In the Ex-Rue des Rats

photo: cor r degres, maitre albert

Right across from Notre Dame cathedral, quiet streets
in the Latin Quarter.

Looking for Romans

Paris:- Wednesday, 11. April 2001:- After last week's hard news about how France copes with its transport strikes - which are still going on here and there - it's time to get back to explaining what Paris is best at - being visited by tourists.

If you are one of these, if you think you like travelling and seeing new places - but have always been a bit apprehensive about a visit to Paris - you have nothing to worry about. Plenty of people have successfully visited Paris and returned home safely to tell the story of their adventures.

Take Julius Caesar for example. He mentions temporarily setting up a combat headquarters here in 53 BC, in his well-known book 'De Bello Gallico.' A year later, while Caesar wasphoto: rue maitre albert forcing the Gaul's head leader Vercingetoix and his followers to surrender, the Gauls in Paris, led by Camulogène, got beaten up by Roman legions under the command of Labienus.

This fight took place in what is now called the Latin Quarter and the Parisians, who were called Parisii at the time, were obliged to settle down for several centuries under a Pax Romana - which lasted for an astonishingly long time even by today's standards.

In the Rue Maître Albert, a man is quietly carrying a small but quiet dog.

This gave Paris its name - 'Lutetia Parisiorum' in Latin - the first part of which is still used as a name by some cafés in the Latin Quarter - which corresponds to most of Paris' 5th arrondissement.

While the Romans took over the Gaul's ancient headquarters on the Ile de la Cité, they also developed a new part of town for themselves on the left bank, centered on the heights of Lucoticius, which has been known for a lot of centuries as Sainte-Geneviève.

Where the Gauls had winding paths the Romans put in neat, straight roads - such as the main one - the 'cardo maximus' - today's Rue Saint-Jacques. This lines up with the only bridge in those days - the Petit-Pont - crossing the Seine from the right bank to the Ile de la Cité and to the left bank. Other Roman roads followed the Rue Vaugirard or the Rue Cujas towards Sèvres, or went the other way up Rue Monge towards Italy.

There was a forum in the area of the Rue Soufflot, but this is not where Julian was acclaimed Emperor in 361 AD by the legions. This was done at the palace on the Ile de la Cité. But the essential point is, the Romans came to visit, and stayed four centuries. How many postcards they sent home is unknown.

And it took 15 centuries more until the Prefect - a Roman notion! - Baron Haussmann, came along to put in some new, straight, wide roads - such as the Boulevards Saint-Germain, Saint-Michel, Rue des Ecoles and the Rue Monge.

These days, few visitors stay longer than a week or two, with many staying only for as little as four days. Many comephoto: cafe aux 3 bourriques to see the Notre Dame cathedral and do not realize that the ancient Roman urban center of Paris lies directly south, across the Petit-Pont, only about 130 metres away.

Late diners finish their lunches in the 'Three Donkeys' restaurant.

However, there isn't much in the way of Roman amphitheaters or other ruins around here - there is a modest arena, built to hold 20,000, off the Rue Monge, and much closer there are the ancient remains of the baths at Cluny - at the corner of the Boulevards Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain.

Instead of looking for what no longer exists, I spend my time finding out about the Rue Maître Albert. This curiously starts from the Place Maubert and then takes a turn left before heading straight towards the Seine.

From the end of the 13th century this street was called 'Perdu' - lost - but got its present respectable name in 1844, from the theologian Albert le Grand who lived from 1193 to 1280. He was a 'professor' in the Place Maubert. It was also the location, from 1348 to 1763, of the College Saint-Michel. The nicest hôtel or townhouse in the street dates to 1688.

This street was also home to Zamor, after 1815. He was a former page of the Countess du Barry, and became the manager of her château out at Louveciennes.

He got his name from Voltaire's 'Alzire.' He was spoiled in childhood - as a court-brat - by Louis XV and Countess du Barry, who had him dressed and educated. Zamor rewarded their kindness by testifying against Countess du Barry at a Revolutionary tribunal - enough to send her to the guillotine.

Retired in this street, he taught school in the quarter but was said to be very mean and he hit the kids. When he died on Thursday, 7. February 1820, nobody went to his funeral. If surprised by this, a questioner would be told, "It's Zamor, the one who snitched on du Barry."

