Back to Issue Forty-Two


Walking the Wall of Charles V, Left Bank
excerpted from Walking the Walls of Paris


Around the corner from my little studio, tucked inside the medieval city walls, I soon found Roger’s bar, the Night Box, where I made friends among the staff and patrons who often were one and the same. A typical evening at the Night Box began as I passed the bar on my way back from shopping, and Roger or Celina, the bartender, had the door propped open. If so, l stopped in for a pastis or a beer. Evenings quickly transformed to late nights. An errant delivery boy, I wound up not bringing my groceries back to the studio. I put the food out on the bar, and we ate the cheese and bread and sliced meat, and used the fruit to make our cocktails. The Night Box was supposed to close at two, but Roger would simply shut the door, and we stayed as long as we pleased. Sometimes we went in the neighborhood to after-hours bars and cellar clubs I could not find again in the daytime when I tried to reassure myself where I had been the preceding night. 

Here, in an ambience of music and laughter, I spent my nights after my walks, ambiently researching the Walls of Paris. When I told my new friends what I accomplished that day, for instance how I had paced out the distance between the towers of the vestige of the Wall of Philippe Auguste in the rue des Jardins Saint-Paul so I could estimate the distance between towers in other parts of the city, they seemed genuinely excited both for me and my little adventures. I found this largely to be the case with the Parisians I encountered, who despite alienation from their government, express pride at their city and its history. 

. . .

The reign of Charles V accomplished many fine things for the physical well-being and appearance of Paris. Charles supposedly said, “Lutetia, no urbs, sed orbis.” Paris is not a city but the world. His mother, Bonne of Luxembourg, gave birth to him just east of town in the castle at Vincennes, and, like Philippe Auguste, Charles had great affection for his hometown. The official years of his regency from 1364 to 1380 appear brief, but he essentially held the crown from 1356 after the English captured his father, John II, at the Battle of Poitiers. The Dauphin, as Charles was known, faced great strife with the rising merchants of Paris. Provost of the City, Etienne Marcel, took upon himself a role akin to mayor and threatened the sovereignty of the untested Charles.  

Although dubbed “the wise,” Charles’s skills concerning diplomacy and the strategy of war were checkered with defeats; nonetheless, he became a powerful ruler who built a strong kingdom amid many adversaries. More likely he earned “the wise” appellation for his library, one of the best of its era, which he shared among his councilors. Starting with twenty manuscripts he had inherited from John II, he accumulated over a thousand volumes that he kept in the Louvre. Ultimately this collection would be the Royal Library later housed in the rue Vivienne, the original Bibliotheque Nationale. He truly believed in the power of knowledge and sponsored translations of Aristotle. His regency was France’s flower of the Middle Ages.  

Among his architectural accomplishments, he enhanced the fortress of the Louvre at the western edge of the city and ordered construction of the fortress of the Bastille at the Porte Saint-Antoine at the eastern boundary. His most significant project was having championed the construction of a new wall. For years beginning not long after the construction of the Wall of Philippe Auguste at the end of the 12th Century, the merchants of the Right Bank called for an expansion containing the areas of new development that had become cut off by the wall. 

Paris had grown to one of the largest cities in Europe—with a population of about 100,000—nearly doubling from the age of Philippe Auguste. The plague that reached Paris in 1349 significantly checked but did not destroy the enlarging city. Initially, the fortification plans of Prevost Marcel called for a structure similar to a traditional defensive wall with some sort of fosse or trench in front of it—but advances in weaponry like catapults inspired Charles to construct a much more elaborate system of defense. First there was the interior wall, followed by an earthen and stone incline, then the grand fosse which sometimes filled with water when the height of the Seine and the level of the stream of Menilmontant were cooperative. After the moat was a hillock (a dos d’ane or donkey’s back), and over it another ditch, this one dry. All in all, the defenses were over 260 feet wide, the moat itself over 90 feet wide. These fortifications and subsequent modifications—such as les Fossés Jaunes (the yellow trenches), added bastions on the walls, and the later expansion of the city to the west—would define Paris until 1670, when Louis XIV declared it an open city. The Grand Boulevards that subsequently built upon the path of Charles’ Wall could be deemed grand because of this width. They were called boulevards because they were once part of the bulwark.

