Bievre river

This stroll is sort of a ghost one, since it follows the Bievre, a small river now all buried under the Parisien pavement.  When Atget took pictures of it at the beginning of the last century, it was still partially visible in the southern part of Paris, in the 13thdistrict, between Poterne des Peupliers and rue des Gobelins before it was completely buried and integrated with the sewer network of Paris.
The river begins at Guyancourt in the forest of Versailles, flows through the cities of JouyenJosas, Bièvres, then becomes an underground river in Antony, flows through Fresnes, Arceuil, Gentilly and finally enters in Paris where it joins the Seine river. It is thought that its name, Bièvre, comes from the fact that in the past many beavers were living in the river. However, this is not confirmed and others think that the name would come from its brown color due to sludge (boue or bourbe in French).

Les deux bras de la Bièvre dans le Paris actuel du parc Kellermann à la gare d’Austerlitz 
Ouvrage :  Sur les traces de la Bièvre Parisienne  - Ed Parigramme

If we map the river against the today Paris, it was entering in the south under boulevard Kellermann, then was following a large meander around a hill, Butte aux Cailles. In this area of flood-meadows, called la Glacière (the ice-house), the water was easily transformed into ice during the winter. The ice was cut and stored in stone quarries to be sold during the summer. Leaving the Butte aux Cailles , the river was running along the Gobelins Manufactory. All polluted by the dyeing activity of the manufacture and also by many of the tanneries settled along the river, it was finally running along the Jardin des Plantes to end into the Seine between the Austerlitz bridge and the Charles de Gaulle bridge.

To power their mills and water their gardens, the Saint-Victor Abbey got the permission

in the 12th century to divert the Bievre up to their monastery. This derivation called the Canal des Victorins was starting where is the National Museum of Natural History, to flow up to Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet church and finally along the today rue de Bièvre to finish into Seine river at the level of Cathedral Notre-Dame. 

The Bièvre river was running in Paris as two parallel flows

Sur les traces de la Bièvre Parisienne - Parigramme)

Stroll Paris elong Bievre river detailed itinerary

Even though the river is today integrated into the sewer network, our stroll follows its former route from parc Kellermann up to Jardin des Plantes, and finally along the former Canal des Victorins to end in rue de Bièvre.

I cannot miss the Eugène Atget street, essentially a small alley with stairs, between la Butte aux Cailles and boulevard Auguste Blanqui.

In The Bièvre, Joris Karl Huysmans depicts the poor little river as overused and polluted by the activities of tanneries and dye factories, before it finally ends up as a sewer. His words are a moving addition to the photos of the same period by Eugène Atget.

Parc Kellermann

From metro station Maison Blanche, let’s cross avenue d’Italie to enter into jardin du Moulin de la Pointe (Mill at the Point). In the past there were many mills along the Bievre river and the name of the garden recalls one mill built at the end of a path to the road to Fontainebleau, today avenue d’Italie.
Then we cross boulevard Kellermann to enter unto an other small garden, Jardin du Monument aux Mères Françaises honoring French mothers who had to raise their children alone after the first World War.

We arrive directly to a Bastion of the old 19th century fortifications along the parc Kellermann.  From there, we have an overview of the park where was flowing the Bievre river. At the level of the pond, the river was divided into two parallel flows: the native flow (slower, called Bièvre morte - Dead Bièvre) and an artificial one (with a higher water flow, called Bièvre vive -  Alive Bièvre). The higher flow was supplying the many mills along its banks. The two river flows were winding in parallel to finally end into the Seine river.

Here, the river stayed uncovered until 1935, long after the last open-air section of the river within Paris was covered in 1912 to be completely integrated within the sewer network.

The picture taken by Atget is showing the Bievre river (the artificial flow) leaving a peaceful countryside to enter in Paris through the wall of the fortifications. The view is very bucolic, in contrast with the other side of the wall where the river was absorbed by the polluting city.

Et l'on ne songe plus, tant notre âme saisie
Se perd dans la nature et dans la poésie,
Que tout près, par les bois et les ravins cachés,
Derrière le ruban de ces collines bleues,
A quatre de ces pas que nous nommons des lieues,
Le géant Paris est couché !

La Bièvre – Victor Hugo

Jadis, près de la poterne des Peupliers, elle avait encore pu garder quelques semblants de gaité, quelques illusions de site authentique et de vrai ciel.

La Bièvre – J.K. Huysmans

La Bièvre – La Poterne des Peupliers – Zone des fortifications
Atget - 1913
(Musée Carnavalet)

La Bièvre – La Poterne des Peupliers – Zone des fortifications
Atget - 1913
(Musée Carnavalet)

Parc Kellermann bastion old fortifications

Parc Kellermann - On the left, bastion of the old fortifications

Let’s follow rue Max Jacob along the stadium and take rue de la Poterne des Peupliers on our right.

