This stroll takes us, not only in a very old district, as occupied from the 1st century by the Romans, but also to the oldest monument ever built in Paris: the Arena of Lutecia, probably built around the 2nd century.
They were partially destroyed during the barbarian invasions, then forgotten and buried, and later rediscovered in 1859 during the opening of rue Monge. Though they cannot be compared with the arena of Arles or Nîmes, bigger and far more well-preserved, they are still a place of interest. They are daily used by the neighborhood kids who can fancy themselves as gladiators and by the elderly who enjoy the quality of the arena transformed into a petanque field.
We will go to rue Mouffetard, one of the oldest streets in Paris, built itself over a former Roman road. On our way, we will go on the site where was in the past a hospital and a prison: the former La Pitié hospital replaced by the Great Mosque of Paris; and the former Sainte-Pélagie prison demolished in 1899, where famous political prisoners were put into. We will arrive rue Mouffetard through place de la Contrescarpe and we will walk down to Saint-Médard Church. Even though the many restaurants for tourists have replaced the former old shops, the narrow street is still quite picturesque.
From there, we will go to Jardin des Plantes created in 1635. It deserves quite several visits to discover its gardens, its greenhouses with tropical plants, its galleries of mineralogy and paleontology.

Arena of Lutetia

This amphitheater is one proof that Paris is truly a city of the past, a past when Paris was Lutetia, a Roman city. Buried deep down within layers of sediments and limbo, the arena was only rediscovered in 1869 during the renovation of Paris undertaken by Haussmann when the creation of a new street, rue Monge, required to dig down 12 meters deep. The thirty-five stepped terraces could seat 15.000 people, quite a huge meeting place for the 20.000 inhabitants of Lutetia!

In summertime, you can enjoy the arena used by theatre and concert groups and rest of the year by the petanque players!

Let’s exit the garden toward rue Monge. Turn left onto rue Monge. Turn left onto rue Lacépède and turn right onto rue de la Clef. 

Rues Lacépède and de la Clef

Down rue Lacépède, towards Jardin des Plantes, there was the former Hôpital de la Pitié, created in 1612 to take care of beggars, poor people and orphans.
Later, in 1660, one building of the hospital was converted into a convent for former prostitutes. It seems that few females followed the example of Pelagia the Penitent, as the convent for Female Penitents was rapidly converted into the Sainte-Pélagie prison. During the French Revolution, many prisoners were held in this prison, some famous like: Madame Roland, Marquis de Sade and the painter Hubert Robert.
Later, it held more than one hundred of plotters arrested after the failed uprising of April 15th, 1834 which ended in the massacre of rue Transnonain (see rue Beaubourg); Auguste Blanqui, François Arago, Victor Schoelcher, Alexandre Ledru-Rollin were among these prisoners.
Eugène Atget photographed the prison in 1898, just before its demolition.
The former building of the Hospital La Pitié, also photographed by Atget, was demolished in 1911 and rebuilt close to the Salpêtrière hospital. It was largely replaced by the Great Mosque of Paris, whose minaret can be seen at the end of rue la Clef. Inaugurated in 1926, the Mosque was built in recognition to the Muslim soldiers dead during the first World War.

  • Prison Sainte-Pélagie
    Atget – 1898

  • Hôpital de la Pitié
    1, rue Lacépède
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue Gracieuse and rue Lacépède

Let's now turn left onto rue du Puits de l'Ermite. And continue onto rue Pestalozzi and turn right onto rue Gracieuse.
We are now walking along the nice little open air market in Place Monge open three times a week and on Sundays, in front of the huge building of the French Republican Guard.

Let’s turn left onto rue Lacépède where Atget photographed old farm courtyards! Goodbye calf, cow, pig, chickens… other kinds of little chicks go today to the child care centre which has now replaced the former old farm.  

We are coming to place de la Contrescarpe.

  • Farm – 46, rue Lacépède
    Atget – 1905/1906

  • Rue Gracieuse
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Place de la Contrescarpe

Place de la Contrescarpe, though recently redesigned is still like a charming old village square. You can sit around the fountain or at a terrace of one of the many bordering cafes.
The animation of the square, especially known from May 2018 with the Benalla affair, is not new as disorders here have been known forever. I have read in the book « Connaissance du Vieux Paris » written by the historian Jacques Hillairet that disorders were so frequent that it was decided in the 18th century to install a guard station nearby.

  • Grand Hôtel des Sports
    Place de la Contrescarpe
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Although the most popular tavern bordering the square was Maison de la Pomme de Pin, Atget photographed an other building.
Not that long ago, from the terrace of the café La Contrescarpe, which has replaced the building photographed by Atget, we could have a direct look over the sign  “Au Nègre Joyeux” (the place of the Joyous Negro). This controversial sign, not politically correct, was finally removed. This sign recalling the colonial times and slavery will now be exhibited in the Carnavalet Museum.    

Let's now turn left onto rue Mouffetard.

  • Café « Au Nègre Joyeux »
    Angle des rues Blainville et Mouffetard
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Rue Mouffetard

Umbrella merchant Place Saint-Médard
Atget - 1901
(Musée Carnavalet)

The old narrow street, almost completely pedestrian, still quite picturesque is today a tourist attraction. Though the food shops, butcheries, bakeries, fish sellers, vegetable sellers,  have disappeared, except few down the street, it is still a “food street” with all the lining restaurants of all sorts. In Atget’s time, as shown by his photographs, the street was all lined up with sellers between place de la Contrescarpe and the market in front of Saint- Medard Church. Not only shops, but also street vendors selling fresh fruit and vegetables or this umbrella merchant photographed by Atget.    

The Market at the southern end of the street, right outside Saint-Médard church is open every day in the morning except on Monday. It is quite lively especially on the weekends.
I still remember my delight, almost ecstatic, when as a young inhabitant of the close 13th arrondissement, I discovered this street and its market. And indeed, I knew many other markets and spent my youth close to the busy rue des Martyrs. However, here, there was something different and new. A bustling area, with food everywhere, with rich and heavy scents, the sellers shouting and calling the buyers, the church making it a large town market, the narrow and old rickety houses, and already many cafes and restaurants. It was the end of the seventies, beginning of the eighties. The charm is still a little bit there although many food shops are gone replaced by many restaurants and cafes for tourists. 


  • Baskets seller
    Rue Mouffetard
    Atget – 1898/1900

    Milk coffee seller Place Saint-Médard Atget - 1898 (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Fish Seller
    Rue Mouffetard
    Atget – 1898

    Laces seller Place Saint-Médard Atget - 1901
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Door – 81, rue Mouffetard
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Rue Mouffetard
    Atget – 1925
    (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

We now arrive at the level of rue du Pot-de-Fer where lived Georges Orwell. In 1928, he spent here one year down and out in a hotel: “The walls were as thin as matchwood, and to hide the cracks they had been covered with layer after layer of pink paper, which had come loose and housed innumerable bugs. Also, at his time, the houses were leprous, people living there rather poor, and the quarter ill fame: “At night the policemen would only come through the street two together. “

The fountain at the corner of the street was built in 1624 when the new Medici aqueduct was completed (cf avenue René Coty Manhole). Like in rue Mouffetard, many restaurants with terraces are bordering rue du Pot-de-Fer, quite less gloomy than at Orwell’s time…

  • Pot de Fer Saint-Marcel fountain
    Rue Mouffetard

We now arrive at the level of nr 69, rue Mouffetard, where a sign, very ugly and rough, has replaced the former one, so much more delicately carved. It is said that this former sign was done in 1592 with woods of a shipwreck found in Seine river. Where is it now?

From the three former old famous signboards of the street, only one remains eventually:  A la Bonne Source (the Good Spring), a nice sign showing two water boys around a well.

  • Au Vieux Chêne (Old Oaktree)
    69, rue Mouffetard

We have now arrived at the end of the street. There is a listed facade of a former delicatessen, done per the Sgraffito technique, showing a country scene in which the game is still enjoying life. Here in front of the Saint-Médard church, there are still some food shops.

The public garden around the church is rather quiet: children are playing, students are sitting on the lawn, religious congregations are discussing. It is difficult to imagine the scenes of madness which took place here in the middle of the 18th century. It is told that crowds were coming to the tomb of the deacon Pâris, a legendary place of miraculous cures. Scenes of hallucination and convulsions became so numerous, it was decided in 1733 to close the cemetery. The trace of the bricked doorway can still be seen on nr 39, rue Daubenton. However, the closure of the cemetery did not stop the scenes of collective hysteria which continued elsewhere for more than thirty years.

Let’s now cross place Georges Moustaki  to go to rue du Fer à Moulin: Exit the roundabout into rue Pascal; Turn left onto rue Claude Bernard and turn left onto rue du Fer à Moulin. Turn right onto rue Scipion (Directions).  

  • (Former) entrance to the Saint-Médard church
    and cemetery
    41, rue Daubenton
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Rue Mouffetard - Atget - 1898

Rue Scipion

The Italian banker Scipion Sardini, settled here at the nr 13, rue Scipion. Close to the queen Catherine de Médicis, he amassed so much a fortune, the legend had it that he had came to France as thin as a sardine and was now as fat as a whale.
In front of a public garden, the bold facade over the street is a little bit severe. During the week, the porch of the 17th century building is generally open. You can enter and admire the courtyard with a preserved Renaissance aisle of the former stone and brick residence built in 1565. Medallions with terra-cotta figures grace the upper stretches of the arches. Later in 1614, the residence became a hospital for the poor and then was used as the main bakery for the Parisian hospitals between 1676 and 1974.

Now, let’s turn left onto boulevard Saint-Marcel and on left onto rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

  • Hôtel Scipion Sardini
    Rue Scipion
    Atget – March 1925
    (Getty Museum)

  • Hôtel Scipion
    Atget – juillet 1899

Rue Geoffroy Saint Hilaire

From the large Horse Market, established in all this area between 1642 and 1907, remains this old building: the surveillance Pavilion.

A short way away, the horse head and the words « Marchands de chevaux, poneys, double poneys de toutes provenances et chevaux de trait » (Selling horses, ponies, double ponies – all breeds – and draught horses » still visible on the facade, remind as well the horse  market.

We now pass by the corner with rue Poliveau (nr 45) which reminds me the funny and cynical movie La Traversée de Paris (The trip accross Paris). This scene where Jean Gabin is yelling with his typical frank manner in the cave of Jambier’s grocery store, doing black market during German occupation.   

A little bit away, a commemorative plaque into the pavement indicates  the former mill Coupeau along the Bièvre, this river now buried with the sewer network (see the stroll along a ghost river).

  • Surveillance Pavilion of the Horse Market -
    Built under King Louis XV
    5, rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire

The Great Mosque is now in front of us. It is always nice to have a break in its café and have a mint tea before a walk in the Jardin des Plantes.


Jardin des Plantes (Garden of Plants)

There is so much to see in Jardin des Plantes, that it deserves several visits:
for its huge halls where millions of zoological species, either extinct or in danger of extinction are in line below the high glass ceiling of the National Museum of Natural History; its fabulous collection in the Gallery of Mineralogy;
its greenhouses where my mother was taking me to show me carnivorous plants or sensitive plants like the mimosa pudica.
With Christine, my high school classmate, we were going to the Botanical and Alpine gardens to complete our course in botany. In these gardens millions of plant species are carefully grown on different layouts similar to their real-life mountain environment: Alps, Mediterranean rocks, Caucasus and North American mountains…
I have never liked my occasional visits to the zoo, which is being renovated, a good thing. The last time I went there, quite a long time ago, in the eighties, I still remember the deep sad look of an ape looking at me; A desperate look of the poor animal sprawled in the dust of a narrow cage, behind the bars blackened with soot.
It is also very nice to simply walk in the alleys behind the greenhouses, looking for the old trees like the cedar of Lebanon planted by Jussieu in 1734. 

When we follow the pathway leading to the maze, we can see the delicate Gloriette de Buffon standing at the top.
No less delicate was the mechanism which once sat at the top of the kiosk. When a horsehair, replaced each day, was burned through by the sun, focused by a magnifying glass set to the meridian, a hammer was triggered by a device and a Chinese gong sitting inside a globe would ring every day at noon.
As granddaughter of a watchmaker, this gives me quite a feeling, far much more poetic than the noon cannon of Palais-Royal!

Inside the garden, along rue Cuvier, there are several old buildings.

We now go out of the Garden and go towards rue Linné, where we started. We walk by Cuvier Fountain, built in 1840, in honor of the founding father of paleontology.   

  • Veterinarian's house - Garden of Plants
    (Musée Carnavalet)

  • Cuvier Fountain
    Atget -1905/1906

Year 2019 - text and photos: Martine Combes


12.07.2019 17:48


Always a pleasure reading ! It feels like spending a day in your company, and discovering Paris over and over again. Thanks for the journey !