The longest length of the Wall of Charles V can be seen along the western docks in the Arsenal Marina and also a chunk at the edge of the Place du Carrousel, but few other vestiges of the Wall of Charles V remain in terms of its literal stones. Its traces are instead evident in the angles of the streets that now occupy its path, especially in the height differences along the Grands Boulevards where construction deviated around the moat and its levees. It is remembered also by the names of streets in its vicinity such as the rue des Remperts—or by the word fosse for moat or trench, as in the rue de Fosses Saint-Bernard or rue des Fossés Saint-Marcel. On the Left Bank, which had not developed much commercially, the Wall of Philippe Auguste was enhanced and a moat dug around it.

The Wall of Charles V, the Wall of Philippe Auguste contained within it on the Right Bank, on a Map of Contemporary Paris

If few vestiges of Charles’ Wall on the Right Bank are visible, even fewer can be seen on the Left Bank, where the fortifications followed the same route as the Wall of Philippe Auguste. In most sections, minor enhancement of the wall sufficed, such as extending the archer’s path into battlements and parapets. A trench was dug along it but, except for in the areas near the river, no water filled it. In some places garbage and animal carcasses rotted in the shallows. It did not matter much because there was little to protect. Much of the Left Bank was agricultural land producing wine and grain. Entities worth sacking—such as the Abbeys at Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the west or Saint-Victor to the east of the Wall—had long ago raised their own defensive walls. 

. . .

Having walked the Left Bank wall many times with the age of Philippe Auguste in mind, I imagined seeing its beginning with thoughts of Charles V’s city, an era when scholars from across Europe came to study in Paris. Among those perambulating the warren of medieval streets was Geoffrey Chaucer, who arrived for postgraduate education in his twenties. (Chaucer’s year of birth is uncertain, listed in various sources as anywhere from 1328 to 1348, but he was a contemporary of Charles.) Years later, the Latin Quarter continues to be one of the premiere gathering places for young scholars from around the world, and many converge in the numerous bars down the old streets and along the quay.

Beginning the walk, I lingered on a June evening by the windy Institut de France where the Tour de Nesle had commandingly stood, then I went down the rue Mazarine. I stood in respect outside the apartment building at number 19, to which the surrealist Robert Desnos, one of my favorite poets, did not magically return from the death camps after being deported by the Gestapo in 1944. I cut through the Passage Dauphine and paused outside the language school where several years before the kind person at the service desk had let me see the tower of the Wall of Philippe Auguste contained inside. No one staffed the service desk that day, so I continued inside the auditorium—where all was quiet—to assure myself the tower was still there, then continued out of the building and through the courtyard.

The rue Dauphine was crowded but not as congested as it would have been during the reign of Charles V, when Paris was composed of unmarked streets and alleys arranged in arbitrary profusion. To possess an address is a modern concept that implies bills, a census, utilities. Medieval and early modern streets were named after a distinguishing characteristic often found on a business such as a key (rue de le Clef), for an activity that took place upon it, such as bringing fish into the city (rue Poissonière), or for the location it would lead (rue Montmartre). Signs were not posted or inscribed until the eighteenth century. Most streets like rue André-Mazet near the ancient Buci gate in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, narrow by modern standards, are in many cases much wider than the original passageways. Some measured a scant six feet across, even narrower than the rue du Chat-qui-Pêche in the Latin Quarter, the narrowest street in contemporary Paris. Streets that remain barely twenty feet wide today seem hardly possible for pedestrian traffic, let alone the surface vehicles that navigate them, especially the skillfully driven RATP buses.

It was impossible to pass easily through medieval Paris. Principal streets did not connect. The Roman grid, on which the empire arranged every urbs, proved short-lived for Paris. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the twentieth century, this disorganized city hosted the densest population in all of Europe. Ordinary Parisians crowded into tight residential neighborhoods while the royal and religious orders controlled sprawling land holdings. Farms and vineyards operated within the city walls, but it was no idyll for the poor. In the seventeenth century things would start to improve, at least from an organizational standpoint, in large part because of the reigns of Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV—the first and last because of their grand plans for the city, the monarch in the middle for extending the city wall, thereby annexing more property. 

