in Belleville. The 13rd district is also famous for its street-art works, see these self guided tours.
I admit that we are here very far from Atget's world, but on the other side how not to mention this artistic reality which enhance the streets of this district.

  • Boulevard Kellermann - Poterne Peupliers

  • Boulevard Kellermann - Poterne Peupliers

  • Boulevard Kellermann - Poterne Peupliers

  • Butte aux Cailles
    Passage Boiton

  • Rue Vandrezanne - Kashink

  • Rue de Tolbiac - Tiktoy

  • Rue de la Butte aux Cailles
    Seth et Azul

  • Rue Emile Deslandres
    Seth - La Fille au Parapluie (girl with umbrella)

Year 2018 - Text and photos: Martine Combes