From rue de la Poterne des Peupliers to rue de Tolbiac

Rue de la Poterne des Peupliers follows the former natural flow of Bièvre. The river was arriving at the foot of the old Fortifications walls where we see the first bridge. The second bridge is  the second opening below the former railway of the Petite Ceinture railway.

Poterne des Peupliers

We continue on rue des Peupliers up to place de l'Abbé Georges Hénocque, then on our right in rue Henri Pape up to rue du Moulin des Prés (Mill in the meadows).

On the pavement, a sign of the old bed of the Bièvre, such as we will see along our stroll walk, reminds us of the location of the mill which gave its name to the street.

pavement sign old bed of Bievre river

The lovely little houses, Place Hénocque, Rue Dieulafoy, Rue du Moulin aux Prés, Square des Peupliers, make this whole area look like a small town. They made me dream when I lived in rue de Tolbiac at the corner of the passage du Moulinet.
Turn left onto rue de Tolbiac up to rue Vergniaud where flowed the Bièvre.

place de l'Abbé Georges Hénocque

Place de l’Abbé Georges Hénocque

Rue Dieulafoy

Rue Dieulafoy

Square des Peupliers

Square des Peupliers

Rue de la Colonie

Rue de la Colonie, which can be reached from Place de l'Abbé Georges Hénocque, has some interesting buildings, but I personally find the walk much more pleasant along Rue du Moulin aux Prés, where some charming little spots can be seen, such as the Square des Peupliers.

The creation of Rue de Tolbiac in 1865 needed major projects such as covering the Bièvre valley and making major earthworks between Avenue d'Italie and Rue de la Glacière.
The new Rue de Tolbiac is now closing the horizon. New buildings have replaced the poplars and the will trees; the  pavement has replaced the ponds and the meadows.  The Bièvre - J.K. Huysmans

In 1900 when Atget took the picture , Bièvre valley was already partly recovered. With a close look to the photo, we can guess where was the bed of the river: on the right of the street lamp, between the house and the excavation slope where rue Vergniaud is today. The small house on the left with the shuttered windows was located at n°2, rue de la Colonie (the community). The important community of rag men gave the name to the street. They settled there on the bank of the river where they could wash the clothes.

rue de la Colonie
La rue de la Colonie vue de la rue de Tolbiac Atget

La rue de la Colonie, vue de la rue de Tolbiac
Atget – 1900

Rue Vergniaud - Rue Daviel

Villa Daviel - La Petite Alsace au fond

Villa Daviel - La Petite Alsace au fond

Coming from rue de Tolbiac, let's turn right onto rue Vergniaud where was the Bievre alley. Turn right onto rue Daviel and stop at n°10, to take a look at the Petite Alsace named from the typical half timbered houses.  On the other side of the street, have also a look at the quiet Villa Daviel. These two groups of small houses were built in 1912.

La Petite Alsace

 La Petite Alsace

Villa Daviel

Villa Daviel 

From the top of the street at the junction with rue Barrault, turn around and get an idea where the Bièvre river was flowing. The artificial arm was flowing where there is the Petite Alsace. The natural arm was flowing where the café with the red shade is standing.

Rue Barrault Rue Daviel bed river Petite Alsace

Rue de la Butte aux Cailles

Let’s turn left onto rue Barrault and continue onto the nice rue de la Butte aux Cailles, up to place Verlaine. I like the view from rue Buot, which makes me always think of being somewhere in Italy. The church that we see is the rear of the church Sainte Anne de la Butte aux Cailles which we passed on rue de Tolbiac.

Butte aux Cailles - Place Paul Verlaine

Puits artésien de la Butte aux Cailles
Atget – 1900

Puits artésien de la Butte aux Cailles
Atget – 1900

The artesian well of Butte aux Cailles, at the corner of rue des Moulins des Prés and place Paul Verlaine was decided in 1866. The well had a double purpose: the first one was indeed to supply water to this district located on a hill; the second was to add extra water to the river during summer. It was planned that the underground pipeline from rue du Moulin aux Prés could release six thousand cubic meters of water in the river per day. However, the project was delayed due to many difficulties and when it restarted in 1903, it was too late as the river was starting to be covered. This is how the new swimming pool was created to use the artesian well. Together with public baths, the swimming pool was built in 1924.

Today, the artesian well is also a meeting point for the locals who can bottle free a clear flowing water extracted six hundred meter deep.