The east–west route was the worst. Through the heart of the old city, the rue St-Honoré entered a maze of half cobbled streets that led to the rue Saint-Antoine, paving stones set in a mud consisting of human and animal excrement. Cholera was a consistent problem, the streets themselves often being the sewers running into the Seine, the drinking water frequently skimmed from fetid parts of the river instead of the deep middle regions. What little open land that remained in central Paris was commonly used as a public latrine. Few people bathed, though some swam in summer near the Porte Saint-Bernard on the left bank across from the Île Saint-Louis. Ringing the city, the moats that had been later dug around the walls held stagnant collections of wastewater. In some places trash stood piled as high as the walls themselves. 

Further down the block I went into a café near the former Porte de Buci, one of six principal gates through the city wall and bought a coffee and watched the futbol on the flat screen. Like so many other cafes in Paris, even in heavily touristic quarters, there was a distinct neighborhood scene at the bar. I drank the coffee and walked out the side door, then zigzagged down the rue André-Mazet, the watchman’s path within the wall. Then I went a little way up the rue Saint-André des Arts and into the Cour de Commerce where lots of people were lined up for a Mexican brunch and fewer entering the back door of Le Procope, the original café philosophique, where the Revolution was planned. 

Until the urban planner and destroyer Georges-Eugène Haussmann pierced boulevard Saint-Germain through the quarter, both the Cour du Commerce and the parallel rue de l’Ancienne Comédie would have extended across the street. Unlike the boulevard Saint-Michel, which essentially followed the route of the old rue de la Harpe, the boulevard Saint-Germain cut a canyon where no road had been and consequently destroyed numerous buildings, including the left-hand side of the rue de l’École de Médicine, where some houses dated to Medieval Paris. In many quarters, the architectural presence of the Middle Ages was still apparent well into the 19th century.

I passed the statue of Danton, a popular meeting place near the cinema and café that also bear his name, where I also greet my friends when they come from their homes in other parts of the city. Two Métro lines service the adjacent Odeon station; a dozen or more buses are stationed here. Sometimes when I don’t feel like walking, I take one to some far district because it is simply there at the curb. I would not want to think I had a chance to ride to the Porte de Vitry or the Porte des Lilas and did not seize the opportunity.

Ahead, the height of the rue Monsieur-le-Prince reminds me of a protective arm like that over a shoulder. Built upon the moat of Charles V, rue Monsieur-le-Prince was filled in with the earth and stone of the walls themselves when the walls were taken down, and the street is more elevated than those to its north and south. I was once again reassured by the full tables at the Crémerie-Restaurant Polidor, a place frequented by literary folks including James Joyce and his family when they lived in Paris. This is a literary street: ahead there is an English-language used-book shop, a French bookstore, and several antiquarian book and map dealers.

La Grande Muraille, the Great Wall Chinese restaurant, coincidentally named, had been replaced with an Indian restaurant. I was getting hungry and the aroma of curry, and the grilled meats from the Japanese restaurants, and the kebab stand near the stairs to the boulevard Saint-Michel did not help matters. I walked down the seven or so steps, marking the difference in height of the filled-in moat. By the time I got to street level, the traffic signal cooperated, and I crossed the boul’ Mich and headed up the rue Soufflot and the slope of Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, named after the patron saint of the city. As I looked back over my right shoulder, I could see the lovely expanse of the Luxembourg where people gathered with their friends for a picnic.

Porte Saint-Jacques

I continued to the former location of the Porte Saint-Jacques. The once-popular author, Robert W. Service, best known for his poems and novels about the Yukon, lived in Paris from 1913–1938, first in a garret on the Quai Voltaire, then near the Porte St-Jacques. Of his ridiculously many books, “Ballad of a Bohemian” chronicles the life of the artist in the Latin Quarter. It is an odd mixture of prose and poetry, as if he had read the writings of the avant garde and intended, which he did not, to satirize them. He reduced the spleen of Baudelaire into a backwoodsman’s treacle. The book was published in 1921 but much of the material composed during his first years in Paris—essentially the same time Eliot harvested the Symbolist poets, particularly Jules LaForgue, into the voice of J. Alfred Prufrock. To compare T. S. Eliot to Robert W. Service seems absurd, yet for a long time they were the most read of North American poets. Service describes la vie bohème:

The humble garret where I dwell
Is in that Quarter called the Latin;
It isn’t spacious—truth to tell,
There’s hardly room to swing a cat in.

