Thursday 12 October 2017

Walking Paris from A to Z

Not so long ago I stumbled on an official list of all the streets in Paris. Looking through the list of over 6,000 roads in the city, I noticed that the first on the list - Chemin de l'Abbaye - and the last - Boulevard de la Zone - are at the outer limits of Paris, and at opposite sides of the city. Would it be possible then to walk through the alphabet, from one side of the city to the other?

This was not a mission that could be undertaken on the hoof as it were, but rather with a detailed map and highlighter pens. It was obvious that a continuous run of 26 consecutive streets through the alphabet between the two points would be an impossibility. Nevertheless, the walk should be done in the shortest possible manner, by taking the closest street with the next letter of the alphabet heading in the direction of the final destination. The only other rule I set myself was that I would do the entire walk in one go.

The alphabet streets in orange, the connecting streets in blue...

The route plotted out on my foldable Paris street map, I headed out one morning, not quite sure what I would find on the route. I tried to note one or two objects, events, sights or just a certain atmosphere that in some small way described each of the 26 roads, passageways and places, without quite knowing what I would do with the information.
One day will collate this properly, explaining why such walks help us to see and experience cities in new ways. For now, I've listed the route and descriptions here. If you're ever tempted to do the walk, know that covers a fascinating cross-section of the city and passes by several of the city's monuments. I estimated the walk to be at least 20km, and the whole thing took me around 7 hours, with much note-taking, photography and a brief stop for a sandwich!

Chemin de l'Abbaye

The start point. Not a single habitation on this minor passageway at the very edge of the Bois de Boulogne, just a bus-stop, a pond and the Club Mouche fly-fishing club!

A start but a false start. The second street is a couple of kilometres away, on the other side of the Bois de Boulogne by Porte Dauphine.

Avenue Bugeaud

Narrow and shady. At number 51, a hair-transplant clinic offering a painful-sounding 'greffe de cheveux robotisée'. In front of the luxurious Saint James hotel I make a Porsche wait as I slowly cross the road. This journey will be made up of small victories.

Rue Copernic

Why are so many lampposts in the 16th arrondissement caked with fading ads for massages?

Rue Dumont d'Urville

D for Dead. The man himself, a navigator and naturalist, must have been an interesting character, but his name has been given to possibly the dullest street in Paris, populated seemingly only by lawyers.

Rue Euler

A short, steep drop with just a charming art deco construction at number 16 and a flurry of Belgian, European and Flemish flags at number 6.

Rue and Place François 1er

The first signs of (commercial) life, but very much at the top end of the scale. Rolex, Bulgari, Cartier, a BMW show-room and a Tom Ford shop sign that I actually read as 'Romford' at first. The Place at the end of the street has a certain provincial charm, if we consider Deauville or Saint-Tropez to be provincial.

Rue Jean Goujon, Avenue du Général Eisenhower (Grand Palais), Avenue Gabriel

A run of consecutive Gs, which means I don't have to worry about whether "Général Eisenhower" counts or not in my alphabetical list. Avenue Gabriel is the longest, and a reminder of how the Champs-Elysées must once have appeared. The gate at the rear of the Presidential Elysée palace is crowned with a golden cockerel and is date stamped 1900. A memento from the universal exhibition of that year?

A gap until the next letter, but a nice interlude taking in the Place de la Concorde, Rue Royale and the Madeleine church and finally Rue Tronchet.

Boulevard Haussmann

Just a short stretch of this thundering boulevard. Opposite the grands magasins, a family is picnicking on the pavement, oblivious to the traffic and surely saving their centimes for serious shopping.

Boulevard des Italiens

In what was the heart of the grands boulevards, the playground for promeneurs and night owls, there are five burger restaurants within metres of each other. In Michel Roux-Spitz' old Ford showroom, the street's most interesting construction, there is depressingly both a McDonalds and a Burger King.

Passage Jouffroy

What a pleasure it is to be able to insert a passage into this walk! Jouffroy has not only a specialist in carved walking sticks but also its own hotel, the Chopin.

Place Kossuth

If there are potentially dozens of ways of doing an A to Z walk across Paris, K has to be Place Kossuth, making it the project's spiritual epicentre. This nondescript intersection actually has many stories to tall, including why the letter K was used here. For the purposes of this challenge, I'm just glad it was given the name in 1957.

