The Boul'Mich in Rippling Shadows

Thousands Throng Boulevard St. Michel - Why?

Paris:- Monday, 16. September 1996:- The sky is very blue and the air is warm, the leaves are still on the trees - a bit brown on the edges - and the sun is crashing straight down the boulevard St. Michel, in the Quartier Latin. And it looks like the Paris marathon is happening on both sidewalks.

I am here with a couple of little research jobs to do, and the amount of other people here - a flabbergasting number - I don't what for, I mean, why are they here? Walking up and down in the glaring sun or ambling through the rippling shadows; are they going somewhere?

In July when I was at the place St. Michel it looked good too - but with all the construction, blocking the entire west side of the street, up to the boulevard St. Germain - I did not take any photos: no use for the archive. Looking up the east side sidewalk it is almost okay, but there are bits of construction that have wandered over from the other side. In July, the sun was higher and there was more shade.

Now it is like being on stage. I squint and I can see thousands of heads, up to the Cluny, in shadow, against the light. But why so many? The university, the Sorbonne, doesn't open until sometime in October. If all these people are around, maybe they've come early in order to get a seat. I hear German and English in passing, maybe foreign students come like the first swallows. It is warm and everybody is dressed for summer - even with the sun three months past its June high. The citizens are looking good with the remains of their August tans.

I drift up the east side, wondering about this. Aside from the bookshops at the place St. Michel, most of the shops up to St. Germain are thread and shoe places, and there are some bookshops on the other side too, behind the construction barrier. Another thing, the street is full of traffic, four lanes of it and the light is coming off windshields too, and there is sort of a haze of fumes: rush-hour in early afternoon.

At the corner, east of the métro station Cluny, there is more construction; more underground parking. After all the talk about pollution during the summer and somebody is converting what should be mushroom farms into parking lots all over town - parking on the street is draconian; there is less and less of it. If you parked on the street before, maybe you've got a right to an underground space - if so, pretty soon they'll rip out the Métro and use that space too.

The are hordes of people at the intersection of the two boulevards and the street is metal and glass and rubber from side to side, heading north towards the Seine and east towards Bastille or Austerlitz. I know where I am going - or will when I find it - but where are all these other people going? Maybe they've just gathered in this part of town because this is the place to be, right now: 'Let's roll down Boul'Mich to the quai, head west to Pont du Carrousel, cross over and then zip east to Bastille of Gare de Lyon - a little joyride!'

Contrary to what I believed, the Boulevard St. Michel is not an old Paris street, dating as I thought, to Roman times - but a fairly recent assembly, starting in 1859 - from the Pont St. Michel up to rue Cujas, and continuing beyond in 1859 - and it was first called Sébastopol-Rive-Gauche and only became St. Michel in 1867. It absorbed the part of rue de la Harpe beyond the boulevard St. Germain and disappeared a number of older streets, most of them dating from the 12th century. One of them, the rue des Deux Portes, is now the boulevard St. Germain.

Fronting on the rue de la Harpe, to the east, there were three colleges: the Collége de Séez, founded 1427; the Collége de Narbonne, founded 1317; and the Collége de Bayeux, founded in 1309. The last two were demolished for the installation of the new boulevard, but the portal of the last has been reassembled and is now part of the chapel of the Musée de Cluny.

However, where the rue Monsieur le Prince meets the place de la Sorbonne at the boulevard St. Michel, there was a gate called Gilbert, and beyond it, until 1867 there was the rue d'Enfer. In 1810, Roman artifacts were found just to the west, in the Jardin du Luxembourg - that were the apparent remains of a Roman legionnaire camp, that was probably evacuated in the time of the Emperor Honorius (395 - 423). This area later became location of the infamous Château de Vauvert, supposedly built around 998 - that was reputed to be haunted in the 11th century and travellers on their way to Issy avoided it if they could. Romans and ghosts; what more could I want?

But before getting this far, by rue des Ecoles the hordes on the sidewalk are more student-looking, but the place de la Sorbonne is nearly empty - and perhaps because its cafés are gathered on the south side in the shadow, they are not full either.

I turn east into the rue de Cujas and left into the rue St. Jacques and head downhill to the north, with the Sorbonne on the right and the lycée Louis-le-Grand on the right. The latter has a big sign on it announcing its renovation. The three colleges mentioned earlier were all attached to Louis-le-Grand in 1763, two were demolished and the Collége de Séez still has a 'magnificent facade' on the rue de la Harpe - according to my source. According to my map, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand is two blocks east what is left of rue de la Harpe - now the boulevard St. Michel, so I do not know where this facade is, but my source claims it is at number 29 on the boulevard - but my old green Michelin Guide makes no mention of it at all.

By the time I get back to the Boul'Mich, at the rue des Ecoles, I have walked around the Sorbonne. It is a big pile of stone and when it opens in a few weeks I will dig out my books again and see what there is to tell about it.

Since I have found what I was looking for - and the métro line 10 is not functioning at the moment - I walk along the quieter boulevard St. Germain to the place, which I notice for the first time is called place du Québec on the south and place St. Germain des Prés on the north side of the boulevard; but this is doubtless another story.

Right by the entrance of the métro station there, a pretty girl offered me a brand-new edition of France Telecom's Yellow Pages which I accepted and went home with a heavy load, after a nice walk on a beautiful day in the Quartier Latin.

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