by Edith Cody-Rice
It is one of the oldest, reputed to be THE oldest street in Paris, an old Roman road running south to Italy and said to be named for the foul smelling River Bievre that used to run through the area: Rue Mouffetard. Mouffet means “skunk” in French. It was an area of tanners, animal skinners, butchers and dyers for several centuries and their waste polluted the river. Now La Bievre is buried beneath the cobblestones of Paris and the area is one of the liveliest and most charming in the city. I had three weeks to appreciate it and the rest of Paris on a visit in July.
The area of the Mouffetard is at the heart of the Latin Quarter, so named because of the Sorbonne situated there. When it was founded as the Université de Paris in the 12th century, Latin was the language of all universities and spoken by resident students.
The street ascends gently through a maze of butchers, bakers, restaurants, hardware stores and wine merchants until it ends close to the Pantheon . It is full of charm, charm, in fact, of another era. One feels oneself in French après guerre cinema of the 1950’s – although few men wear berets any more. .
At the bottom of the Rue Mouffetard is a square with a flower filled fountain, two cafes with outdoor seating facing the square à la Paris, a patisserie, and a green grocer, a pharmacy and a wine shop. Beside the square is an ancient church, the Saint Medard, that was attended by the author Pascal. A daily open air market enlivens in the square and two restaurants have their tables under the trees. Be careful though, if you choose the wrong coloured seating you will be offered only ice cream from the ice cream shop, not a meal from the proper restaurant next door. On Sundays, a small troubadour group sings old French songs and the locals, and some tourists, dance to the music. Ah Paris!.One could never leave this small lively corner and feel that one had visited the essential Paris.
But, at the moment, a great draw in Paris is Notre Dame. I had to see it, to see the damage and the reconstruction. Do we not all recall the dramatic night of April 15 when the whole world watched as the roof burned and the great lead spire tumbled through the nave to gasps. Oddly, the cathedral itself still looks much the same, but without the roof of course. The roof itself was never the most iconic part of Notre Dame so the fact that the shell still stands gives the impression that it was not fatally damaged. On a sunny day it still looks lovely and gracious, as the Kingston Trio song goes “Standing there across the river,mid sound of horn and tram, in all her quiet beauty, the cathedral Notre Dame”.
You cannot reach her from the left bank, the bridge is closed, but later I was able to come close to the cathedral from the other side on the Ile de la Cité and what amazed me was its proximity to nearby apartments and shops. The street is about as wide as Almonte’s Mill Street. That the flames did not jump the street and set the whole area ablaze is nothing short of a miracle.
The cathedral is now fenced off, of course, but tourists flock to the pavé in front of it to see the shell. We are told that 2/3 of the roof and 20% of the interior were destroyed. As I discovered, most Parisians watched the conflagration on television, as did we in the rest of the world. We all felt we were living the same experience as we empathized with the weeping and singing crowds in Paris. Christian or not, Notre Dame is a symbol of western culture and its destruction and emotional moment.
Central Paris is a beautiful and hugely interesting city and is actually very easy to traverse. There is the metro, of course, but you don’t see the city on the metro; there are taxis, but traffic is choc-a-bloc and you may spend a fortune getting just several blocks. Ubers are available but not always less expensive than a regular taxi that has the right to use special taxi lanes. I found the best transportation to be the bus. For 2 Euros, you can get an overview of the main sights of the city. Just don’t travel at rush hour. Buses come about every 8 minutes and bus stops are not too far apart. The number 27 in the Latin Quarter is particularly handy. A round trip takes you past the Luxembourg Gardens, the Louvre, the Comédie Française, the lovely old Opera, the famous Galeries Lafayette and Samartine department store and the Gare St Lazare.
Parisians walk a lot but are very innovative for distances. Electric bicycles abound and the newest invention is the trottinettes: electric scooters that zoom along streets with Parisians elegantly posed on the footplate. Apparently they have become famous for knocking over elderly ladies so they can be a menace, but they are incredibly convenient. The company that operates them allows you to leave them anywhere and another rider can pick one up throughout central Paris.
Paris, of course, was in the midst of la canicule(heat wave). Temperatures in the south reached 50 degrees centigrade; for Paris it was 42. Few Parisians have air conditioning and you can imagine the heat in the upper floors of old Paris apartments. The news contained nothing but accounts of la canicule with warnings to check on loved ones and to drink plenty of water. Civil servants passed out bottles of water in train stations and other public places and digital messages encouraging people to drink water and to check on “les proches” scrolled across the interior of buses. France does not want a repeat of the 2003 heat wave when 19,000 died, many elderly people left alone in their steaming apartments in August when their families were on holiday. Fortunately for us, our hotel was air conditioned.
One of the pleasantest of surprises was the civility of Parisians. Parisians are frequently considered cold, arrogant, ill mannered and unhelpful. Well, that was not our experience. My companion on this trip is nearly blind and carries a white cane. Parisians could not have been more helpful. On our first day there, my friend nearly collapsed in the street – a combination of jet lag, blindness and wearing too many clothes in the heat. We had offers of help from no fewer than four complete strangers and a young Parisian spent 20 minutes looking for a taxi for us and arrived with it in front of the place on the sidewalk where we were sitting.
This experience repeated itself many times during our three week stay. We had offers of help across the street, arms to ease access to buildings with steps. All this done in the most polite and non obtrusive way. Parisians value their privacy, and yours, but they are compassionate. I also witnessed this behaviour with respect to their own compatriots. On the bus , I watched as perfect strangers passed elderly women from hand to hand down the swaying aisle to a seat quickly vacated by a young person.
And in the ultimate display of civility, I was about to board a bus with an elderly man who was very bent and obviously had difficulty walking, even with a cane. I moved aside to allow him to board ahead of me to get one of the seats reserved for senior citizens but he demurred. “Oh non Madame,” he exclaimed in French,” in our city, ladies always go before men – and that is as it should be. “ Vive les Parisiens!!!