Butte aux cailles swimming pool

 Butte aux Cailles swimming pool

artesian well bottle water

Artesian well free clear water

Butte aux cailles artesian well

Butte aux Cailles artesian well

Rue Eugène Atget

rue Eugene Atget

Take now rue Simonet, then rue Gérardon on the left, and rue Jonas on the right which leads to the  Brassaï garden and into rue Eugène Atget.
For me an opportunity to give a special thought to this great photographer of Paris, whose photos are an infinite source of inspiration for my strolls. I cannot be tired of going to the spots captured by Atget more than hundred years ago. I love looking at the photos taken by Atget because they remind me somehow the Paris of my childhood and they are linked to the Paris known by my beloved grand-parents. I definitively feel a sweet fascination for Atget's photos of a mysterious Paris that I like comparing with today , like playing a hide-and-seek game with ghosts.

Boulevard Auguste Blanqui - Rue Barrault

1 rue Barrault old tannery

Turn left onto boulevard Auguste Blanqui and stop at the junction with rue Barrault, at nr 1, where an old tannery can be seen, next to the nursery. Recognisable by its flat roof, its base made in bricks, its oak joists. Its wooden shutters evoke the general shape of the old movable wood battens where the skins were drying.

91, boulevard Auguste Blanqui

Atget's photo shows the two arms of the Bièvre river (the artificial one on the right) and the two archways across boulevard d’Italie (today boulevard Auguste Blanqui).
Compared to today environment, the natural arm of the river was going through the nr 91 boulevard Auguste Blanqui and the artificial arm was between nrs 85 and 89.

La Bievre Boulevard d'Italie Atget

La Bièvre – Bd d’Italie
Atget – vers 1890

Newspaper le Monde offices Christian de Portzamparc Plantu

Let’s cross the boulevard. Slightly on the left one can see the offices of the newspaper Le Monde, designed by the architect Christian de Portzamparc with the facade illustrated by the cartoonist Plantu.

The block between the streets Edmond Gondinet and Paul Gervais was an island between the two arms of the river. The natural arm has let a winding shape to rue Paul Gervais and the artificial arm has let a straight shape to rue Gondinet that we take.

Rue Edmond Gondinet

Atget's picture taken in 1890shows the Bièvre river upstream. The slope on the right was separating the artificial arm of the river from the natural one. The building on the left is a tannery where sheepskins,  goatskins and lambskins were softened and bleached in a preparation of flour and eggs. 

La Bievre Bouldevard d'Italie disparue en 1891 aujourd'hui rue Edmond Gondinet Atget

La Bièvre - Bd d'Italie -
Disparue en 1891, aujourd'hui rue Edmond Gondinet

Rue Edmond Gondinet

Let’s now proceed onto rue Croulebarbe.

Rue Croulebarbe

Comparing with Atget's photo, rue Croulebarbe was following the bank of the artificial arm (called here the Gobelins river). On the left the former garden of the Gobelins Manufacture has been replaced today by the  René le Gall public garden.

Un bras bordé du côté de la rue (Croulebarbe) par une berge dans laquelle sont enfoncées des cuves ; de l’autre par un mur enfermant un parc immense et des vergers que dominent de toutes parts les séchoirs des chamoiseurs. Ce sont, au travers d’une haie de peupliers, des montées et des descentes de volets et de cages, des escalades de parapets, toute une nuée de peaux couleur de neige, tout  un tourbillon de drapeaux blancs qui remuent le ciel, tandis que plus haut, des flocons de fumée noire rampent en haut des cheminées d’usine. Dans ce paysage où les resserres des peaussiers affectent, avec leurs carcasses ajourées et leurs toits plats, des allures de bastides italiennes, la Bièvre coule, scarifiée par les acides. La Bièvre – J.K. Huysmans 

Rue Croulebarbe
Megisserie et la Bievre rue croulebarbe Atget

Mégisserie et la Bièvre
Rue Croulebarbe
Atget – 1899/1901

Square René Le Gall

The area between the two arms of the river was named l'ïle aux Singes (the Monkey Island). There were gardens used by the workers of the Manufacture des Gobelins. One arm of the river was flowing along rue Croulebarbe and the other one was flowing along the today Rodin school and the Mobilier National building. The river was continuing through the Passage Moret, today rue Emile Deslandres. Passage Moret was  rather a slum where lived leather workers.  The area was completely transformed in the 1930s.  L'Ile aux Singes was replaced by the René le Gall public garden and Passage Moret by the Mobilier National.

Passage Moret, ruelle des Gobelins
Atget – 1926

Passage Moret, ruelle des Gobelins
Atget – 1926

La Bievre Passage Moret Atget

La Bièvre – Passage Moret
Atget - 1900
(Musée Carnavalet)

Rue Emile deslandres

Rue Emile Deslandres

Exit the public garden rue Emile Deslandres and turn right onto rue Berbier du Mets.

