Parisians want to recover a legendary river now buried under the city

The Bièvre flowed through Victor Hugo’s Paris. Conservation efforts are bringing parts of the historic waterway back.

Outside Paris in the Marne Valley, the Bièvre still flows uncovered through the suburban landscape.
Photograph by Michael Lumbroso, REA/Redux, Redux

A river used to meander through my Left Bank neighborhood in Paris. From the southern city limit that’s now the Parc Kellermann in the 13th arrondissement, the Bièvre fed mills and tanneries before its confluence with the Seine in the 5th arrondissement. But by the early 20th century, the Bièvre had become so odiferous and polluted that it was buried underground, its water diverted into the sewers.

Although the Seine evokes dreams and romance, the Bièvre—its only tributary to flow through Paris—is largely unknown to the millions of tourists who arrive in the French capital every year. But many passionate Parisians have harbored a long-standing dream of resurrecting a river that, to them, has taken on mythic status.

Now this dream is close to becoming a reality. In recent years, sections of the river have been reopened in upstream suburbs, and the Paris mayor’s office recently launched a feasibility study to look at uncovering stretches in the city. Like international river restoration projects in Madrid and Seoul, the renaissance of the Bièvre reflects a green shift in city planning and urban lifestyles that sets up the city for the 2024 Summer Olympics.

“There’s new momentum for this project as we face the climate crisis, increasing heat waves, and the threat to biodiversity,” explains Dan Lert, the deputy mayor overseeing the Paris ecological transition, climate plan, water, and energy. “We can’t continue the way we used to with urban development … Residents expect that we adapt our city to environmental challenges.”

Changing cartography

The Bièvre bubbles up from its source in Guyancourt, roughly 22 miles southwest of Paris. From this boulder-strewn stream, it snakes through four different departments, spilling into forest-fringed ponds that fed the fountains at the Palace of Versailles. From there, the river hydrates a string of suburban cities, before its waters are funneled into a sewage-treatment plant just outside of Paris.

(This mechanical wonder powered Versailles’s fountains.)

Fewer than 13 miles of this route are in broad daylight; the last open-air stretches in Paris were covered completely in 1912, while suburbs like Gentilly sealed the river in the 1950s. A trail of sidewalk medallions indicate the river’s old course in Paris, though other vestiges are less obvious: the curve of a street following the riverbed, street names recalling demolished mills (such as Moulin des Prés), secret cellar trapdoors with river access, and—from the projection room at L’Escurial cinema—a hidden view of tanneries unchanged since the Bièvre’s disappearance.

As explained in the book Sur les Traces de la Bièvre Parisienne, the river’s genesis goes back thousands of years. In the Neolithic period (5000 B.C.), the Bièvre flowed in what is now the Seine’s riverbed in Paris, while the Seine curved beneath the hills of Belleville and Montmartre. Floods and erosion allowed the Seine to commandeer the Bièvre’s course—just as the Seine has stolen the Bièvre’s place in people’s  imagination.

The river was further altered by humans. Early monks channeled it for agricultural irrigation, followed by medieval millers, tanners who constructed pools to soak animal skins, and ice cutters who sourced the city’s ice supply from ponds at Glacière.

Competition for water access in this dirty, hard-working fiefdom soon led to conflicts between trade groups: dyers versus laundresses, tanners versus butchers. In the 1300s Parliament ordered butchers to dump animal guts in the Bièvre rather than sully the Seine, then reversed course but couldn’t stop the flow of refuse. The Bièvre turned into a rancid cesspool rife with disease.

Something in the water

Over the years I’ve collected Bièvre lore—some legends as muddied as the currents of the river. There’s the tale of Gentilia the nymph, transformed into the river by the goddess Diana to escape a Trojan soldier in hot pursuit. Then there’s the dragon said to have terrified the land before Bishop Marcel banished the beast to the Bièvre in the fourth century.

A different creature was said to have lived on the ?le aux Singes; two branches of the river sheltered “Monkey Island.” Here, the story goes, workers frolicked in debauchery while jugglers let their monkeys roam free. Or did the word “monkey” hint at a pejorative slang word for “boss”?

Even the origins of the river’s name are cloudy. Some historians argue that “Bièvre” is derived from “beber,” the Celtic word for beaver. However, there has never been any scientific evidence of beavers inhabiting the area (woe to the 13th arrondissement for incorporating the animal into its coat of arms). The name could just as well have been derived from the Celtic word for mud or the Latin “bibere” (to drink). Others argue that Bièvre comes from “bief,” the word describing the man-made canals that carried water to mill wheels.

