Faubourg Saint-Germain - First part

Rues du Bac, de Grenelle et de Varenne

The stroll starts at the Sèvres Babylone metro station and follows a wide loop in the eastern part of the arrondissement around the Rue du Bac, Rue de Grenelle and Rue de Varenne.

Plan Promenade 7ème rues du Bac Grenelle Varenne

Square Récamier (Roger Stéphane)

When you get out of the Sèvres-Babylone metro station, cross Boulevard Raspail, follow Rue de Sèvres and turn left into Rue Juliette Récamier, a quiet little street that leads to the delightful little Récamier garden that my mother loves so much. It's an English-style garden with flowers and beautiful trees, and benches slightly out of the way in little corners perfect for the lovers or people looking for some tranquillity.

Julie Récamier, who was the muse of the French poet Chateaubriand, visiting her every afternoon, lived here at the Bernadines de l'Abbaye aux Bois convent. She stayed in relative retreat, as her wit and beauty continued to attract the leading figures of the time: Balzac, Musset, Hugo, Lamartine, Delacroix and Stendhal. The convent was photographed by Atget in 1908, just before it was demolished when the Boulevard Raspail was extended.

Square Récamier
Atget ancien couvent de l'Abbaye aux Bois

Couvent de l'Abbaye aux Bois
16, rue de Sèvres

Atget - 1908

Let's go back to rue de Sèvres, turn right on boulevard Raspail and follow rue de la Chaise, marked by Sciences Po, which continues to spread throughout the neighbourhood from rue Saint-guillaume.  Turn left onto rue de Grenelle as far as boulevard Raspail and rue de Luynes, from where you can see the church of Saint Thomas d'Aquin.

Saint-Thomas d'Aquin

Eglise Saint-Thomas d'Aquin

The small and elegant Place Saint-Thomas d'Aquin, just a few streets away from the Musée d'Orsay and Le Bon Marché, is also relatively unknown. It is mainly frequented by the locals and by students from Sciences Po, where the campus is located since 2022 in the buildings of the former Dominican convent.

The church, which was originally the convent's chapel, contains some very fine paintings, particularly in the Saint-Louis chapel behind the altar, which was once the choir reserved for Dominican monks. The murals in the chapel and cupola were painted by Merry Joseph Blondel. 

On 14 July 1918, the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire wrote in his diary: "With the war, intelligence has declined so much that everyone has become intelligent". On 2 May of the same year, he was married at the town hall of the 7th arrondissement and at the church of Saint-Thomas d'Aquin to his latest love, Jacqueline. The witnesses, Lucien Descaves, Picasso, Ambroise Vollard and Gabrielle Picabia, were to meet there again a few months later, in November, for Apollinaire's funeral after he died of Spanish flu.

 Deyrolle shop

Magasin Deyrolle rue du Bac

Let's take the little rue de Gribeauval, which opens onto the rue du Bac. Just across the street, don't miss the Deyrolle shop, renowned for its taxidermy and entomology since 1831. It's an incredible curiosity cabinet, with a white unicorn and a tiger surrounded by large blue butterflies among other animals on the first floor.

Once at the intersection, turn left onto Boulevard Raspail until you reach Rue de Grenelle, where you turn right.

Rue de Grenelle

Magasin Barthélémy rue de Grenelle

The little Barthélémy shop at 51 rue de Grenelle is one of the best-known gourmet addresses in the district, with cheeses from the best regions and perfectly matured.

A little further on, there is the impressive Four Seasons fountain, built in 1739 by Bouchardon, a sculptor much admired by the French king Louis XIV. Bouchardon certainly achieved the impossible task of building a monumental fountain in a very narrow street. It seems all the more disproportionate given that the flow of water intended for the newly-built private mansions seems so limited. I prefer his delicately drawings and his marble sculpture Cupid Cutting His Bow from the Club of Hercules, in the Louvre, to this Baroque masterpiece, currently undergoing restoration until March 2024.

Atget Fontaine des Quatre Saisons

Fontaine des Quatre Saisons
(Musée Carnavalet)

Fontaine des Quatre Saisons rue de Grenelle

Right next to the fountain is the Maillol Museum, created by Dina Vierny, a model of Maillol. As legatee of the sculptor, she chose the Hôtel Bouchardon, where she had a flat, to turn it into a museum. It took her twenty years to completely buy the building and turn it into an exhibition space, not only for Maillol's works and private collection, but also for her own extremely varied collection: works by abstract and naive painters, and artists from the Russian avant-garde...