Coming out of this street onto the Quai de Montebello, Notre Dame is across the river, partly hidden by the book-stalls on the quay's wall and blossoms and tentative green buds on the trees. Right here I turn left into a small square which is not called anything special.

The Rue des Grands-Degrés goes off to the right and the Rue Frédérick Sauton goes straight ahead, back up to the Place Maubert.

In 1366 the Rue des Grands-Degrés was called Saint-Bernard and in the 17th century it became Pavée. Voltaire worked here in 1714 when he was 20, as a clerk for the attorney Alain.

Before this, after seven 'brilliant' years at the prestigious Louis-le-Grand school studying under Jesuits, he was sent by his father to law school. But he preferred the party life better.

Voltaire was sent to Den Haag, where he partied some more and met Mademoiselle de Noyer, a sortphoto: passage clos du bruneau of adventuress. This led to being disinherited by his father and he was forced - sort of like a debtor - into studying law with Maître Alain.

'Modern' 19th century shopfronts on 16th or 17th century buildings.

The Rue Frédérick Sauton has no known claims to fame, but from number 19, going down into the caves leads to a series of vaulted and dry caves, which can be left by coming out on Rue Maître Albert at number 16, beside a coach doorway.

The Rue de la Bucherie was 'started' in sixth century and formalized in 1202. Houses on its north side had their backsides directly on the river. It was named after the wood for building and fuel that was brought here by boats, that was stored in the river in the Port aux Bûches.

For a time it was called rue de la Buscherie-du-Petit-Pont, then shortened. In 16th century. Somebody dreamed up the idea of log-booms and because these required more space, the business moved upriver to the Quai de la Rapée.

In 1602, between Rue de la Bucherie and the Seine, an annex of the Hôtel-Dieu on the Ile de la Cité was built here, called Saint-Charles. It covered the present Quai de Montebello. Hospital goods were stored in its caves which had direct access to the river, but later they were used as hideouts by bandits. In 1782, the building was extended to the Petit-Pont.

The first faculty of medicine was in this street at numbers 13 to 15. At the beginning of the middle ages medicine was taught only in monasteries - as either medicine according to Hippocrates, 400 BC, or according to Galien, 131-200 AD - and practiced only by monks whose knowledge was limited by their celibacy.

These were prohibited from studying medicine in 1131, and this was confirmed by Pope Alexander III in 1163 at the Council of Tours. Any monks disobeying these orders were threatened with excommunication, which was a severe handicap in those days.

So, even though there were sick people, there were no other doctors until about 1220, when small medical schools began to be set up. These obtained their own royal statutes in 1274 and were duly confirmed by Philippe VI in 1331 for some reason, and the teaching of medicine was officially attached to the university.

But there was no building and classes were given outdoors. In 1472, the faculty of medicine was finally fixed up in two houses at the corner of the Rue de la Bucherie and Rue des Rats - which were finished in 1502 without much hurry either.

This establishment was enlarged four times up to 1617, then redone in 1678. An amphitheater, built in 1617, was replaced in 1744 with a 'great' one, paid for by Paris doctors, possibly by taxation. The buildings were aligned in 1810 and restored in 1909. The old faculty is now a school of civic administration.

By Paris' standards, none of these streets amounts to much. There are a lot of interesting detailsphoto: cor degres, haut pavee about medicine - only four procedures! - lots of bloodletting! - but in these streets, which may have been part of Roman Paris' riverfront there is not much.

In a small place, not named anything in particular, one quiet café faces another.

In walking around them, I have seen no more than a dozen people and one or two dogs. There are lights inside the restaurants where some diners are lingering long over the end of their lunches. At one, a man comes out, locks the café door and gets on a scooter and heads off towards Maubert.

In any one of these short and narrow streets you can stand for quite a long time before having to move on to a sidewalk to let a car pass. There is some traffic noise from the Quai de Montebello, but birds can be heard too.

I'm not trying to say you can't hear birds if you are standing in front of Notre Dame's central front door, 130 metres from the Rue de la Bucherie. No, I am thinking more of the 10 million-odd visitors that come to look at the great church, and never cross the Petit-Pont to look for Roman Paris, in what used to be the Rue des Rats.

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