Somewhere between the Seine and Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre Church, Square René-Viviani is a pretty green space filled with flowers, history and makes for the perfect spot for cherry blossom spotting in early spring. On the site of what was once a 6th-century cemetery is now a park… And a pretty popular Parisian one at that!
A brief history of Square René Viviani
Opened to the public in 1928, the park’s official name is actually Square René Viviani-Montebello. Situated in the 5th arrondissement of Paris (i.e. the very heart of the Latin Quarter), the green space is situated atop of the former cemetery of the adjacent Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. The park itself is named for René Viviani, the Prime Minister of France during some of WWI.
Following its use as a burial ground during the 6th-century, the small parcel of land was then used to house various monastic buildings. Fragments of stone and remnants of the park’s past can now be found towards the back of the Square. In time, the space was then used to house a building for the just-across-the-Seine Hôtel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris that’s still in operation to this day.
The legend of Julien l’Hospitalier
Elsewhere in the park, where you’ll soon discover roses growing during the summer months, the legend of St Julien (Saint Julian in English) is depicted via a fountain by Georges Jeanclos that was created in the mid-1990s. For those unfamiliar with the tale, the story was incredibly popular during the Middle Ages, to the extent that many churches and hospitals adopted Saint Julian as their patron saint.
Julian the Hospitaller supposedly lived during the 4th-century and came from a wealthy noble family. Upon his birth, it’s said that his father witnessed a coven of witches put a curse on the newly born child and that’s not the only superstition surrounding his story. The legend then goes on to say that one day, when Julian was out hunting, he had a vision that he would end up killing his parents.
While Julian was out that very same day, his parents made an unexpected visit to his house and his wife showed them to a chamber. Upon his return, Julian was enraged to find two figures in one of the castle’s bedrooms, assuming it to be his wife and a lover. In a jealous rage, he killed the couple, only to discover that it was his mother and father. Julian then devoted the rest of his life to good deeds and even established a hospital.
The oldest tree in Paris
Perhaps one of the most significant attractions of the park is not its central location, nor its fascinating history. Instead, the oldest tree in Paris is alleged to date all the way back to the 17th-century and lies in the back of the green space. Though the Robinia is now propped up by cement blocks and surrounded by a metal grating, it’s hard to envisage just how much history this rather frail looking tree must have witnessed during its time.
Cherry blossom in Square René-Viviani
These are not the fluffy pink trees you’ll find next to Notre Dame. Instead, the flowers are darker in their shade of pink and the flowers are rather delicate. Nevertheless, when it comes to cherry blossom in Square René-Viviani, you’ll soon discover half a dozen trees, all in full bloom.
Whereas the blossom around Notre Dame tends to bloom in early to mid-April, the blooms in Square René-Viviani flower between mid-March and the end of March. If you want to discover more about spying spring flowers in the French capital, then I highly recommend this book by Georgianna Lane. Full of gorgeous imagery, Paris in Bloom will have you wanting to book a flight to France in no time…
How to visit Square René-Viviani
Free to visit and the perfect picnic spot during the summer months, if you want to see the square when visiting the area, then why not follow my free and self-guided Latin Quarter walking tour? Otherwise, the park’s opening times vary during the year and it’s generally closed on bank holidays, as well as New Year’s Day and Christmas. The nearest metro stations are Maubert-Mutualité and Cluny-La-Sorbonne (lines 4 and 10).
Things to see and do close to Square René-Viviani
Odette: For the very best choux pastries in Paris, you simply must head to Odette (77 Rue Galande). Housed in a pretty as a postcard building and oh so photogenic, this patisserie is open on a daily basis and even has seating upstairs that overlooks both Square René-Viviani and Notre Dame.
Shakespeare and Company: Of all the anglophone bookshops in Paris, Shakespeare and Company is easily the most famous. The current offering is set across two bookshops and a coffee house, and is named for the iconic bookstore that operated in the 1920s and was once frequented by the likes of Oscar Wilde and Ernest Hemingway.
Notre Dame Cathedral: The park of René-Viviani provides one of the best views of Notre Dame Cathedral that you’re likely to find anywhere in Paris. Frame it right during the spring, and you can soon capture photos of the cathedral’s right tower framed with blossom that’s in flower in the park.