Rue Berbier du Mets

rue Berbier du Mets

After rue Croulebarbe, the Bièvre then continued along rue Berbier du Mets (formerly ruelle des Gobelins) alongside the Manufacture des Gobelins and its chapel, whose side looks like a semi-tower.

The bief des Gobelins was the last section to be left open between 18, rue Berbier du Mets and boulevard Arago until 1912 because of the firm resistance of two local owners.

The bief des Gobelins was the last section to be left open between 18, rue Berbier du Mets and boulevard Arago until 1912 because of the firm resistance of two local owners.

The bief can be seen on Atget's photo, where we can recognise the roof above the houses at the end of the left bank. This is the roof of the brick building at n°18, boulevard Arago.

rue Berbier du Mets
la Bievre ruelle des Gobelins Atget

La Bièvre
ruelle des Gobelins.
Atget - mai 1900
(Musée Carnavalet)

Let’s now proceed onto rue des Gobelins on the right.

Rue des Gobelins - Ilôt de la Reine Blanche

Rue des Gobelins (formerly rue de Bièvre) is one of the oldest streets in Paris. It still has old houses built between 1450 and 1750, like the Gobelins master house at 3 bis.
At 17, we can have a glimpse of the chateau de la Reine Blanche at the back of the long yard lined with bricks buildings. Guided visits are offered during summer and the Heritage days, including visits of the yards and the tower (entrance rue Gustave Geffroy).
The building looks like a chateau with a dungeon. However, this very old house built in the 1500s is not a chateau, only a dyeing manufacture building  owned by the Gobelins family, and a tannery in the 19th century.
Though not proven, it is said that Queen Blanche de Castille, mother of King Saint-Louis had a chateau in this area.

chateau de la Reine Blanche 17 rue des Gobelins
chateau de la reine blanche 17 rue des Gobelins Atget

Château de la Reine-Blanche
17 rue des Gobelins
Atget – 1898
(Musée Carnavalet)

From rue des Gobelins to rue Geoffroy Saint Hilaire

Square Adanson Anciennes mégisseries

We now continue along avenue des Gobelins, then rue Monge. The Bièvre river was flowing through 116, rue Monge, after the pont aux tripes (the Tripe bridge) and was reaching what is today square Adanson.  At the back of square Adanson, we still can see old tanneries.

Let’s take rue Censier on our right up to rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Rather than proceeding rue de Buffon which follows the last part of the Bièvre river before it ends into Seine river, I rather stay on rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire to follow the former canal des Victorins, up to rue de Bièvre. This canal was created in the Middle Age to bring water to the Saint-Victor abbey.
For the ones who prefer to stop here, in front of Jardin des Plantes, they can enjoy a glass of mint tea with oriental pastries at the Mosque Paris.

Canal des Victorins to rue de Bièvre

Continue along rue Linné, then rue Jussieu and rue des Ecoles. Right onto rue Monge, then rue des Bernardins along Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet. Boulevard Saint-Germain on the left and rue de Bièvre.

rue de Bievre Atget

Rue de Bièvre
Atget – 1900
(Musée Carnavalet)

rue de Bievre

From rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, we have more or less followed the Saint-Victorin canal, built during the 12th century to bring water to the mill and gardens of the Saint-Victor abbey. The canal was starting at the level of today Jardin des Plantes. Then it was joining Saint-Nicolas du Chardonnet to follow the present rue de Bièvre and finally ending into Seine river in front of Notre-Dame. Polluted by rubbish and garbage over the centuries to become an open sewer, it was finally covered during the 17th century.

Street art ...

I mention some street-art works in the Belleville stroll. The 13rd district is also famous for this and guided tours are also regularly organised.

Boulevard Kellermann Poterne des Peupliers street art

Boulevard Kellermann
Poterne des Peupliers

Butte aux Cailles Passage Boiton street Art

Butte aux Cailles
Passage Boiton

Boulevard Kellermann Poterne des Peupliers V13

Boulevard Kellermann
Poterne des  Peupliers


Rue Vandrezanne Kashink

Rue Vandrezanne - Kashink

Boulevard Kellermann Poterne des Peupliers V13

Boulevard Kellermann 
Poterne des Peupliers


Rue de Tolbiac Tiktoy

Rue de Tolbiac - Tiktoy

Rue de la Butte aux cailles Seth et Azul

Rue de la Butte aux Cailles
Seth et Azul

Rue Emile Deslandres seth la fille au parapluie

Rue Emile Deslandres
Seth - La Fille au Parapluie

Texte / Photos : Martine Combes

Contact / newsletter: