St-Germain des Près, Paris
In July 2014 I took a guided walking tour (in French) of the Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood with the guide Evremond Bac. We met at the exit of the Métro station Mabillon, because this is a small station with only one exit, so there was no danger of anyone picking the wrong one.
After we had each paid our twelve Euros, we went across the street (Boulevard Saint Germain) and had a brief look at the Rue du Buci. Then we walked around and into the church of Saint-Germain-des-Près (see my review from half a year before).
Across from the church we had quite a surprise (at least I did) when M. Bac took us in through a very ordinary looking door next to the bookshop ‘la hune’ and showed us that behind this bland exterior there were some remains of the old abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près, from the second quarter of the thirteenth century.
Actually only the building was from the thirteen century. The abbey itself was a lot older than that, having been founded in the sixth century by a son of king Clovis I. For several centuries this was one of the richest abbeys in France. It owned most of the land on the Left Bank west of what is now Boulevard Saint Michel, and it even had political and legal jurisdiction over most of this land. (Victor Hugo’s novel Notre-Dame de Paris includes some interesting explanations of the different jurisdictions that existed in Paris during the Middle Ages, with different neighborhoods being under the control of different rulers or institutions.)
The abbey of Saint Germain des Près was finally disbanded during the French Revolution in the 1790s, but its church of course still exists across the street.
Speaking of the bookshop la hune, we learned that for many years it was located a block away on Boulevard Saint Germain, next to the café Les Deux Magots, at a site that has now been taken over by Louis Vuitton.
The name of the bookshop, la hune, means “the crow’s nest”, in the sense of a round platform high up on the mast of a sailing ship, where sailors could go up and squint and see if they could discover America.
Second, third and fourth photos: The remains of the old abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Près.
For years now I have been mildly puzzled about who Saint Germain was, but only mildly. Now I finally looked him up and found out that he was born around the year 496 and was Bishop of Paris from 555 until his death in 576. According to the poet Venantius Fortunatus, Germain performed numerous miracles during his lifetime and even before. While he was still in the womb, Germain performed a miracle by preventing his mother from aborting him. (I don’t know how the poet determined that it was the foetus which performed this miracle, and not some adult who talked her out of it.)
Now that I know all this, I think I will have an entirely different feeling in the future when cycling east on Boulevard Saint Germain.
Address: 16 Rue de l’Abbey, 75006 Paris
Directions: Location on the Vélib’ map
Métro Saint-Germain-des-Prés, line 4
Location on monumentum.fr
Next: Courtyards and Café Procope
On our guided walking tour of the Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood we were taken in and out of several hidden passageways and courtyards, like the ones in first two photos.
Eventually we arrived at the Cours du Commerce Saint André (third photo) and at the back side of the historic Café Procope (fourth and fifth photos), which is now not so much a café as an up-market restaurant.
Café Procope was founded in 1686 and was famous in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the meeting place of Parisian intellectuals. Voltaire and Rousseau both drank their coffee here, but presumably not at the same time, because they couldn’t stand the sight of each other. Americans such as Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones and Thomas Jefferson were also regular guests during their years in Paris.
During the French Revolution, Café Procope was used as a meeting place by such revolutionaries as Marat, Danton and Robespierre. Even Lieutenant Bonaparte used to hang out here, long before he crowned himself Emperor of the French.
Later, in the nineteenth century, the German naturalist and world traveler Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) ate lunch here every day during the 1820s, while he was writing up the scientific results of his South American travels and publishing them in a set of huge, elaborately illustrated volumes. (I have looked through some of these in libraries and was astounded at the scope and vast amounts of detail.)
Beaumarchais, Balzac, Hugo and Verlaine also came to Café Procope regularly.
(The links will take you to tips/reviews that I have written about these people on various VirtualTourist pages.)
Address: Restaurant Le Procope, 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie – 75006 Paris
Directions: Vélib' 6015. Location on the Vélib’ map.
Location and photo of Café Procope on monumentum.fr
Phone: 01 40 46 79 00
Next: Cour de Rohan
The last stop on our guided walking tour of the Saint-Germain-des-Près neighborhood was the Cour de Rohan, a series of three interconnected courtyards.
The name has nothing to do with the Rohan family, but comes from the fact that the Bishops of Rouen had their Paris residence here in the fourteenth century.
Fourth and fifth photos: This substantial brick and stone building was first constructed in 1550 for Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), the mistress of King Henri II.
Address: 3 Cours de Rohan, 75006 Paris
Directions: Vélib’ 6015. Location on the Vélib’ map.
Next: Speed limits in Paris
The church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés was founded in the year 543, which is why the church has a website is called depuis543.org/ -- depuis meaning since.
Apparently some of the original sixth century pillars still exist, but over the centuries the church has been destroyed and re-built several times, so there are Romanesque and Gothic elements along with paintings from various centuries.
Second photo: The square tower of Saint-Germain-des-Prés is said to be the only remaining Romanesque tower in Paris.
Third photo: Entrance to Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Fourth and fifth photos: The interior of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Here a large scale renovation and restoration project is scheduled for 2014 and 2015.
Address: 3 place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 75006 Paris
Directions: Location on the Vélib’ map. The nearest Vélib’ station is number 6012 at 141 Boulevard Saint Germain.
Location and photo of the church Saint-Germain-des-Prés on monumentum.fr.
Métro Saint-Germain-des-Prés, line 4.
Next Paris review from March 2014: Zadkine’s Prometheus at Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés
At Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, across from the church, there is a casting of the sculpture Prometheus (Le Prométhée) by Ossip Zadkine (1890-1967), showing Prometheus bringing fire to the people, as he did in ancient Greek mythology.
Another casting of the same sculpture can be seen in the University Library in Frankfurt am Main, Germany.
But you don’t have to go all the way to Frankfurt to see more of Zadkine’s work, because the Zadkine Museum in Paris is just one and a half kilometers from Saint-Germain-des-Prés – an easy five minute bicycle ride via Rue de Rennes and Rue d’Assas.
Second photo: Prometheus with the building of the ‘Society for the encouragement of national industry’ in the background.
Third photo: Looking up Rue de Rennes towards the Montparnasse Tower, from Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Fourth photo: A Wallace Fountain at Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés. (Photo from July 2014.)
Fifth photo: Zadkine’s Prometheus at Saint-Germain-des-Prés in July 2014.
Address: Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, 75006 Paris
Directions: Location on the Vélib’ map. The nearest Vélib’ station is number 6012 at 141 Boulevard Saint Germain.
Married in the town hall of the 13th with the sculpture "The Return of the Prodigal Son" by Zadkine.
Next Paris review from March 2014: Delacroix Museum
Despite its prominent location facing the back colonnade of the Louvre, Eglise Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois seems to be skipped by most tourists. This is double astonishing given that the church is a jewel of Gothic architecture, expanded and restored repeatedly over the years since its initial construction in the 12th century. Note that the Gothic tower in front of the Church does not belong to it, but rather to the next door Mairie of the 1er arrondissement - the town hall built in a similar Gothic style.
With bits and pieces from the 6th century through the 20th, this is Paris' oldest church. It is named after a canonized bishop who is thought to have been entombed in 576 in an abbey chapel which once stood on this site, and which was also the burial place of early French royalty. The events of history have been not been kind to many of France's churches and this one is no exception. The original was destroyed by the Normans; the abbey, used as a prison during the Revolution, vanished in an explosion of stored gunpowder; and the church itself was stripped of relics and treasure.
Restoration during the 19th century brought some of the original furnishings and the purpose of worship back to this battered old lady. Some newer paintings and decoration added during this period thankfully enhance rather than distract from those dating back many centuries. Tombs include philosopher René Descartes; the heart of King John (Jan) II Casimir Vasa, abdicated King of Poland-Lithuania and former abbott of the church; and the (presumed) original burial site of Saint Germain.
Entrance is free; see the website for hours and more details.
Literary and artistic enthusiasts, stop for lunch or a glass of wine at nearby Cafe de Flore, Les Deux-Magots (we did this one) or Brasserie Lipp. All three were once of the haunts of some big names in literature, philosophy and the arts.
This church is, as you probably know, the oldest in Paris. It was founded by Childebert, son of Clovis, the first king of France and is dedicated to the saintly Germain who was Bishop of Paris in Childebert’s life. It is located in what, at the time, were flood-prone fields as the “Prés” indicates, being the French word for fields.
