In July 2014 I took a guided walking tour (in French) of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés quarter of Paris. 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. Our guide was Evremond Bac, who conducts these guided walking tours several times a week in various quarters of Paris.
His fee at the time was twelve Euros per person. Now, five years later, he charges thirteen Euros for the same tour, though some of his competitors still do it for twelve. After all of us had paid, he led us across the street (Boulevard Saint Germain) and around to the back of the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.
Behind the church we had quite a surprise (at least I did) when M. Bac took us in through an ordinary-looking door at 16 Rue de l’Abbey and showed us that behind this bland exterior there were some quite impressive remains of the old abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, from the second quarter of the thirteenth century.
Although the abbey had been disbanded and largely destroyed during the French Revolution, some of the walls and parts of buildings remained standing and were later incorporated into the new nineteenth-century buildings that were built on the site. These vestiges are not normally open to the public, but it happened that in July 2014 some renovation work was being done in the building, so the door remained open during working hours as the workmen went in and out.
Since then I have walked past several times, but the door was always locked.
The vestiges we saw were from the thirteenth century, but the abbey itself was much 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 1482 (known in English as “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”) 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.
On our guided walking tour we were taken in and out of several historic courtyards and through the Cours du Commerce Saint André, a passageway dating from the eighteenth century.
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.)
Location, aerial view and photos of Café Procope on monumentum.fr.
The last stop on our guided walking tour of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés 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.
This substantial brick and stone building at 3 Cours de Rohan was first constructed in 1550 for Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), the mistress of King Henri II.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2019.