After the rue du Bac, the rue de Grenelle looks very different, as it becomes an administrative and diplomatic street, with numerous embassies and institutions installed in the old private mansions.

As in the Marais and elsewhere in Paris, private mansions were often seized during the Revolution and their artworks taken away. Many owners emigrated abroad, leaving their property in the hands of the revolutionaries.

After the revolution, the Emperor's family and Napoleon's officials settled in this district, very close to the Palace of Tuileries. The former aristocratic families who had rallied to Napoleon were also able to get back their mansions.

Former owners were not always able to restore their mansions, often damaged. In these cases, they were either rented out or sold to the Administration. Unlike the hotels in the Marais district, the mansions in the Faubourg Saint-Germain were thus able to keep their interior architecture. The Marais mansions, older and deserted by the French aristocracy, were then occupied until the middle of the twentieth century by craftsmen and merchants, causing damage to their architecture. In this respect, the photos taken by Atget in these two different districts are eloquent.

I am not going to list all the private mansions on Rue de Grenelle and Rue de Varenne. It would be too tedious. 

Hôtel Gallifet rue de Grenelle

For instance, at number 73, we pass behind the Hotel Gallifet, now occupied by the Italian Cultural Institute.
After the Revolution, as the mansion was given over to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs it was notably used for a major event organized by Talleyrand in honor of Napoleon Bonaparte. 

At 77, the more modest Hôtel de la Mothe Houdancourt is today the private Sainte-Clothilde school.

At 79, the grand hôtel d'Estrées is the (heavily guarded) residence of the Russian ambassador. Once the Russian embassy, it was also the residence of the Tsars. 

Grand Hôtel d'Estrées rue de Grenelle

Grand Hôtel d'Estrées

At 85, the Hôtel de Bauffremont, once Austrian embassy, is now private again. Owned once by the fashion designer Givenchy, it is now owned by the billionaire Xavier Niel, also owner of the beautiful Hôtel Lambert on the Ile Saint-Louis.

Hôtel de Bauffremeont rue de Grenelle
Hôtel de Bauffremont Atget – 1901 (BnF)

Hôtel de Bauffremont
Atget – 1901

A little further on, at 104, which is also on rue de Bellechasse, is the Saint-Laurent headquarters. Formerly the Penthemont Abbey, number 104 was the entrance to the Abbess's home. The convent was dedicated to the education of young girls from aristocratic families. Closed during the French Revolution, it served later as an imperial military base. As for the church next door, it was converted to a Protestant church after some restoration work by the architect Baltard.

Atget Couvent Penthemont rue de Grenelle

Ancien couvent des religieuses de Penthemont
Maison de l’abbesse
104, rue de Grenelle
Atget – 1901
(Musée Carnavalet)

Eglise de Penthemont

Temple de Penthemont

At 116, the town hall of the 7th arrondissement and the Paul Claudel private secondary school are located in the former Maréchal de Villars mansion. The rear of the town hall opens onto a large, beautiful garden. 

Turn right onto rue Casimir Périer to reach the Basilique Sainte Clothilde.

Basilique Sainte Clothilde

This church built in 1856, when the Romantics brought Gothic art back into fashion, was the first major neo-Gothic church in Paris. The statues of Clovis, first King of France, and St. Clothilde were created by Geoffroy Dechaume, the same artist who worked under the direction of Viollet le Duc on the restoration of the Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame.

The church became a basilica in 1898, to celebrate the 14th Centennial of Clovis.

Inside, the 19th-century stained glass windows are also typical of the neo-Gothic style.

The famous organist César Franck was the church's organist.

Not least of all, in this district a stone's throw from the Assemblée Nationale, Matignon and other ministries... politicians have their very own patron saint, Thomas More, a philosophic historian beatified in 2000.

Basilique Sainte-Clothilde

After a nice break in the square opposite the church, turn left into rue Saint-Dominique and turn left into rue de Bourgogne.

Rue de Bourgogne

Here you'll find fine delicatessens like the grocery store Jeune Homme, or fine objects at a very reasonable price as long you keep some sense of humor with the owner, sometimes a little bit grumpy.

At the end of the street, turn left into rue de Varenne.