Yet Service was a multidimensional fellow of mystery. He did not tell his French wife that he was a wealthy man and not really a bohemian until a year after their marriage. In his forties, during World War I, he served as a stretcher bearer for the American Red Cross. From the front, he narrated the doings of the Canadian Expeditionary forces for the Canadian press. During the 1920s he sold many novels to film production companies in Hollywood. Known as an impeccable dresser by day, at night accompanied by his factotum, a former policeman, he would check out the dives and flesh pots with a curiosity and zest for low life. This is the effect that Paris has on some people. 

Just beyond the Porte Saint-Jacques, the angle of the wall can be seen in the row of buildings on the right side of rue Soufflot east toward the Pantheon. I ambled up the rue Saint-Jacques, once the Roman north–south cardo, and also the path of the Way of St Jacques through Paris to distant Campostella. Scallop shells representing the pilgrimage have been carved in many of the buildings along the route. I hooked a quick left on the rue Fosse Saint-Jacques, then past the handsome town hall of the Fifth Arrondissement and the Place de l’Estrapade with its gorgeous fountain. Looking left down the rue d’Ulm, I could see the south face of the Pantheon. Nearby, down the rue Descartes, stands the church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, one of the oldest in Paris. It was almost certainly built on the site of a Roman temple when Mont Locotecia, this neighborhood, was a Roman enclave, the Romans preferring to live high above the river.

I followed the rue de l’Estrapade to the rue Thouin and went right below the Place de Contrescarpe, named for the vanished escarpment I walked beside. On the Place Contrescarpe. Here, the seedy bars Ernest Hemingway described, with their “flyblown tariffs and warnings against public drunkenness,” have long been replaced with touristic cafes. Around the corner at 39 rue Descartes was the building in which Hemingway wrote his early stories and worried if he had enough fuel to burn to keep himself warm, having learned he could write about Michigan better while living in Paris. Many people think A Moveable Feast is a work of literary history and love for the friends of his youth, but it is truly a memoir of self-love: the passion of an older person for their younger self. I walked across the intersection of the rue Monge where once I walked back from the river with a person I loved whose feet hurt so much she went barefoot all the way. I continued downhill on the rue du Cardinal Lemoine where the Wall of Philippe Auguste lurks behind the rows of houses to my left into whose courtyards I had previously trespassed when following the Wall of Philippe Auguste, a previous year. 

Sometime after my initial walks, I learned about an underground arch in the wall where the ancient Bièvre River once flowed on its way to the Seine. It was uncovered in the 1980s, when the basement of the post office at 30 rue du Cardinal Lemoine was excavated. On the first Wednesday of every month, a guide from a Paris historical organization gives a tour. The guide led me and a handful of schoolteachers from Amiens through several locked doors and down a staircase to an underground vault, where we marveled at the spooky arch that gleamed bone white in the half dark—or so it seems to me now in my memory of it. Under my feet were the stones of the hidden riverbed. 

Geologists believe that twelve thousand years ago, the melting of the continental glaciers caused the Seine to flood its banks and overtake its tributary, la Bièvre, along the stretch that would become Paris. Previously, the Seine flowed around to the north, entering what would be today’s city near the Pont d’Austerlitz, looping the elevation of Montmartre and merging into the Bièvre near the Place d’Alma. The Bièvr suffered further depredations, including having its course altered for early urban projects and culminating with the burial of its last open stretch in the city. Its contact with people pretty much killed it. 

