The clock was ticking. Since March 17, when the lockdown went into effect in Paris, residents were allowed outside once a day, within a one-kilometer radius of their homes, with a dated and signed permission slip — monitored by the police. The rules of our treasure hunt were thus fixed by the authorities. Could we unravel the medallion mystery before my iPhone buzzed the time to sprint back to the confines of our small city apartment?
Cecilia followed the trail through a newer apartment complex where Jane pointed out that the alleys were named for Roman emperors: Julien, who — the street sign helpfully explained — lived in Paris from 357-360 AD, and Valentinien, whose séjour in Lutèce, as Roman Paris was called, lasted from 365-366 AD. Nearby the Avenue de la Sibelle conjured a prophetess of Antiquity. Here in a petite pocket of the 14th arrondissement was a cryptic homage to ancient Rome.
Then we hit a dead end. Downhill, the alley opened onto a garden strewn with cherry blossoms, its locked gates covered with wisteria vines. We had visited the tiny playground here years ago but usually bypassed this area for the charms of nearby Parc Montsouris, one of four 19th-century public parks created by Baron Haussmann at the cardinal points of the compass around Paris. I had never before realized that here lies the vestiges of an ancient Roman aqueduct, alongside the better-known 17th-century aqueduct commissioned by Marie de Médicis to carry water to the fountains of Paris. (Both were discovered in 2000 upon the creation of the garden, named Jardin Marie-Thérèse Auffray for the local artist who fought in the Resistance during the Second World War.) The medallions mark a 200-meter stretch of its underground route.
This historical treasure is discreetly hidden. Part of the Roman ruins are framed behind a glass wall beneath an apartment building; there is no explanatory sign. Another protected portion is showcased in the garden, its grass landscaped in undulating waves to respect the subterranean ruins. (A more obvious glimpse of the Roman aqueduct can be found on the Avenue Reille, on the opposite side of the street of our habitual entrance to Parc Montsouris.)
This find would be cool and astonishing in any context, but overlooked in my very own neighborhood?
I am lucky to live in Paris, a great culture capital. Though our Left Bank neighborhood is far from the grand landmarks that draw the world’s tourists, I am guilty of not truly seeing my home turf, the well-trod sidewalks that we march every day to school and work. The routine patterns of quotidian life lead us on the same paths where we are often too busy to look down and notice something curious.
It struck me that during this period of quarantine, the car-free streets of Paris could set the stage for discovery. This adventurous mission coincided with the start of the kids’ “spring break,” a now-canceled trip that we had anticipated all through the dreary winter. If we couldn’t travel outside of Paris, why not find a way to travel within our own neighborhood? We set out to remap our familiar terrain into something unexplored, to see it — like hungry, curious travelers prowling for clues — as a new, wondrous destination.
Walking is an antidote to the anxiety, the distress, the insomnia-filled nights of the tumultuous time we are living in. It’s also an age-old practice in the City of Light, where walking has served as both a philosophy and entertainment (cue the park promenaders and leisurely flâneurs immortalized by Charles Baudelaire). Rebecca Solnit captures the essence of this in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking,” which dedicates an entire chapter to Paris. “Walking Paris is often described as reading,” she writes, “as though the city itself were a huge anthology of tales.”
My kids and I would’ve loved to read that whole tome in quarantine — we enjoy nothing more than urban hikes across the arrondissements that are famously shaped like a snail, spiraling out from the Louvre Museum. We usually look for street art and interesting architecture and the pageantry of street life. But under lockdown, our walks were limited to a small area straddling the boundaries of the 13th, 14th and 5th arrondissements. Time slowed and we took every bypassed alleyway instead of the shortest route between places. And we discovered there’s poetry in the details.
We noticed a 17th-century facade marked with a stone mason’s chisel, another sculpted with scallop shells and — moving through the centuries — a building decorated with Art Deco windows. Doors alone were worth a long look, showing off a variety of colors. The gabled roofs of Petite Alsace, a half-timbered housing structure in the Butte-aux-Cailles, transported us to the east of France. Behind a high wall on a nondescript alley, we glimpsed a church spire and, peering through a wrought-iron gate, discovered the convent cloisters of Franciscan missionary nuns. We found a bewitching shop window with art supplies from another era; the Atelier Vermeer offers painting classes using traditional, centuries-old techniques.
There’s no holding back Paris in the springtime. Under clear, sunny skies, the flowers burst forth in a riotous bloom. Birdsong floated over the avenues blissfully empty of traffic. Even though the city’s parks were officially closed, we admired the flower beds through the locked gates. Cherry blossoms rained down on the streets like confetti. Community gardens showed off the fruits of neighbors’ hard work, and even the sidewalk trees have been adopted by locals who planted bulbs beneath. Vegetation exploded from seed bombs launched by guerrilla gardeners. We charted the springtime calendar, and the duration of the quarantine, by the evolution of the flowers: daffodils to tulips to blossoming chestnut trees to wisteria so fragrant its perfume stops you in your tracks.
We also took the time to uncover the stories of landmarks we walk by every day. For example, the lion statue at Place Denfert-Rochereau is usually lost in the traffic congestion of the busy roundabout. Now it sat alone in the middle of empty avenues, the better to be observed. An homage to Colonel Denfert-Rochereau, who defended besieged Belfort during the Franco-Prussian War, the “Lion de Belfort” was sculpted by the Statue of Liberty’s designer, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi.
A building I’ve often discounted as an eyesore took on new meaning when we found an overlooked historical marker. Like travelers gleaning insights from guidebooks, we learned that the “gratte-ciel No. 1” was Paris’s first residential skyscraper, built in 1960 by architect Édouard Albert. Classified as a historical monument, it’s considered a modernist icon.
Across the street rises the Mobilier National, also known as the “Palais de Perret” in a nod to the architect who designed it in 1936. (Auguste Perret was a genius in concrete, rebuilding Le Havre from the ashes of the Second World War.) This graceful building was erected on the site of the former gardens of the historic Gobelins tapestry factory. Today the Mobilier National, which houses the state’s rare antiques collection, is auctioning off select pieces to benefit French hospitals coping with the covid-19 crisis.
Then there are the street names. Learning their stories enriched our sense of the neighborhood’s geography. Why is Rue de la Glacière named for an icehouse? Answer: Blocks of ice from the Bièvre river, a tributary of the Seine that once flowed through the quarter, used to be cut and stored in nearby quarries, supplying the capital’s ice stock for centuries. There’s a street (Alesia) recognizing the Celtic town that fell to Julius Caesar in the Gallic Wars, and another (Corvisart) that carries the name of Napoleon’s personal doctor. Rue Saint-Jacques, often described as the oldest street in Paris, follows the traces of an ancient Roman road. Notably it marks the beginning of the Chemin de Saint Jacques, the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. As they walk, solitary pilgrims are united in their endeavor, not unlike our quarantine situation in Paris.
Bien sûr the best part of travel is the human element — the new encounters, the unraveling of stories in the tapestry of life — which is not something the quarantine allowed. When a fellow walker approached, we jumped into the street to give them space. But we could still wave to the couple dancing on their balcony, shout “merci” to the city’s waste collectors and count the leashed dogs out on their walks. “Don’t worry, he just ate,” joked one dog owner, upon seeing Jane’s big-eyed look at his pony-sized companion. We laughed together while keeping our one-meter-mandated distance.
As the quarantine restrictions are slowly lifted, we’ll be able to walk the rue Saint Jacques north to the River Seine, past the lockdown-imposed neighborhood restrictions. But for now, we’ve started our own pilgrimage here, in our very own neighborhood.