12/13/2012 02:38 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2013

A Walk With Jean Valjean and Cosette

The first of a series of walks by the translator (with Norman MacAfee) of the first complete, modern edition of Victor Hugo's great novel, Les Misérables: Signet Classics, 1987




Walk 1-Part 1: Arrondissement 8 through Arr. 7, to Arr.14

Metro including Right Bank: M 2 -Monceau to CdeG Etoile; M6 to Denfer-R

Observatory Start either:M to Denfert-Rochereau; Walk up Rue Denfer-Rochereau;

Or RER B - Port Royal, and walk down Av. de l'Observatoire

To North Face of the Observatory

Faubourg Saint-Jacques -- Arr. 14

The ancient city of Paris had already overflowed four successive rings of defensive walls since the early Gallic and Roman eras when, in 1787, the tax officials flung wide their nets to bring much open land into the purlieu of their well-loathed Enceinte des Fermiers Géneraux (Wall of the Tax Officials). The hope was not simply for more tax revenue, but also to relieve congestion at the city core. Yet the population was slow to push outward to new larger lots: instead, Parisians crowded into the stench and pestilence of the central, medieval city preferred to stack added floors onto narrow dwellings or to stuff inner courtyards with yet more construction rather than move to unfamiliar open land.

Among the exceptions that begin to show up on early maps, thin strips of houses appeared just beyond the city walls, strung along a few major routes where their enterprising owners thrived on the trade of travelers bringing goods into the city, all the while defying government regulation. Several of these faubourgs (false towns, or exterior towns), still live on in name through the familiar prefixes tacked onto old central streets at the point where they reach beyond the city limits of 1566 - as here, the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Jacques.

The geographic nature of each Paris area where Hugo lays his story dictates its patterns of growth and characteristics. In this quarter, far from the Right Bank centers of commerce and government, and beyond the more static Left Bank Latin Quarter, or academic area. Two centuries before Valjean's arrival, a few farmers - and, more particularly -- a few religious institutions wishing sunny south-facing land to feed their congregations - began acquiring property. Despite the land-grab of the Revolution, many among the area's hospitals and nursing homes have survived and expanded on the same sites, and continue to be run by religious orders. Without the inner-city pressure to build upwards, except along the later boulevards, the Faubourg Saint-Jacques retains to an amazing degree its low profile and open-country simplicity.

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The Walk, Which Starts Here With a Ride For the Travelers

Just five weeks after his latest dramatic escape from chains in Toulon, and presumed dead, Jean Valjean was taking no chances. It counted for nothing that he had paid with twenty long years of hard labor for the theft of one loaf of bread (followed by repeated escape attempts); once released, he had quickly learned that there was no mercy, nor work, for a man with the yellow passport of an ex-convict. Even after saving a man's life, he was once more a wanted man, prey to the unyielding pursuit of the punctiliously implacable Inspector Javert and to the crooked innkeeper Thénardier, who had warmed to the scent of money and made Valjean pay dearly for the orphan Cosette's release into his care.

Leaving the Thénardiers' inn in the village of Montfermeil, just northeast of Paris, and changing conveyances several times to avoid pursuit, the two reached Paris by early nightfall on Christmas day of 1823. Cautiously entering the city by a roundabout route, they passed through the tollgates at the Barrière de Monceau on the northwest rim of the Enceinte des Fermiers Généraux. Today, the actual barrière (customs building), one of the few still standing, serves as the entrance for the Parc Monceau, which is set about with architectural follies - real and fake ruins - along with traditional plantings, classic Paris gravel paths... and occasional donkey rides for children.

Valjean hires a small horse-drawn cabriolet at the coach terminal on the Right Bank for the ride south with Cosette, before walking to their first home. The driver takes them over the Seine by the only convenient bridge at the time, the Pont des Invalides.

But for any intrepid walkers wishing to cover the Right Bank distance on foot, by roadways that existed then in some form, you may start south on the paths of the Parc Monceau, take a quick right onto the Allée Comtesse de Ségur (19th C. writer of books for the young), exit the Parc heading straight, then to the left, south on the Rue de Courcelles (combined from several older roads). After passing up several streets and crossroads, you make a significant crossing, of the Boulevard Haussmann (named for the city planner under Napoleon III, who remade old Paris in the 1840s). Stay on Courcelles past St Philippe du Roule, where you cross the Place C. Goyon and find yourself still heading south, on the Av. Franklin D. Roosevelt (an unsavory and dangerous area in the 1830s, and on beyond, though with the new name, respectable). Past the famous Rond Point du Champs Elysées (turn around), the Av. FDR runs beside the Grand Palais, (a soaring glass and steel exhibition building now devoted to science), you cross in short order the Cours la Reine (once a privileged enclosed drive along the Seine planned by Queen Marie de Medici, later duplicated by others), and you have reached the present day Pont des Invalides, where one simple span stood practically alone, when Jean Valjean and Cosette were driven across on that late Christmas evening.

Once across, they drive a block east along the Seine, to the Boulevard des Invalides, start of the Left-Bank arc of boulevards conceived by Louis XIV as an aid to 17th century traffic congestion. From there they progress north to the Boulevard Mont Parnasse,a name given originally to a mound of construction debris in the area, by some Latin Quarter students who enjoyed its solitude, though the roadway, hardly idyllic, was unpaved, unlit, sparsely populated, and lined by seemingly endless white regulation walls. Once Valjean and Cosette reach the Avenue de la Pépinière, (an extension of the path through the plant and shrub nursery at the foot of the Jardin du Luxembourg) there is only a short rise before arriving at the north face of the Observatoire Nationale.

The two fugitives are set down at the grill fronting the austere building on the heights of the Faubourg Saint-Jacques, not far from the southern rim of the city (in the 18th century). For a moment they could hear the hoof beats of the departing horse and the light crunch of carriage wheels against the unpaved roadway.