Named by the Romans after the beavers that dammed and fished its waters, the little river played many roles in urban history, but only briefly as a freshet. It prefigured in Gallo-Roman Paris as a natural defense to the southeast as well as a backdrop for the amphitheater (the Arenas of Lutece). As the city expanded, the Bièvre got diverted through the Latin Quarter to provide power for mills, then split off again to irrigate the lands of the Abbey Saint-Victor. Due to the blood of the slaughterhouses, the dyes from the Gobelins Tapestry works, the grease of the tanneries, the toxins of the paint and gunpowder factories, and a thousand years of insults, the authorities declared it a health hazard nearly four hundred years ago, though it had been evolving into one for centuries. Its smell was well known and repugnant. The name of the nearby rue Mouffetard derives from the mouffes, the malodorous expressions of the slow-moving current. As Paris developed, the river was partially covered, and by the 1950s its entire urban course had disappeared. It now enters the sewer system and plays an important role in the diversion of stormwater. You can follow the streets above it and imagine how it would appear free flowing, or see excavated segments running through the Jardins des Plantes or the Square Rene Le Gall, or you can walk along its banks in segments to Guyancourt as I have done. Ironically, the climate crisis may be the savior of the little river, as the government has undertaken plans to “daylight” sections of the river and the planting of trees along its banks in order to keep the city cooler. 

Most people are unaware of the existence of this original river of Paris. Over time, la Bièvre—by American standards a stream—became a symbol of the debasement of the pastoral, an entity tainted yet still pure at its source. In Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1898 tract, La Bièvre et Saint Séverin, the river takes the figure of the naive from the countryside corrupted by the city, “a hardly pubescent girl, a tiny naiad playing under the willows.” Since I first learned of la Bièvre I became fascinated with its urban demise and mostly by the fact that it still flows in the vestiges of its living and dead beds now submerged beneath the streets. It is sad and sort of creepy to think of it underfoot, interred, blind, a barely living thing.

Charles Marville: La Bièvre, Making Its Way through Paris

Honoré de Balzac mentions it in several novels. He describes Paris’ neighborhoods as “populous with factories looking almost countrified among green trees and the brown streams of the Bièvre.” It prefigures in A Woman of Thirty in a scene where a child accidentally pushes her brother into the river: 

There was a wide space of black hurrying water, and below in the bed of the Bièvr  ten feet of mud. There was not the smallest possibility of saving the child. No one was stirring at that hour on a Sunday morning, and there are neither barges nor anglers on the Bièvre. There was not a creature in sight, not a pole to plumb the filthy stream.

Like many residents he loved the river but loathed its condition.

The great urban photographers, Charles Marville and Eugene Atget, took pictures that reveal the Bièvre’s last claustrophobic course through densely  populated industrial quarters. Here the stagnant water, more like a canal than a free-flowing stream, appears about ten feet wide.

I continued down the rue du Cardinal Lemoine where the Wall of Philippe Auguste, enhanced in stretches by Charles V’s architects, reveals itself in courtyards and behind the fire station at number 48. Soon, almost abruptly, I approached the Seine, where the tower, La Tournelle, once stood, and the Tour l’Argent, the expensive restaurant, commemorates the location today. Tower to tower, my walk took just about seventy-five minutes. A few days after the solstice, the sky stayed light till after ten. I walked back along the river, past the Île Saint-Louis and the Île de la Cité, the oldest part of Medieval Paris, then cut left a short block up rue Séquier and then right to number 3, rue de Savoie, where my little studio with its one window was located. The Night Box was closed on Sundays. I was alone in Paris and owed my whereabouts to no one. I could have done anything in the city that I wanted, but what I wanted was to heat the fish soup I had in the refrigerator and toast the dark bread that seemed to last forever. And sometimes sleep, like wisdom, is rewarded to those not seeking it.

Photo by Sophie Kandaouroff

Stuart Dischell is the author of Good Hope Road (Viking), a National Poetry Series Selection, Evenings & Avenues (Penguin), Dig Safe (Penguin), Backwards Days (Penguin), Standing on Z (Unicorn), Children with Enemies (Chicago), and the The Lookout Man (Chicago). A recipient of awards from the NEA, the North Carolina Arts Council, the Ledig-Rowohlt Foundation. and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, he is the Class of 1952 Excellence Professor in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. His essay is abridged from a work in progress, Walking the Walls of Paris.

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