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Better known as the Rue de la Soif which roughly translates as "Drinker's Alley", Rue Saint-Michel in Rennes is one of the city's legendary locations. Like sausage galettes, the Trans Musicales or the stadium, the street has become emblematic of the Breton capital's festive spirit. And despite its wayward reputation, this small cobbled street lined with half-timbered houses deserves a closer look.
There are lots of 'drinker's alleys' in France, but the one in Rennes is probably the best known because of the sheer number of bars you'll find here. The Rue Saint-Michel is a little cobbled street that has been keeping merry-makers watered since the Middle Ages. Although not very long (just under 87 metres), this perfectly straight street has a bar waiting every seven metres according to a 'bistrography' written by Mathieu Garnier and detailed on the Datamix website. Home to a total of 13 watering holes, the Rue Saint-Michel is France's top drinking street, coming ahead of the Rue des Cordeliers in Bayonne and the Rue de Lappe in Paris. "Finally - a record for Rennes!" according to the data specialist (and stadium fan) behind the study.
TWO DIFFERENT ATMOSPHERES ON A SINGLE STREET: LIKE DAY AND NIGHT
Unfortunately, the free-flowing alcohol can sometimes lead to mishaps that make the papers. The Rue Saint-Michel is indeed a lively, bustling place, thick with crowds on Thursday nights when students come out to play, as well as at weekends and other nights of the week. People come here to mingle, except for those who prefer to avoid it come nightfall because of its reputation. The truth is that the Rue Saint-Michel has two very different sides: in the daytime, you can admire the traditional half-timbered houses that are so characteristic of the Rennes region, and it looks no different from any of the historic centre's other pedestrian-only streets. In the evening, it's where you go to have a drink on a terrace and party until dawn, or to grab a bite to eat. A nightlife tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages.
The Saint-Michel quarter has always been a transient place, ever since the ancient beginnings of the city once known as Condate, because of the Roman gateway and road leading on to Saint-Malo. In the Middle Ages, a chapel and priory were built over the ruins of the castle of the Counts of Rennes in the 12th century, on the site of the former Prison Saint-Michel, near the ramparts (next to the present-day Place Rallier du Baty). The site is on a hilltop overlooking the city and is dedicated to Saint Michael, as dictated by tradition. This religious building lent its name to the street from the 15th century on.
A WARM WELCOME WHEN THE CITY GATES WERE CLOSED
"You had to pass through here in order to enter the city," explains Gilles Brohan, a heritage guide at the tourism office."From the Middle Ages on, neighbourhoods were annexed to the outside of the ramparts and became densely populated, with inns, cafés and welcome points popping up all over the place. If you arrived late at night and the city gates were closed, you could always find a bed for the night here.". The result was a collection of inns with colourful names. The Hotellerie de la Salamandre, the Cheval Noir, the Marteau d'Or, the Image Saint-Michel...
MOLIÈRE'S COMEDY TOUR
This explains why the Couvent des Jacobins convent was founded nearby in the 14th century, on the Place Sainte-Anne. Like all Dominicans, the brotherhood of preachers would set up a base in the heart of cities to get as close as possible to the inhabitants, unlike other monastic orders that preferred to live in isolation. At the time, the Rue Saint-Michel was a melting pot of commerce, cultural, industrial and religious activities."A court tennis square was used as a theatre in the Cheval Noir's courtyard, and Molière is even said to have stopped off here to perform. At another section, the Rue de la Fracasserie was home to lots of smiths,"according to Gilles Brohan. "The city's northern gates have always been a lively, bustling place. Throughout the ages, crowds have always attracted more crowds."
Crossing over the Rue Saint-Michel with its cobbles, half-timbered houses and corbels almost feels like stepping back in time to the Middle Ages, especially when the atmosphere turns bawdy and raucous. Yet most of the colourful old houses still standing here were built in the 16th and 17th centuries. With their narrow façades, they nevertheless follow medieval designs. Many have been renovated or will be renovated in the near future. The street is one of the city's best-kept collections of half-timbered houses. And the sculpted, late-16th-century décor was all crafted by the same atelier of master illustrators.
SCULPTED DETAILING BROUGHT TO LIGHT BY RENOVATION WORKS
"Recent renovations revealed a series of sculpted décors on these half-timbered houses, latticework and fern leaves," explains Gilles Brohan from the tourism office."Some of the elements are taken from older houses, such as the sculpted chimera, or the volute décor at number 13, for example, inspired by the Renaissance. You have to take the time to observe all these little details on the façades, and remember to look up. It's an interesting street that helps you understand how the city transformed over time, and illustrates the link between the city centre enclosed by ramparts and the neighbourhoods clustered around the outside walls.".
Heritage that leads you back in time, best explored with the help of an academic guide during the guided "Medieval Rennes" tour.
THE TRAVELLING RUE DE LA SOIF
Not many people know that an entire section of these houses was set to be knocked down in the late 1950s. The block of houses between the Rue Saint-Michel, Place des Lices and Rue Saint-Louis was in poor shape and had been earmarked for destruction. The Loi Marlaux and protected sector drawn up in 1966 ensured these buildings were left standing, with a long-term renovation campaign following suit. A few years later in the 1970s, the Rue Saint-Michel was nicknamed the Rue de la Soif thanks to the rise in student numbers and a new, festive spirit that swept through town.But it isn't the only place in Rennes with a high number of bars and restaurants: it was preceded by the Rue Saint-Georges, and the Rue de Saint-Malo was also known as the Rue de la Soif in the 1980s. Times and street names change, but people will always enjoy a drink. If you're planning on exploring the area, the best time to go is Saturday morning, during the Marché des Lices market...