Whatever the truth, the fact remains that this small river had a mighty reputation, inspiring artists and authors over the centuries. The ribald Renaissance poet Rabelais wrote in Gargantua of feasts of frogs and crayfish fished from the Bièvre. Henri Rousseau painted a bucolic scene of “The Banks of the Bièvre near Bicêtre.” In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo described the bridge next to the Moulin de Croulebarbe, where Marius dreamed of Cosette. He also wrote a poem about the Bièvre Valley, describing the “charming landscape” carved by a “stream of mohair and silk.”

Barely three meters wide, the Bièvre became the great powerhouse of Parisian industry. Its biggest claim to fame was the Manufacture des Gobelins, which began as a riverside dye works in the 15th century. According to legend, there was something special in the Bièvre’s water that helped create the vivid red color that established the dyers’ global reputation. (Rabelais joked that this ingredient was dog urine.) Later, under royal patronage, the Manufacture des Gobelins supplied elegant tapestries for the French monarchs.

People power

Since the disappearance of the Bièvre in Paris, fascination has reached a zenith. “It’s a tiny river, with a weak flow rate, but historically it’s attracted great interest,” explains Alain Cadiou, a water expert and the head of the Union Renaissance de la Bièvre, a collective of 30-some nonprofits. Each of these organizations has a different focus—from promoting the river’s cultural heritage to protecting the environment. (An example: more than 2,000 people participate in the Marche de la Bièvre, an annual springtime walk that follows the river’s course starting at midnight in Paris.)

After an extensive study in 2001, then Paris Mayor Bertrand Delano? decided it was too expensive to rehabilitate the ancient river. But over the decades since, nonprofits alongside government coalitions in the Bièvre watershed have continued to campaign. The resulting reopening projects in the suburbs have been a victory. “We need to give credit to these important groups,” says Lert. “It’s these lovers of the Bièvre who have encouraged dialogue about the river’s renaissance and energized a movement.”

“The work to reduce the Bièvre’s pollution has taken a long time … but now the water quality has really improved,” explains Marie Bontemps, manager of the Bièvre Contract at the Syndicat Mixte du Bassin Versant de la Bièvre (Bièvre Watershed Syndicate).

The suburb of Fresnes unveiled a park in 2003—today a lush, forested area along the Bièvre and rich with wildlife. In 2016, L’Ha?-les-Roses followed suit, reopening a 700-yard stretch of the river with a walking path tracing the newly landscaped banks. And the cities of Arcueil and Gentilly—the closest southern suburbs to Paris—will show off a joint reopening project in the Parc du Coteau-de-Bièvre in 2022.

(Here’s how urban parks are bringing nature close to home.)

“The Bièvre will return to the gates of Paris and once again find its confluence with the Seine,” explains Lert. “It used to be diverted into sewage treatment collectors before reaching the city. Therefore, in 2021, it will become a veritable river again … And there’s also the [prospect] of the 2024 Summer Olympics. We’re doing everything to assure the water quality of the Seine in order to host swimming events in the river.”

Channeling the future

With two million people, Paris is the most densely populated city in Europe, and there are significant technical challenges to reopening the river. In the 19th century, Paris underwent a seismic shift in urban planning as Baron Haussmann razed medieval quarters to make way for grand boulevards. He enlisted Eugène Belgrand to create the modern sewer system, still in use today.

Together they believed the only solution to the problem of the polluted Bièvre was to suppress it. In 1858, Haussmann proclaimed, “The foul stream that is the Bièvre will no longer pour its muddy waters into the Seine.” In the southern part of Paris, this buried pipeline is deep because the valley was filled with nearly 20 meters of rubble as hills were leveled and the Parisian topography forever changed.

Today’s urban planners have no intention of digging a canyon or tearing down buildings in Paris to uncover the river. But the Bièvre is situated less than 10 feet underground in open spaces such as the Square René Le Gall. Occupying the former vegetable garden of the Manufacture des Gobelins, this verdant park is one of three spots identified for potentially reopening the river. (The Parc Kellermann and the Natural History Museum annex are also feasible targets.)

(What secrets lie beneath Lyon?)

The current study is reevaluating these locations in light of recent urban works projects, focusing solely on gravitational solutions and dismissing the use of pumps or hydraulic systems. Lert’s hope is to open at least one stretch before the end of the government term in 2026.

The Bièvre’s renaissance isn’t just a means of cooling the city, fighting global warming, and returning nature to the urban milieu. It also creates a better living environment for residents like me, who dream of walking on a greenway instead of concrete, sharing summer aperitifs with neighbors on the riverbanks once roamed by Rabelais.

“The Bièvre flowed in Paris for thousands of years,” says Cadiou. “It would be sensible to return it.”

Mary Winston Nicklin is a freelance writer and editor based in Paris and Virginia. Find her on Twitter.

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