Rue de Varenne

The beautiful Rodin Museum opens at 77. It was the writer Rainer Maria Rilke, Rodin's secretary and great admirer, who introduced the sculptor to the place. Maria Rilke lived in Paris several times. On his third visit to Paris in 1908, he joined his wife Clara Westhof, who was renting a room on the ground floor of the neglected Hôtel de Biron, built in 1728. After the French Revolution, it was used as a girls' boarding school by a religious community until 1904, the year of the law on the separation of state and church. The empty building was soon occupied by a number of young artists: Cocteau, Matisse, Isadora Duncan and Clara Westhof. When Rainer Maria Rilke discovered the place, he was immediately thrilled, and wrote to Rodin: "You must, dear friend, see the beautiful building to which I moved this morning. Its three bays open to an overgrown, abandoned garden where rabbits jump over trellis like on an ancient tapestry.” Same rabbits than those at Hotel des Invalides ? 

Rodin initially occupied a few rooms on the ground floor with his mistress of the moment, the Duchesse de Choiseul. Then, in 1911, following negotiations between the State, owner of the premises, and Rodin, who donated his works and personal collections, the museum was opened.

A little further on, at number 57 is the Hôtel de Matignon residence of the Prime Minister since 1958.  

Built in 1721, it was owned by several aristocratic families, including the sovereign of Monaco, until the French Revolution. After The Revolution, it was used by Talleyrand who had to organise balls for Napoleon. Then the King Louis XVIII exchanged it against the Elysée Palace.

And then in 1905, as Austrian Embassy, when Atget fixed his silhouette of Darth Vader in the fireplace mirror.

Atget 57 rue de Varenne

Ambassade d'Autriche - 57, rue de Varenne
Atget – 1905

Opposite, at number 56, is the Hôtel de Gouffier de Thoix. Its large door has medallions representing Mars and Minerva.

Let's turn right into rue du Bac.

Atget Hôtel de Gouffier rue de Varenne

Hôtel de Gouffier (1760)
56, rue de Varenne
Atget – 1901

Hôtel de Gouffier rue de Varenne

Rue du Bac

The name of the street comes from a boat that provided a crossing to the right bank from 1550 onwards. The creation of the street and the boat were initially decided to carry stones from the quarries of Vaugirard to the construction site of the new Tuileries palace. Later, Louis XIII, who witnessed an accident with the boat, would have ordered the construction of a bridge, replaced by today's Pont-Royal, built under Louis XIV.

The wide variety of stores and boutiques on this street make the stroll a real pleasure. 

Let's now take a break in the little square des Missions étrangères For ice-cream lovers, the nearby Bac à Glace at 109 is a good place to stop before to better enjoy the break.

The statue of Chateaubriand reminds of the last moments of his life at the Hôtel de Clermont Tonnerre on the opposite side of the square. This hotel, or rather the two mansions, were built in 1713 by two bishops from the Foreign Missions.  Chateaubriand wrote of this home in his Memoirs from Beyond the Grave (Mémoires d'Outre Tombe): "My window, which looks west over the gardens of the Missions Etrangères, is open: it is six o'clock in the morning, and I can see the pale, broad moon lowering over the spire of the Invalides, just revealed by the first golden ray from the East: it seems as if the old world is ending and the new beginning."

The four continents are represented on the two large doors:  America with an Indian, Africa with a lion, Asia with an elephant and Europe with a horse.

Jardin Missions Etrangères Chateaubriand
Atget - Hôtel Chateaubriand

Hôtel de Chateaubriand
Atget - 1902

Hôtel Clermont Tonnerre

Let's continue to rue de Babylone where is the seminary of the Missions étrangères, founded in 1644 by Bernard de Sainte Thérèse, bishop of Babylone, from which the street takes its name. Since its creation, the institution has trained future priests to be missionaries. The chapel, built in 1683, is still the original.

Chapelle Missions Etrangères

At no. 140, the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal is one of the most visited places in the neighborhood. This luminous chapel is never empty, and the fervor of those who come here to pray is so intense that the atmosphere seems to vibrate. A long corridor leads to the buildings of the convent, which since 1832 has been coining and selling a small medal in commemoration of the Virgin's apparitions to the young novice Catherine Labouré. You can see her resting near the altar in a very kitsch-style shrine which reminds me of my childhood fascination with that of Thérèse de Lisieux.

Chapelle Médaille Miraculeuse

On the opposite side of the street, there is Le Bon Marché, the first of Paris's department stores. Eiffel designed the metal structure. The name of its founder, Aristide Boucicault, is still displayed on the façade. He inspired the French novelist Zola for the novel Le Bonheur des Dames, as he innovated in the area of retail: free entry, fixed and displayed prices, exchange and return of goods.

We're now back where we began the stroll. Perhaps you may choose to stop here and shop at La Grande Epicerie.

This is also the starting point for the second part of the stroll, where we will join rue Vaneau via rue de Sèvres... 

Texte / Photos : Martine Combes

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