The flat we’ve rented in The Marais on our last few trips was booked, so we chose another one nearby, close to the Picasso Museum. A couple of weeks before our arrival, the owner advised there was a problem with the boiler and offered us a replacement (and much larger) flat on l’île de la Cité, on a small road just back from the Seine. We gratefully accepted his offer.
The road was a total surprise. It’s a mixture of very old and new jammed into a rue just 113 meters long and four meters wide. Two blocks away from Notre Dame, Rue des Ursins is one of the oldest streets in the city and I understand it’s a popular photo location for fashion and bridal shoots.
We had some interesting neighbours. On the one side the Bureau of Naturalization, located within the Prefecture de Police. Looking closely at the building we could see it also housed the repair shop for all the motorcycle police in Paris. A pretty secure flat we thought except the prefecture closed in the evenings.
On the other side is a seminary which also houses the remains of Chapelle Saint-Aignan. At one time the island was full of chapels – 23 in fact. But revolutions and changing times have left only Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle and this one. The other occupants of the road include a reconstructed home with medieval touches, several apartment buildings and a lawyer’s office.
The medieval-style building on the corner by the stairs looks like a well-preserved ancient hôtel particulier but it was built in 1958 by architect Fernand Pouillon. A stair leads to a wood, gothic-arched door. The windows above are stained glass. On the other side, the garage door looks like an ancient wood entrance to a fort but holds two cars and is an underground entrance to the hôtel.
Just past the faux medieval house is a jardinette, a small triangular garden. It is the smallest garden on the island and one of the smallest in Paris. It features two tiger head fountains, a tree and flowers that change depending on the season.
Chapelle Saint-Aignan, founded in 1116, was built in classic Roman architectural style with columns and rounded arches in white stone. The chapel was shut in 1791 and transformed into a barrel store. It did not fare well in the following years and today only the nave is left. It has been restored and seminarians of the diocese generally use it for private worship.
Ursins isn’t even the street’s original name. Indeed it had several when it was part of Port Saint-Landry, the Paris’s first port until the end of the 12th century. Around 1300, three streets had the name Ursins leading from Port Saint-Landry onto the island. They were all named after the hôtel des Ursins once owned by the family of the same name. Its next owners were French who managed the merchants of Paris under Charles VI (1380 – 1422) through Louis XI (1461 – 1483).
In 1881, the names of the other two streets were changed, leaving only this short street running between Rue le la Colombe and Rue des Chantres and parallel to the Quai aux Fleurs. The road’s at the old level of the banks of the Seine and the lowest street on the island.
At the street corner with Rue des Chantres is a placard that indicates the height of the Seine flood in 1910. The simple green sign says “CRUE Janvier 1910” with a line marking the flood height. Humorous graffiti adds “Poisson” and a happy face, referring to the fish that were no doubt swimming in the flood. Plus, the street sign has had an “O” added in front of “Ursins”, making it read Rue des Oursins. Although technically it translates as “street of sea urchins,” there are pictures of happy, cartoon bears by the name plates, making it a “street of bears.” We saw neither during our stay.
Standing in the street, it’s easy to imagine its history from early sailing port to bustling stores supporting commerce into the city. Even though you can’t buy anything or eat on this short street, it’s a great place to see the blending of old and new Paris. Fortunately for us, there was a great bakery and an excellent small neighbourhood bistro just around the corner.