Secret Paris: Berangere's hidden rooftops

Bérangère Lomont, the most recent name on the office door for DorpatSherrardLomont, lives in Paris but is often off to Cannes or Périgord or Normandy for one job or another, and all of them depend upon her skill as a photographer.  Bérangère’s many French connections qualify our service as international.

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These flats across Rue Genevieve from Berangere Lomont's kitchen window have not been twisted by her lens but by centuries of standing and settling. Living in a city of landmarks of such distinguished antiquity it is understandable that every building needs its roofer and its architect.

Included in one of this week’s e-mail letters from Bérangère to Jean and me was a look from her kitchen window to Paris dawning with a rainbow.  The rainbow is subtle, but it brings to mind the many photographs that Bérangère has taken from other rooftops in Paris.

From above Rue du Helder morning light slants across the rear of Opera de Paris.
From above Rue du Helder, morning light slants across the rear of Opera de Paris.

It is one of her many specialties.  She loves to get up there on the irregular crest of the picturesque Parisian skyline.  BB, as we may call her, is well known especially among roofers whom she is willing to follow like a sure-footed goat in the Pyrenees, or in the Cevenes.  (Here I am thinking parenthetically of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Travels with a Donkey in the Cevenes” mountains of south-central France – except that Bérangère is not at all stubborn like Stevenson’s donkey.)

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Rue des Petits Carreaux

BB explains what took her to the roofs:

“In 2001, my friend the architect Vincen Cornu – you and Jean met him here in Paris – asked if I would like to show my photographic work in an art gallery in the 6th arrondissement.  Of course, I answered him, ‘yes.’  But then I quietly wondered, ‘What?’

Vincen, I knew, was thinking of the many photos I have recorded of artist’s studios for so many years.  But I asked him to hold on a bit and that I would present him with something very new – new to me.  I decided that I wanted to shoot Paris from its roofs  – not from the street or from the sky but from the slate, the chimneys and the crests.

On the morning of Jan. 15, 2009, looking south towards the Pantheon from St. Julien, and with her back to Notre Dame
On the morning of Jan. 15, 2009, looking south towards the Pantheon from St. Julien, and with her back to Notre Dame

For the show I called it ‘Paris a fleur de toit’ – literally, “On the surface of the roofs of Paris.”

As you know, almost every photo we take in Paris needs authorization, and often it takes a very long time to get an answer.  So I decided on another route to the roofs: go to the roofers.

Arsene, roof repairs
Arsene, roof repairs

I called the Union of Roofers and was introduced to a man who, I was told, had a more open mind than most, and so may not be afraid to see a photographer moving with him along the roof tops.  His name is Francis Arsene, and he is an independent manager of a society of roofers.  He works with architects who need his services.  In Paris generally every building is watched over by an architect, and a property agent who is approved each year by the owners of the flats.  They vote on a budget, select the different estimates of the several societies who will work for the building.

Rue Eugene Carriers Paris 18.  Looks southeast from behind the "right shoulder" of Sacre Coeur on the horizon.
Rue Eugene Carriers Paris 18. Looks southeast from behind the "right shoulder" of Sacre Coeur on the horizon.

Thanks to Arsene, I can admire my town from the height of the town itself – from its roofs anytime I want!  Up there it is like seeing a forest from the top of a tree.  The town may be resting, awakening, acting lively.  There are no limits up there – if you are careful not to fall.  Historical monuments border on towers and middle-class houses.  Through this panorama and all along the sky, statues with wings, chimneys, arrows and domes draw the landscape.

Three roofers, Francis, Frank, & Manuel (L to R), atop the little dome at 63-65 rue des Archives in the 4th arrondissment.
Three roofers, Francis, Frank, & Manuel (L to R), atop the little dome at 63-65 rue des Archives in the 4th arrondissment.

To climb on the roof is, I imagine, like climbing to the top of a mountain and looking back to search and discover the place from where you came.  On the rooftops you are far from traffic jams and with the birds.  It reveals its own urban grace.  And it is a freedom you share with roofers.  And, you know, at midnight the Genie de la Bastille is running on the roofs with impunity.”

Rue Chevert Paris 7th is southwest of Hotel Die Invalides, a  side street.  Looking northeast with morning light.
Rue Chevert Paris 7th is a side street southwest of Hotel des Invalides. Looking northeast with morning light.

Bérangère lives with her husband Denis and son Jean-Baptiste in a perfectly sized third-floor flat converted years ago from a school for sciences.  It is in Paris’ 5th district or arrondissement.  Denis, BB and J-B live close in on the Left Bank, with an easy walk north to Notre Dame or south about three blocks to the Pantheon.  But that is deceptive, for if you could set two footprints of the Pantheon end to end they would nearly reach their front door.

A gargoyle watches over Paris from its perch on Notre Dame.
A gargoyle watches over Paris from its perch atop Notre Dame, looking west from Isle de cite.
Notre Dame, the Pantheon and the relatively modest skyscraper horizon of Paris “suburbs” to the southeast from Tour St. Jacques. The statue of the bull on the right represents one of the four evangelists.
Another tower, another statue. Notre Dame, the Pantheon and the relatively modest skyscraper horizon of Paris “suburbs” to the southeast from Tour St. Jacques. The chiseled bull on the right represents one of the four evangelists.

Nearby are the Sorbonne to the west and a preserved Roman arena to the east. Visiting these is almost as easy as going to the boulangere or grocer around the corner where all is fresh and savory.

The Tuileries but not from a roof - from the Ferris Wheel.  Berangere’s home is below the white smoke rising from the right horizon.  The Pantheon dome is also there.
The Tuileries but not from a roof - from the Ferris Wheel. Berangere’s home is below the white smoke rising from the right horizon. The Pantheon dome is also there.

Swinging from Bérangère’s rainbow I have now been through five years of almost daily correspondence and returned with a few examples of this special Lomont rooftops genre.

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Probably most of us are familiar with Paris roofs from two extremes, the street and that Parisian exclamation mark, the Eiffel tower.  BB’s views, however, are often more intimate arrangements taken from the roofs themselves, with their many angles, chimney pots, antennae, slippery tiles, drifting steam, clinging vines, ranks of mansard windows, sky lights, ceramic drains, domes, weather cocks, steeples, and memories of many new wave French movies.

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From Berangere’s kitchen window across Rue Genevieve. And yet again, the slanting posture of the six-story block on the right is not a lens distortion. These houses were built sometime before Louis XV – a neighbor claims long before - on this Parisian hill and through the centuries have settled. They are however, not broken. One of the beauties of Paris is that such settling is sensibly lived with, but also watched.

2 thoughts on “Secret Paris: Berangere's hidden rooftops”

  1. Beautiful photos!! I was wondering if you could be so kind to help me. I was trying to make a list of what places in Paris allow you up top on the roof to take photos from above. I too love Paris roof tops and wanted to see these places in person and take photos. Any chance in giving me a list of a few places? I’d greatly appreciate it if you could!

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