Strolling around Odéon



We will start in the Odéon area, continuing through the lively streets of Buci and Saint-André-des-Arts and will finally come back to boulevard Saint-Germain reaching our starting point at metro Odéon.
Though we will be strolling mainly in the 6th  arrondissement, we will cross several districts, looking quite different. Although different, they are all marked by literature and arts, and also by history, especially the revolutionary period. There is no specific theme for this stroll, other than enjoying the atmosphere of this district and of course following the invisible thread of the places captured by the photographer Atget.    

We will pass following streets: 

-       Carrefour de l’Odéon – Rue de l’Odéon – Place de l’Odéon
-       Rue de l’Ecole de Médecine
-       Rue du Jardinet – Cour de Rohan - Cour du Commerce Saint-André
-       Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie
-       Rue de Buci – Rue de Seine
-       Rue Jacques Callot – Rue Mazarine
-       Passage Dauphine  - Rue Christine
–       Rue Séguier – Rue Saint-André des Arts
-       Rue Gît le Cœur – Rue de l’Hirondelle - Place Saint-André des Arts
-       Rue Hautefeuille

Rue de l'Odéon

Let's take rue de l'Odéon up to the theater. I always have the same pleasure walking rue de l'Odéon, along the shops and bookstores with a beautiful view on the theater with Jardin du Luxembourg sitting like behind the scenes.

As soon as the weather is nice, the half-moon shaped square is occupied by a terrace in front of the classical colonnaded theater. Open in 1782, it is the first monumental theater built in Paris, providing a more convenient home for the King's Players (Les Comédiens du Roi) than the one located at rue de l' Ancienne Comédie, too small. Twice burned down and rebuilt in the past, it has been completely renovated in 2006 and continues to provide classical and modern high quality plays.

I was reading recently Anne Wiazemsky’s book, Un an après (One Year Later) telling her relationship with the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, engaged in the political battle during the social turbulence of May 1968 in Paris.  She describes her exhilaration during the early stages of May 68, then, her confusion and fears during the demonstrations and her rage to see the Odéon theater, sacred place for her, devastated and ransacked by the demonstrators who managed to occupy it.

  • Théâtre de l’Odéon
    Place de l’Odéon
    (Musée Carnavalet)

As can be seen on the picture taken by Atget, the theater arcades used to be dedicated to the book selling. The publisher Flammarion started there as a bookseller. The book selling activities under the arcades stopped in the 50s.

  • Galerie de l’Odéon
    Atget – 1899/1900

Flammarion is now located at nr1, place de l’Odéon, where was Café Voltaire founded in 1750, a favorite place for writers and poets for many years, like Verlaine, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Gide, Valéry … It was also the favorite spot for the writers who gathered at the two avant-garde bookstores located rue de l’Odéon: Shakespeare and Company * owned by Sylvia Beach and la Maison des Amis des Livres owned by Adrienne Monnier. Among these writers were Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound named by Gertrude Stein the Lost Generation because of the World War 1.    

In my introduction, I was mentioning the fact that this neighborhood had been marked by the Revolutionary period. Camille Desmoulins was living here at no 22, rue de l'Odéon at the nearby Cordeliers Convent where he met with Danton and Marat. Arrested at home the same day as Danton, he was taken to the nearby Luxembourg Palace transformed into a prison, before his execution the 5th of April, 1794.
Let's go now rue de l'Ecole de Médecine, where used to be the Revolutionary Cordeliers Club taking its name from the Convent. For this, let's follow rue Casimir Delavigne, cross rue Monsieur le Prince where there are several bookstores including two English ones; and finally let's go down few steps rue Antoine Dubois which leads to rue de l'Ecole de Médecine.

* The bookstore Shakespeare and Company, founded by Sylvia Beach,  closed in 1941, during the German occupation of Paris. When Sylvia Beach died in 1962, Georges Whitman renamed his bookstore, rue de la Bûcherie into Shakespeare and Company.

  • Café Voltaire
    Place de l’Odéon
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue de l'Ecole de Médecine

Naturaliste, rue Ecole de Médecine
Atget – 1926

The Cordeliers Convent was standing where, is today the Faculty of Medicine. This is where the members of the Cordeliers club were meeting during the French Revolution. One of them, Marat, was living in a nearby house which was destroyed when boulevard Saint-German was built. This is at his home that Marat was stabbed to death by Charlotte Corday, the 13th of July, 1793, when he was in a sulfur bath as a remedy against a severe skin disease.

Before the burial in the garden of the convent, the state funeral of Marat was dramatically arranged by the painter David in the Church of Cordeliers. The corpse, draped under a wet sheet in imitation of antique statues, was exposed on a high tricolor platform against which the crowd thronged. Since the church and the burial place were very close, David organized a long procession starting rue des Cordeliers, stopping at the Pont-Neuf bridge where cannons fired a salvo, then coming back via Pont aux Changes bridge to Odéon theater. Beyond his death, Marat somehow continued to participate in the revolutionary debates as his embalmed heart was sealed into an urn and suspended from the Club's ceiling.
With the building of the School of Medicine, nothing is left, but the refectory (Réfectoire des Cordeliers) - now completely renovated - and the Marat's bath tub that can be seen at the Grévin Museum.

  • Entrée couvent des Cordeliers
    15, rue Ecole de Médecine
    Atget – 1899

Cour de Rohan

Cour de Rohan - Rue du Jardinet
Atget - 1915
(Médiathèque de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine)

Let's now cross boulevard Saint-Germain and go straight ahead rue de l'Eperon; on our left, let's take the narrow and quiet rue du Jardinet, now a dead end since the three successive courtyards of Cour de Rohan is now closed to the public. Because, it was a dependence in the XVth century of an old mansion owned by the cardinal of Rouen, it got the name of Rohan or Rouen.

Not that long ago, it was possible to walk between rue du Jardinet and Passage du Commerce through the quaint three courtyards. Today, there is the only possibility to have a look from behind the gate of rue du Jardinet; from there you will be able to see the first courtyard and the elegant brick and stone facade high above the second courtyard.

The last time I came I was very lucky to meet with a charming lady (even more lucky to live there) and kind enough to let me in. A few curiosities: in the first courtyard, hidden behind the flowerpots, a very old well; in the second courtyard, a wrought iron tripod used in the past to dismount more easily from a horse (last remaining pas de mule in Paris).

Cour de Rohan
Atget – 1915
(Musée Carnavalet)

The third courtyard opening on passage du Commerce (joining Boulevard Boulevard Saint-Germain with rue Saint-André-des-Arts), is where the painter Balthus had his studio up several flights of the outside stairs.


Cour de Rohan

There is poesy in Atget's photos showing a simple setting of stones blackened by the time. I have a strange feeling when superimposing them with the view of the hidden place today, seemingly still in its original state and in reality a discrete luxury. Certainly this is still a small corner of paradise, like Diane de Poitiers would have enjoyed when she met here the king Henri II, definitely a haven of peace compared to the nearby Passage du Commerce, a noisy tourist attraction.


  • Cour de Rohan
    Rue du Jardinet
    Atget – 1923
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Passage du Commerce Saint-André

Let's come back and let's turn right in boulevard Saint-Germain and enter at no 130 into Cour du Commerce.  Before the construction of boulevard Saint-Germain, the passage was opened directly on rue des Cordeliers through a large arched porch. In front of the porch there was Danton's house, located more or less, where is today his statue.
All the area is marked by the Revolutionary period. At no 8, the shop was used by Marat to print his newspaper l'Ami du Peuple (The Friend of the People). In front, at no 9, the good doctor Guillotin was using sheep to refine his prototype of the guillotine.

Per Jean Clair, member of the Académie Française, Balthus’ painting Passage du Commerce Saint-André is clearly referring to the guillotine, in spite of what looks like a quiet street scene. In the middle there is the back of the painter himself, as a neighbor, with a baguette under his arm and facing the shop at no 8. Beyond just suggesting the different ages of life, with a closer look at some details, the painting, however, is referring to the guillotine.
For instance, the shop sign is referring to the locksmith at no 4 who provided the first blade of the guillotine. The small white dog with its head lowered refers to the lamb on which the blade was tried out. The blade itself is evoked by the small square shape at the front of the shop. The long, narrow and red shape in the middle of the shop refers too to the guillotine.

Today the passage is crowded with tourists and terraces of many restaurants. However, the back entrance of Café Procope, founded in 1684, is worth seeing. The Revolutionary Cordeliers Club met there and the Phrygian cap was first worn here. Before being a Revolutionary meeting place, it was a literary café. Founded by Francesco Procopio, a Sicilian who first worked at a café at the Saint-Germain fair, the Café Procope became rapidly a literary Café. Voltaire and Rousseau were regulars, Diderot would have written much of his Encyclopédie there.
Today, the atmosphere and the style of the place make it worth taking a break. The decoration includes many curiosities like a cocked hat of Napoleon, documents of the Revolutionary period, the table used by Voltaire, ... and you may sit where famous people did on a regular basis.

Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie

Let’s now go out from  Cour de Commerce Saint-André through the passage toward rue de l’Ancienne Comédie.

We are walking past the front entrance of Café Procope, less quaint that the one at the back, although the wrought iron balcony is still quite impressive. Across the restaurant, at no 14, the Comédie Française was first located in the yard of the old building in 1689, until their transfer to the Odéon Theatre in 1782 and finally to the Palais-Royal in 1799, giving the name to the street (ancienne meaning old).

 Let’s now follow Rue de Buci, very busy with many shops and restaurants and rue de Seine on our right.

  • Old Café Procope - founded by the Italian Francois Procope, frequented by Voltaire and the Encyclopaedists.
    (as noted by Atget)
    13, rue de l'ancienne Comédie
    Atget – 1900/1901

Rue de Seine

Located near the Institute and the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, the Rue de Seine is still specialized into the art and book trade.

The corner of rue de Seine with rue de l'Echaudé looks like a cake slice. And indeed the échaudé is a cake of triangle shape. Echaudé means scalded and it is the way the pastry is done. The dough is cut into triangles, thrown into boiling water and then baked in the oven.

In front of us, the classified traditional Parisian bistrot La Palette, frequented by the celebrities has still its Art Deco murals.
I like the contrast of the storefront at no 30 reminding us that before being a gallery, the shop was a deli. At no 26, at the corner with rue de Visconti, the prints gallery was in the past a wine store Au Petit Maure (The More's) of which we still can see the old grid and signboard.

Let’s take the street on the right onto rue Jacques Callot.

  • Corner of rues de Seine et de l’Echaudé
    Atget – 1911
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Former wine store - the More's (Cabaret du Petit Maure)
    26, rue de Seine
    Atget – 1911 / 1913

Rue Jacques Callot

The Pont-Neuf Passage, built in 1823 was demolished when the rue Jacques Callot was created in 1912. It was one of the very few covered passages on the left bank. (Most of the  covered passages were built on the right bank).
The passage was joining the rue de Seine with the rue Guénégaud leading itself to the Pont-Neuf bridge, giving its name to the passage. It was opened between no 44, rue Mazarine and no 45, rue de Seine. Dark and narrow, it would have been completely forgotten without Atget's photos and the description made by the writer Zola in his book Thérèse Raquin:
"At the end of the Rue Guénégaud, coming up from the river, can be found the Passage du Pont-Neuf, a sort of dark, narrow corridor running between the Rue Mazarine and the Rue de Seine. This arcade is some thirty paces long and no more than two wide; it is paved with yellowish flagstones, worn, uneven, permanently exuding an acrid-smelling damp, and is covered by a right-angled glass roof black with grime". 

  • The Pont-Neuf Passage and its demolition
    41, rue de Seine
    Atget (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue Mazarine

28, rue Mazarine

On our left we have a nice view of the dome of the Institute, initially founded as the Collège des Quatre Nations (College of the Four Nations) by Cardinal Mazarin, giving its name to the street.
Mazarin bequeathed a large part of his fortune to Louis XIV to build a college, for sixty young boys of noble birth from the four provinces recently under French rule: Artois, Alsace, Pignerol ( Piedmont) and Cataliona (Roussillon and Cerdagne).

Many galleries, bookstores, Antique stores can be found in the street, like many historical plaques.
Like at no. 12, the young Molière rented a court of palm game (jeu de paume) where he set up his company the Illustre Théâtre.
At no. 28, in 1822, Champollion deciphered hieroglyphs and Horace Vernet, famous for his paintings of battles, lived here.

  • Palais de l’Institut de France
    Atget - 1923
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Old mansion
    12, rue de Mazarine 28, rue Mazarine
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Passage Dauphine

Passage Dauphine
27, rue Mazarine
(Musée Carnavalet)

At no 27, rue Mazarine, let's go onto passage Dauphine where there is a quiet terrace of a  small coffee shop, a lovely spot for a break.

When going out of the passage, we arrive at no 20 rue Dauphine, where we take the street rue Christine, almost in front of us.

Rue Christine

Butcher shop -
Rue Christine
Atget 1920 (The Met)

Would the restaurant captured by Atget be the same where Apollinaire wrote the “ poem-in diverse voices” (or poeme- conversation)  Lundi rue Christine (Monday Rue Christine), which sounds like phrases from different people heard in the bar ?  

The black cat crosses the bar

Those crêpes were marvelous
The faucet is running
Dress black like her fingernails
It’s completely impossible
Here you are sir
The malachite ring
The floor is strewn with sawdust
So it’s true
The red-headed waitress ran away with a bookseller

From Calligrammes – Monday rue Christine – Apollinaire (translation by Ron Padgett)

In this fancy street, it is rather difficult to guess where was the butcher shop captured by Atget …

Let’s turn on our left in rue des Grands Augustins and then on our right to rue de Savoie which leads us to rue Séguier.  

  • Rue Christine
    towards rue des Grands-Augustins
    Atget - 1911
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue Séguier

In the 16th century, the name of the street was sounding rather Rabelaisian … it was rue Pavée d'Andouilles (the Street Paved with Chitterlings Sausages)!

Today, its name is sounding much more serious, like all the mansions in this street, which honors Baron Séguier, first president of the court of appeal, who lived at no 16.
It is also marked by the literary life:
- at no 8, the tormented writer Henri Michaux experimented the effects of mescaline.
- At no 18, the writer Albert Camus lived in an apartment owned by the family Gallimard. He was connected with this family by ties of deep friendship. This is with the publisher Michel Gallimard, that he was killed in a tragic car crash.

Let's take the street on the left onto rue Saint-André des Arts.

  • Old mansion
    8 and 10, rue Séguier
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Hôtel de Séguier
    First President
    16, rue Séguier
    Atget –

  • Hôtel de Nevers/ Hôtel d’Aguesseau
    18, rue Séguier
    Atget – 1908
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue Saint-André-des-Arts

We are now walking in front of the Duchesne Hôtel, painted by Maurice Leloir. The painter, now somehow forgotten, was quite renown and prolific in his time, especially as illustrator of many books. For the setting of his lively and colorful painting, La dernière visite de Voltaire (Voltaire's last visit to Paris), he chose the facade of the mansion. However, more than Voltaire, almost invisible at the back of the carriage surrounded by the crowd, the balcony is at the center of the painting.



  • 27, rue Saint-André-des-Arts

  • 27, rue Saint-André-des-Arts
    Atget – 1899

Rue Gît-le-Coeur

Let's leave now rue Saint-André des Arts and turn onto rue Gît-le-Coeur, sounding so poetic in French (Street Where the Heart Lies).

The poetic name of the street is rather evoking the tomb of a brave knight; however it is in reality the deformation of a name, Gilles Queux or Gui le Queux, meaning in old French Gilles the Cook.

The cinema lovers know well this street for its art cinema Le Saint-André-des-Arts at no 12. It is said that the lovely mistress and great love of king Henri IV, Gabrielle d'Estrées lived there.

Further at no 4, is a building quite emblematic for the book trade, ubiquitous in this district. Among several booksellers who lived there, Jacques Charles Brunet, author in 1810 of the book: Manuel du libraire et de l'amateur de livres (Manual for booksellers and book lovers); Today, there are the headquarters of the syndicat national de la librairie ancienne et moderne (Antiquarian bookseller's association) created in 1914. Each year, the association is organizing the International Antiquarian Book Fair in Grand-Palais.

Now let’s turn right onto rue de l’Hirondelle.

  • Old mansion - 4, rue Gît-le-Cœur
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • House where lived Gabrielle d’Estrées
    12, rue Gît-le-Cœur
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue de l'Hirondelle

These names, so poetic: rue Gît-le-Coeur (Where the Heart Lies) and rue de l'Hirondelle (Swallow) make me think of the drawings of the lovers by Peynet. And indeed this narrow deserted street, a bit aside, is a perfect place to hide lovers like king Francis 1, and his lovely mistress, the Duchess d'Etampes, a romantic liaison which lasted twenty years until the king died. In the book Ascanio written by Alexandre Dumas, she is described as very beautiful. She is also described as a greedy and influential betrayer, especially when pursuing the artist Benvenuto Cellini and Diane de Poitiers with hate. The royal mansion, called the Salamander (emblem of Francis 1), was at no 20. The building that we see today was built in the 18th century and has kept the salamander as a symbol to remember it.

At the end of the street, let's climb a few steps and get through the gate to join place Saint-Michel, where Davioud's fountain is the traditional meeting point of the Latin Quarter. Let's go on our right towards place Saint-André des Arts.

  • Courtyard
    hôtel de la Salamandre
    20, rue de l’Hirondelle

  • Corner rue de l’Hirondelle
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Place Saint-André-des-Arts

There is nothing to compare the today crowded square with the quiet and quaint square from Atget's time. And several years ago, there was nothing to compare either the old large advertisements with the graffiti covering the wall. In an attempt to make the wall more attractive, the graffiti were replaced by a pleasant fresco designed by Catherine Feff. Though still edged by obstinate graffiti, the fresco, simulating the shade of the plane trees, creates a nice mood of tranquility. As for the cobbler shop, it has been replaced by the unavoidable souvenir shop.

Let’s move away and reach rue Hautefeuille

  • Place Saint-André-des-Arts
    Atget – 1924

Rue Hautefeuille

Located at the corner with impasse Hautefeuille, the hôtel with a turret was inhabited in the 16th century by Captain Godin de Sainte-Croix who taught his lover, the sinister Marquise de Brinvilliers, how to make poisons. The unscrupulous marquise without any family loyalty used her newly acquired expertise in toxicology and poisoned her father, sister and two brothers. Her husband, with good reason to be suspicious, left her to live on his ancestral domain. Her lover, Sainte-Croix, even more suspicious, kept in a box several documents providing evidence of the murders committed by her mistress, just in case he would die before her … effectively he died, but though it was a natural death, his box was opened by the police. When the scandal broke, the Poison Affair touched the court of King Louis XIV and de Brinvilliers fled away to be finally arrested by the police of Colbert and Louvois. Tortured and forced to confess, she was finally beheaded and burned on place de Grève (today place de l'Hôtel de Ville).

“Well, it’s all over and done with, Brinvilliers is in the air. Her poor little body was thrown after the execution into a very big fire and the ashes to the winds, so that we shall breathe her, and through the communication of the subtle spirits we shall develop some poisoning urge which will astonish us all.” Letter from Madame de Sévigné to Madame de Grignan – July the 17th, 1776.

Let’s turn right onto rue Serpente.

  • Rue Hautefeuille
    Atget - 1898
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue Serpente

Old house
25, rue Serpente
(Musée Carnavalet)

Names of adjacent streets can come to strange combinations. Hence, rue Serpente (the Winding Street – which can also sound like the Serpent Street); This street gives into rue Hautefeuille where was living the poisoning couple, de Brinvilliers and his lover. This makes me think of this poem from Baudelaire, as the lines fit so well to the Marquise …

Seeing your rhythmic walk,
beautiful in its abandon,
one thinks of a serpent dancing
at the end of a stick.

The Dancing Serpent – Baudelaire


Let’s turn now on our left into rue Danton, up to the statue of Danton, one of the few bronze statues not melted during the German occupation.  

Our strolling ends here where you can find the Metro station Odéon and bus lines.  

Copyright Year 2018 - Martine Combes author for text and photos of today Paris