Up Stairs. Down Stairs.

One of our favourite walks starts close to the apartment we often rent that overlooks the Boulevard de Port Royal. It begins when you go through a hole in the sidewalk and down a set of stairs.

Just west of the Avenue des Gobelins, the Boulevard de Port Royal crosses over a sunken street, the rue Broca. Four openings, similar to Metro entrances, lead down to the lower street. (A little further east along the boulevard, more stairs connect to the rue Pascal, another street below a street. But we always take the stairs that go to the rue Broca, which is curvier and quirkier.)

Broca is a medieval street that has gone through several name changes (the current one dates from 1890 and commemorates a doctor who also gave his name to the hospital at the southern end of the street). When I wanted to find out why the rue Broca goes underneath the boulevard Port-Royal, it took me a while to realize I was asking the wrong question. Rather, the 19th-century Boulevard de Port Royal was built like a bridge over this low-lying area, which was once part the valley of the Bièvre river. Here is a 1900 view of the river between the rue Broca and the rue Pascal, painted by Germain Eugène Bonneton.

On this bird’s-eye-view map from the 1920s, you can just see the Port Royal overpass and the sunken street underneath.

There is something magical about finding a complete street below an existing street. It reminds me of a children’s book, The Secret World of Og by Pierre Berton (1961), in which five children find a whole civilization of small green people living in a village deep beneath their playhouse.* The strangeness of the rue Broca has given rise to a whole book of fantastic stories by Pierre Gripari, published in 1967. (On this edition, the cover art is by Voutch.)

At the bottom of the stairs, the space below the boulevard welcomes the explorer with murals and coloured lighting. The murals evoke the stories by Gripari.

This is just the newest version of a space designed to make strollers feel welcome rather than threatened. Here’s how it looked in the late 19th century.

The rue Broca winds past shops, restaurants, and businesses. One is a bookbinder, and the window display includes little model rooms. The last time we went past, they showed Relieurs au boulot (bookbinders at work) and Relieurs au repos (bookbinders at rest). The sort of thing one would expect in a magical street below a street.

If you walk north, the road changes its name after it crosses rue Claude Bernard, before opening out into the place in front of the church of St. Médard, at the bottom of the rue Mouffetard. There are bookshops and food shops here, all very tempting, and we seldom resist. Then we climb up the rue Mouffetard in search of a restaurant called Le Verre à Pied. The restaurant is so small we sometimes pass it unwittingly, get to the top of the hill, and have to retrace our steps to find it. The patron serves wines from the Pays d’Oc, which he told us represent the best value for money (le meilleur rapport qualité-prix).

We generally end up in the steep little streets behind the Pantheon. This is the Montagne Ste-Geneviève, one of many hills on which Paris was built. But it is only a small elevation in comparison with Montmartre or Belleville on the Right Bank, famous for their views – and their steps.

A less well-known hill is the Butte Bergeyre, an odd little neighbourhood just west of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. It perches on its own little plateau high above the city. The day we visited, we approached up the steps of the rue Michel Tagrine. Norman here is contemplating the climb ahead.

At the top of the butte is an enclave of houses with remarkable views. Quite a few are covered in ivy. This is a residential area almost entirely without business establishments, unusual in Paris.

Also unusual – an abundance of garages. Living here without a car would be difficult, I imagine.

There are allotment gardens and even a vineyard. Wine is produced here, but I have never tried it and so cannot possibly comment on the rapport qualité-prix.

On hunting for information about this area on Gallica, the first historic photograph that caught my attention was this one:

This structure formed part of the “Folles Buttes,” an amusement park. The entrance, with the tower in the distance, is shown in this postcard, also from Gallica.

There is no date on either image, but the Folles Buttes are mentioned in newspapers from before the First World War. La Presse, in June 1912, announced the opening, with 50,000 square metres of attractions, where “Le Scenic, les Toboggans, la Maison Hantée, et toutes les attractions fonctionneront au milieu des jeux de 50.000 lampes électriques” (the Rollercoaster, the Toboggans, and the Haunted House and all the other attractions are illuminated by 50,000 electric lights). The Folles Buttes closed in the 1920s.

During the 1924 Paris Olympics, the top of the butte was used as a stadium for soccer matches, named for Robert Bergeyre, a noted sportsman who had died in the Great War. Some time after the Games were over, the land was developed as it is now – streets of smallish houses, surrounded and partly hidden by tall apartment buildings on the lower slopes. The neighbourhood first appears on maps from the early 1930s (this is from 1933):

The quartier as a whole is known as Combat, from the nearby Place du Combat – now the Place Colonel Fabien. (The name Combat had nothing to do with war, but recalls a time when the space here was used for animal fights, such as those pitting dogs against boars. Such things were finally outlawed in the 1830s.)

We left the butte by another staircase that leads through an archway to the rue Manin…

…and emerged opposite the park Buttes Chaumont, the former quarry, with its hills and bridges and staircases. In this postcard from our collection, the stairs are described as “rustic.” The park is full of concrete steps and handrails made to look like wood.

Stairs are a huge part of walking in Paris, particularly if you take the Metro. That’s hard on those with hip or knee problems or those struggling with strollers or wheelchairs or suitcases. But the three dimensions of the city are part of its character. Almost everywhere you go, there is something above you and something below you, and you need to take the stairs.

Text and original photographs by Philippa Campsie, Bonneton painting from Paris Musees, historic photo and postcard from Gallica, maps from Wikimedia Commons, postcard of the Buttes Chaumont from our collection.

*This book may have inspired a recurring dream from my childhood, in which I found a little door in our house that led to a whole world underneath the road in front, complete with houses, shops, and people.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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16 Responses to Up Stairs. Down Stairs.

  1. auchateau3 says:

    Delightful exploration! Your posts are so different, and never fail to show us a side of Paris that we might never have discovered ourselves. The old postcards are a treasure trove!

  2. Goyo says:

    Wow. I always look forward to your posts and, more often than not, they lead me to delve further into some aspect of your writings, the results of which I file away to use on my next visit to Paris. So cool! Using Cassagne’s dictionary of Paris street names, I found that the Doctor Broca you mention at the beginning of this article was the creator of modern anthropology thru his work on craniology, and is credited with the discovery of what is known as Broca’s area, the region of the brain vital for producing speech. Thank you for your efforts, a true labor of love from my perspective. 🙏🏽

    • Broca was a product of his time and held some views that are now considered untenable. But his neurological work was very important. I believe that the hospital that bears his name specializes in gerontology.

  3. Sophie says:

    Tiny error : it is the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève (not the Mont Sainte-Geneviève). https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Montagne_Sainte-Genevi%C3%A8ve

  4. C-Marie says:

    Always so very interesting to look and see and read!! Thank you!!!
    God bless, C-Marie

  5. ejanehunter says:

    All your blogs are great, but I found this one particularly delightful! ________________________________

  6. poorukun says:

    Hello !

    Just a small correction to your paragraph on the Folles Buttes, par ailleurs très intéressant…

    Le Scenic is not the tower. It’s an abbreviation, an anglicism, and an archaism all at once. Quoting from the Larousse:

    scenic-railway, scenic-railways
    nom masculin
    (anglais scenic-railway, petit train)

    • Synonyme de https:///dictionnaires/francais/montagne/52476#locution.

    Much thanks for your great blog!

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