Blink and you might miss it. For, located in the heart of Île de la Cité tucked away behind Notre Dame and along a small side street mere metres from the Seine, Rue des Chantres lies hidden away. This little lane, one of the narrowest in all of Paris, is a relic from times gone by and a survivor of architectural features that have since been lost in much of the city.
Napoleon, Hausmann and the Grand Parisian Boulevards
Due to its status as church land, and because of the fact that cloisters were housed in the vicinity, the road was spared the grand demolition that Hausmann, and through him, Napoleon Bonaparte, had planned for most of the city during the 19th century. On the one hand, the demolition gave room for the open air cafés, wide boulevards and iconic architecture that has become so synonymous with Paris to this day.
On the other, the complete overhaul of Paris led to a lot of hidden gems and architectural treasures being destroyed and lost forever. Only a rare few, such as Rue des Chantres, which earned its name as the singers of Notre Dame once lived here, survive to this day. Nearby gems of streets include Rue des Ursins (a walkway overlooking the Seine), and Rue Chanoinesse, home to the gravestone courtyard, as well as the best café in Paris, Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole.
Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole, one of the cutest cafés in Paris, shortly after the end of wisteria season in early summer.
Rue des Chantres: A Surviving Gem of Pre-Napoleonic Architecture
First documented in 1540, the street of Rue des Chantres was once housed within the cloisters of Notre Dame, when such a place existed. Now the cloisters have been demolished. Today we can only imagine how beautiful and intricate the cloisters of the iconic cathedral must have been. During the middle ages, the road was almost certainly home to Canon Fulbert, uncle of Heloise.
If you’re wondering just who Heloise was, then you likely didn’t live during medieval times! After all, Heloise and Abelard, who are now buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery, were once the most famous misfortunate starstruck couple in France, if not all of Europe. Before there was Romeo and Juliet, the real-life Heloise and Abelard were a cautionary tale of forbidden love, elopement and revenge.
Here’s a brief rundown of the story of Abelard and Heloise (as it may have happened).
Héloïse d’Argenteuil was a young woman under the protection of her uncle, Canon Fulbert. He was a senior figure at Notre Dame and likely lived in the cloisters, somewhere around Rue des Chantres. Forever, wanting the very best for his niece, Fulbert hired Peter Abelard, a young scholar, academic and philosopher to teach Heloise.
However, the two soon fell in love and when Heloise fell pregnant, they tried to flee Paris. Canon Fulbert was soon on their trail. Heloise and Abelard were separated for the final time. While Heloise was forced to give up her child and sent to a convent, Abelard was castrated and became a monk. Though the two never saw each other again, they wrote letters to one another and these can be read to this day.
Published in: Theodor Josef Hubert Hoffbauer. Paris à Travers Les âges. Paris: Firmin-Didot et Cie, 1885. Look down this street today, and you won’t find the gate at all! This fortified entryway was not available to be used by the general public and signalled the entryway to the private ecclesiastical buildings.
During the 1910 floods of Paris (some of the highest ever water levels in the city were recorded during this time), the water rose to a height of one and a half metres. A small plaque on the Seine side entrance of the road commemorates this event today. Carry on past the plaque and wander down the street to find a spire of Notre Dame looming above you, and a whole secret side to Île de la Cité to explore.