A Little Stroll Down Vaugirard

From Boul'Mich to Porte de Versailles,
if I can Find It

Paris:- Wednesday, 18. September 1996:- The sun is still shining in the Quartier Latin, where I am again today - looking for other things. This is backwards, because I am really here in order to walk the length of the rue de Vaugirard - and there is something I want to see at the other end - but now I'm here, where I left off on Monday and I am looking in these bookshops right at the beginning - for a book people have heard of but never seen.

In fact, I am not even on the rue de Vaugirard, although I think so. I am on the rue de Médicis, across from the Jardin de Luxembourg.

In the bookshops, walking the length of Vaugirard almost gets undone. Bookshops in Paris are like the video-game parlors in Brighton Beach; if you are a certain age they are hard to get out of. After leaving a 50 franc deposit on a three-kilo tome, I join the rue de Vaugirard at the place Paul Claudel, at the rear of the Odéon.

This is what I missed: the real rue de Vaugirard's 4,360 metres starts at the boulevard St. Michel, a long block back towards the Seine, opposite the place de la Sorbonne, and the first two blocks of this - the longest street in Paris - are without much history.

The Palais du Luxembourg is on the south side of the place Paul Claudel, and is the home on the French Senat. From the arcades of the Odéon across the street, I can see there is not much activity, and traffic is light too. Police are controlling the entries for cars, but I could cross the street and knock on the door. [See Lounging Around the Luxembourg in the 10th Issue of Metropole Paris and the Senate Web Site http://www.senat.fr/]

A bit further along, there is the one-time 'Orangerie' of the gardens - and since 1886, it has been the Musée du Luxembourg. This museum used to be in the palace itself and its first exposition was in 1750. At number 36, across the street, a mansion built for Anne of Bavaria in 1716 served as the kitchens of the Petit-Luxembourg and after the revolution it was occupied by the weights and measures people, who had a marble 'metre' placed in the facade to the right of the entry - to instruct Parisians about the new long and short of things.

A lot of famous people, during the last couple of centuries, lived in the shadow of the Luxembourg, in the adjoining rues of Condé, Tournon and Férou - but these are off my beat today.

At the corner of the rue Madame I get drawn into another bookshop, 'Le Point Traversée,' to find myself sharing it with a serious customer, François Léotard, President of the UDF party which, along with President Chirac's RPR party, currently runs France. A former defense minister, Mr. Léotard is currently a national deputy and is, I believe, also mayor of Fréjus, on the Côte d'Azur.

Mr. Léotard looks like he does on TV, except in the shop he is wearing glasses - so I guess his brother, who is an actor who I admire, looks like he does in movies - except that the political brother does not look like he was hit by a truck.

I do not say hello because looking at serious books is a serious business, but I do ask the bodyguard outside, with a Fréjus tan, how to address Mr. Léotard, if I had the nerve. He says, as 'Mr. President,' and when I look surprised he adds, 'of the UDF.' Maybe, of France, someday.

The Carmelite Convent, with the Saint Joseph church is at number 70. The first stone of the monastery was placed in 1613 by Nicolas Vivien and Marie de Médicis added the first stone of the church a few months later. All this is intact, but it was transformed into the 'Institut Catholique de Paris' in 1876.

Up until 1790, the limit of the Jardin de Luxembourg was the centre of a triangle formed by the rue de Vaugirard, rue de Rennes and the Boulevard Raspail. This is now a complex of busy corners, with the métro station St. Placide, at what I guess is the northern limit of Montparnasse.

Beyond this complicated intersection, the rue de Vaugirard quietens down; it was inhabited by many religious groups - the sisters of this and that, the monks or something else, and I guess some of them are still here - but there is not much to see.

Across the big intersection at the boulevard du Montparnasse, the traffic heading towards me becomes heavier, with most of it turning into the boulevard. I am hungry and thirsty, so I stop in a cybercafé there for a panini sandwich - only so-so - and send an e-mail to the person who suggested this walk.

Just a bit further on, I take a photo of the Hospital Neckar, for children, at métro Falguière. This hospital has its principal entry on the rue de Sévres. It is an assembly of a collection of orphanages, convents, school and pension for poor but noble girls, chapels - all having various dates of construction and renovation, in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1777, Madame Neckar, seconded by Louis XIV and the curé of St. Suplice, transformed a convent into a hospital of 120 beds, which were, for rare cases, occupied by only one patient. During the Revolution, the hospital was called Hospice de l'Ouest and in 1802, after numerous improvements, the name changed to Neckar. Today this hospital takes up just about all the area from rue de Sévres to Vaugirard and from the boulevard de Montparnasse to the Boulevard Pasteur.

Below the wall of the Fermiers-Généraux - which was on the Boulevard Pasteur - the area stretching south to the village of Issy, was known as the Village de Vaugirard. From 558 it was attached to the fief of Issy - and both belonged to the abbey at St. Germain-des-Prés. The near-actual name was first used in 1234, and the area was a collection of farms and cattle ranches.

In 1256, Gérard de Moret, had a country house built to house ill monks, and that seemed to launch a general boom of religious construction in the area, which local residents called 'Val Gérard,' then 'Vaulgérard' and finally, 'Vaugirard.' This country house was just below where métro Convention is today. Otherwise, from the north, until the revolution, one saw only fields of rye and the road.

On the other side of the Boulevard Pasteur I ask two students - in front of the Lycée Buffon, which I think is the Institute Pasteur - where the front door of the Institute is, and am alarmed when they tell me it is not in rue de Vaugirard nor on the Boulevard Pasteur at all - but in the rue du Dr. Roux - one block east and turn right. So it is.

Before setting out, I had a glance at a modern map of the city, and it placed a 'Pasteur' in a large patch on the east side of rue Vaugirard, north of the rue des Volentiers. The Institute itself is in the adjacent rue du Dr. Roux and the museum is at number 25. It is closed Saturdays, Sundays, holidays and in August. There are guided tours of about 45 minutes. It is actually Dr. Pasteur's house, where he lived the last seven years of his life and there are supposed to be a lot of interesting things to see there.

The 'Pasteur' that is not the Institute, is marked as a hospital; and it surrounds another hospital, the St. Jacques. Together with the Neckar, this makes a lot of hospitals in a small area.

When I get back to Vaugirard after this detour via Dr. Roux, I am tired, because I started at métro St. Michel and did that part on foot first. So I pop into the métro and ride down to the Porte de Versailles, the stop for the Parc des Expositions de Paris, on the opposite side of the boulevards Victor and Lefebvre.

The traffic on the rue de Vaugirard runs one-way from the Porte de Versailles towards the rue de Rennes, where it becomes two-way. Going to see editors in Montparnasse, I used to take this route once or twice a week. With buses and delivery trucks and anarchic parking, with different widths, it was an obstacle course that left little time for sight-seeing, except when it was jammed.

The worst of this, about two kilometres in all, is the part I skipped today. However, my source book for Paris street facts - devotes six dense columns of history, from the early 1700's Auberge du Soleil d'Or at number 226, to a property dating to 1696 at number 393, now occupied by government offices - to this stretch.

As I mentioned earlier, the area below the Boulevard Pasteur - essentially all of today's 15th arrondissement - was farms and ranches. As age goes in Paris, this was quite recently, but now this arrondissement is not only the largest in the city, it also has the greatest population - and for some reason, I always think of it as the 'sunny south 15th' as if it has a climate different from the rest of Paris.

Still no excuse, I guess, for not walking rue de Vaugirard's whole length. It was a sunny day after all.

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