Rue Lafayette

A long, noisy uphill stretch towards a flat horizon, a rarity in Paris. The printing shops, temporary employment agencies and medical laboratories give it a transient, anonymous feel, until the rather lovely Place Franz Liszt and the eccentric Saint Vincent de Paul church.

Boulevard Magenta

A genuine alphabetical crossroad on the walk, and another long, straight path. Magenta displays the scruffiness of all communities around train stations across the world (two can be spotted from here, the Gare du Nord and Gare de l'Est). At the Saint Quentin market, a counter seat at the ever popular Chez Silvana stand transports you directly to Lisbon.

Rue de Nancy

A 45° turn, and a street that only seems to display the rear sides of buildings.

To reach the round target of the letter O, a slight detour via the Saint-Martins, faubourg and Boulevard.

Passage des Orgues

A potential stumbling block on the walk. This is a tiny private passageway (at n°29 bd Saint-Martin), and the gate might not be open. On weekdays, from 9 to 6, you can just press the button at the bottom of the keypad. At other times, you may have to just imagine the passage, which will become as ghostly as the unused Saint-Martin Metro station just alongside.

Passage du Pont aux Biches/Rue Papin/Rue de Palestro

Now a run of P's. The Pont aux Biches little more than a staircase, Papin passing alongside a small green oasis. It's Palestro I'm most interested in though, a street I have no recollection of ever walking down before. The street itself is completely unmemorable, but the medieval and mostly dismal passageways that link it to the adjacent rue Saint-Denis bring a seedy kick.

Rue Quincampoix

We're still in the city's medieval heart, this time with the name of the street too. Seedy has become sedate, sex shops replaced by bow tie retailers.

Rue Rambuteau/Rue de Renard/Rue de Rivoli

On to the rush and buzz of Rambuteau, once the city's widest street, now dominated by the Centre Pompidou, a President rising over a prefect. Round the back, a commercial break past chain stores and fast food outlets on Renard and Rivoli.

Rue Saint Jacques

Across the Ile de la Cite, past Notre Dame and we're finally on the left bank. More than that, we're at the beginning of the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. Innumerable souvenir shops suggest we might soon be leaving Paris too.

Rue Thénard

Down Rue de Sommerard and a right-angle into Thénard. We can set up camp here because both streets are completely dominated by Vieux Campeur outlets providing every possible thing you could need for any kind of outdoor activity.

Rue d'Ulm

Pure academic territory, with university annexes, concrete blocks of student accommodation and the nuclear hum of the Insitut Curie. I'm sad to see that a quaint tea room, complete with tableclothes and net curtains, that stood on one corner has now become a Franprix supermarket.

Rue Vésale

Protected on one side by a massive, gloomy hospital, and on the other by a fortified electricity sub-station for the Metro system. But why does such a quiet road need such protection?

Rue Watteau

Initially I don't spot the street sign which is hidden behind a troupe of green wheelie bins. High-rise blocks stand on both sides, with a police van parked - reassuringly or menacingly - in the middle. A cat prods around a patch of wild garden.

Rue Xaintrailles

The luck of this walk is finding an X so close to Z, but it is appropriate that this X should be situated behind the Jeanne d'Arc church, as Xaintrailles was one of Joan of Arc's followers. The eye is drawn only to a large-scale and curious modernist construction, in wood, concrete and steel, fronted by a ball sculpture that looks ready to roll out into the street.

Place du Docteur Yersin

Less a place, more a construction site. Trees have been placed in boxes, waiting for the emerging student housing and office blocks to stop choking them with dust.

Boulevard de la Zone

The end point, but perhaps a suitably intangible conclusion. There is no street sign here, and street that is here - a jump over the périphérique motorway - is shared between Paris and neighbouring Ivry. For a long time, the Paris side of the street did carry this name, a reminder of its past in the 'zone' of the city limits, on the wrong side of the Thiers fortifications, but it is probably unnamed today. Does this count then? In my walk I make the rules, and I'm too tired to argue with myself. Zzzzzzzz.


Thérèse said...

I can only say "Excellent". 20 kilometers seem so short as a text!
And you can start all over again anytime, how fun.

Hels said...

Well done. Boulevard Haussmann is my absolute favourite, both its history and its architecture.

Annabella Bray said...

Great idea for a walk & Paris the perfect place to do it!

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