This is the church where the remains of Rene Descartes were moved from Stockholm but, as near as I can tell, there is little, if anything, here. There is what looks like a marble memorial to him between two chapels. It praises his intellect and his contribution to the literature and thought of his time. Some regard him as the father of the enlightenment.
The church was built, as so many were, to house and honor a holy relic, in this case the stole of St. Vincent, brought from Spain by Childebert in the 6th Century. The abbey became one of the richest in France and a Catholic intellectual center until the French Revolution. There is a lot of interesting statuary and paintings to be seen, one statue of St. Germain and a 13th Century one of the Virgin and Child which has been pieced back together from three stone pieces found in a recent archeological dig nearby.
On the Left Bank in the St. Germaine area, St. Nicolas du Chardonette (although I was hoping for some samples of Chardonnay), is one of many gorgeous churches serving the local neighborhoods in Paris.
There are so many beautiful churches in Paris - probably more than in any other city I've visited - that I find it impossible to say which is my favourite. However, in terms of sheer simplicity and purity of line, the exquisite Romanesque St Germain-des-Pres would have to win hands down.
St Germain-des-Pres is the oldest church in Paris and was founded as a Benedictine monastery by Childebert in 542. At the time, it was located just outside the city walls of Paris ('des Pres' means 'in the water meadows'). It served as the burial place for the Merovingian kings and became one of the wealthiest monasteries in France during the Middle Ages, but much of the complex was destroyed by fire and other disasters over the centuries and the former royal occupants were relocated to the royal necropolis at St Denis, leaving behind only the church. In particular, I find the bell tower over the main entrance to be endearingly sturdy, as it was designed to bear the weight of the enormous bells on foundations that were regularly waterlogged when the Seine flooded.
In keeping with its monastic past, the interior of the church is unstated and very peaceful. It has an evocative atmosphere and is the sort of place where you cannot help but feel a connection across the centuries to the Dark Ages in which the monastery was at the zenith of its importance.
This church is one of the most important sights in Paris. The abbey was founded in the 6th century and back in the middle ages there was a whole village around this abbey. Nowadays only the church has survived. This church has lots of features of the Romanesque period and hosts a permanent eshibition about St. Germain des Pres
Be sure to go around the side of St-Germain des Près to the small garden, but before you get there be sure to look up and notice the building itself. It has suffered much since its orgins in the 6th century. Only the great tower and the choir of the 12th century remain from earlier times.
St. Germain des Pres is reported to be the oldest church in Paris. During much of its existence there was also a large Benedictine abbey complex, of which only fragments remain.
The picture on the left is the church. In the picture of the shop on the right you can see some old stones -- these are part of the old abbey that have been incorporated into the shop's design.
The website documents a massacre of prisoners that took place at the abbey during the French Revolution.
Located behind Abbaye Saint-Germain-des-Près, le Palais Abbatial was built in 1586 by Cardinal de Bourbon, the Abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Près. The architect of the palace is thought to be Guillaume de Marchand, whose design is considered a precursor to the Louis XIII style that emerged in France shortly thereafter. Le Palais Abbatial was also the second building in Paris, after Hôtel Scipion, to combine redbrick and stone in its construction. Some modifications occurred later, particularly around 1680 by Guillaume Egon, the Cardinal landgrave of Fürstenberg. His title is eternalised a short block away from the palace, at place Fürstenberg, one of the most charming squares in Paris. It is planted with four large Paulownia trees and is often featured in French films. Le Palais Abbatial is nowadays the headquarters of a couple of religious organisations.
One of the results of baron Haussmann's street planning of Paris, boulevard Saint-Germain was cut through the left bank of Paris in a curve from west to east. The wide boulevard's name refers to the once suburb of Paris, faubourg Saint-Germain, which later became the literary district of the City of Lights. The focal point of the district, located where rue Bonaparte intersects boulevard Saint-Germain, is famous for cafés/restaurants (les Deux Magots, Café de Flore and le Procope) which historic characters, such as Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, are known to have frequented. Beyond the wide avenue, however, are narrow streets and small squares with pre-18th century buildings that recall an older Paris with a mediaeval character. Nowadays, the Saint-Germain area is one of the trendiest districts in Paris with many high-end and start-up designer label shops, boutique hotels, and chic restaurants. Strolling through the area one afternoon in Paris is well worth the time.