/ The Baby Boomer Travel Guide
Baby Boomers, Paris — By Andrea Kirkby on August 13, 2010 at 11:55 pm
Filed under: architecture, Art, history, museum, top-feature

Paris Latin Quarter: Too Much, Too Good

The thing I love about the Latin Quarter is that it’s such a marvelous mixture – a real motza pudding of a place.

A bouquiniste displays his wares on the banks of the Seine

Some Paris neighborhoods are absolutely clear cut in character. Montmartre is all picturesqueness and seediness, the Marais all style, the Champs Elysees all posh. But the Latin Quarter hasn’t made up its mind; it mixes up posh shops and poor students, ladies in Chanel and street markets, museums and movie houses.

Kick off with what gives the quarter its name:  the fact that this is where the university of Paris started in the middle ages.  It’s home to the Sorbonne, ‘Sciences Po’ (the faculty of political science, but I’ve never heard it given its full name), and the College de France, all scattered around the small streets that run off the Boulevard Saint-Michel and Rue Saint Jacques that run inland from the river Seine.  The two main streets are good for orientation, but if you really want to feel the Latin Quarter’s character you’ll need to head off them and on to the side streets.

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Starting at the Seine, you can visit the much-photographed fountain of Saint Michel, or if you want something a bit less touristy, turn left along the Quai Saint Michel, to find two splendid old churches, Saint Severin and Saint Julien le Pauvre.

Saint-Severin (map) is flamboyant Gothic church of the fifteenth century, like a little jewel case, with columns in the form of palm trees supporting the vault, and gargoyles sprouting everywhere on the outside. Gothic elegance and delicacy is mixed with a good dose of modern color and verve in the bright abstract stained glass. On the other hand  Saint Julien le Pauvre (map) is simpler and more austere. It’s the home of the Melchite Greek Catholics, who fill its Gothic space with incense and the sound of chanting. The whole area round here is worth exploring; there are old houses reminiscent of medieval Paris, and there’s an ancient lucky locust tree in Square René Viviani (map), which is said to be the oldest tree in Paris.

Keep going along Quai de la Tournelle, though, and you come bang up to date with some controversial contemporary architecture -  Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arabe ( ). This building’s hi-tech movable louver panels are based on the ‘musharabia’ lattices found in the Arab world, but they’re

Arab louvers or camera shutters? The Institut du Monde Arabe's trad-modern mix

brilliantly modern, not pastiche. Housing a museum and library as well as a restaurant, Arab language classes, and a performance space, it’s an interesting place to visit even though, at the moment, the museum is closed for refurbishment.  Many of the exhibits, however, can be seen in temporary homes elsewhere in the building.

The heart of the Latin Quarter lies further inland, along either Boulevard Saint Michel or Rue Saint-Jacques, off which you’ll find the Sorbonne, the College de France, and numerous other schools, colleges, and faculties of Paris University.

The Sorbonne (map), for all its fame, is housed in an unimpressive nineteenth century building,  but the university’s church, a baroque domed edifice (apparently the first real dome built in Paris), is more interesting. It contains the tomb of Cardinal Richelieu, de facto ruler of France for nearly twenty years. It’s … well, tasteless? Weird? Sentimental? I’m not quite sure, but it’s definitely worth seeing.

A couple of streets away is the Musee National du Moyen Age (map), simply my favorite medieval museum anywhere. For a start, it’s housed in a real medieval building, the turreted ‘hotel’ (city house) of the bishop of Cluny; it’s one of only a couple left in Paris.

Fine tapestries are one of the Musee de Cluny's most striking attractions

Some of the displays were obviously created by someone with advanced OCD; there’s a whole case of medieval locks and keys, for instance. The mix of everyday, functional artifacts, and serious works of art, is what makes this museum so special. Stars of the show are the ‘Lady and the Unicorn’ tapestries, showing a fairytale world but with an intriguing hidden message (the tapestries show the five senses, and are perhaps a warning against sensuousness). Just outside, you can step even further back in time and see the ruins of the public baths of Roman Lutetia. (Open every day except Tuesday: tickets are EUR 8.50.)

Heading further down the rue Saint-Jacques, you exit the middle ages and enter the post-Revolutionary age with the Pantheon, a massive baroque building.  In fact, the Pantheon (map) predates the French Revolution; it was originally built as a church by Louis XV. But its classical styling as well as its post-Revolution use as the official burial place of French literary, artistic and philosophical heroes mark a complete break with the medieval past. That was the Age of Faith, this is the Age of Reason. Here you’ll find Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Zola, and the most recent arrival Alexandre Dumas, whose coffin was brought to the Pantheon by a force of Musketeers (of course!) as recently as 2002. (The Pantheon is open every day 10-6, and costs EUR 8 to visit.) However, unless you’re particularly au fait with French culture, some of the tombs may leave you cold, so this is one sight you could afford to miss out.

Some people will tell you that the  Saint-Germain district is a different place entirely; other people tell you it’s part of the Latin Quarter. It’s a bit more upmarket, with some handsome aristocratic houses, but it still feels very similar to me, with its bookstalls, the Institut de France housing no fewer than five academies, and its many small cafes and boutiques. From Boulevard Saint-Michel, you simply take a right along Boulevard Saint-Germain, and you’re there.

Originally the abbey church of Saint Germain des Pres (map) was just outside the medieval city walls. Now, it’s right in the middle of the city, but its tenth century porch tower still stands proud.  An impressive sight, it looks more like a castle than a church tower. Though much restored in the nineteenth century, Saint Germain is the oldest church in Paris, worth a visit for its weighty, rather gloomy power. It still has a philosopher in residence; Descartes is buried in one of the side chapels.

More recently you would have found philosophers and writers sitting in the Cafe des Deux Magots opposite (). This was where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir hung out, not to mention Hemingway and Picasso. It’s a bit touristy these days but together with Cafe de Flore (map), a few doors away, survives as a testament to Paris’s café society.

You may also notice there’s a tiny vineyard tucked right under the walls of the church. There are many vineyards in Paris, but this is definitely the smallest, with just twelve vines.

The Latin Quarter isn’t all worthy cultural monuments, however.  It’s also the street life, from the fashionable boutiques of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Boulevard Saint Michel (no one calls it Boul “Mich” any more) to the spontaneity and muddle of the Rue Mouffetard street market, as far south as you can go and still be in the Quarter.

In Rue Mouffetard (map) you’ll find everything from bakers to butchers, greengrocers to ironmongers, French cheese to Italian gelato. One of the things I most love about Rue Mouffetard is seeing the elegant Chanel-wearing ladies with their little poodles clipped like topiary queuing up for their vegetables. “Thou shalt shop” is the eleventh commandment for smart Parisians!

Rue Mouffetard's bustle - but there's still time to drink your coffee and read the paper

The market opens mornings only, but after hours the restaurants and bistros take up the running, and they’re an eclectic bunch, with plenty of Greek restaurants, Spanish and Italian joints, and an Argentinian place, besides a number of French bistrots. You can get proper Savoyard fondue and raclette at Saveurs de Savoie number 83  (map) – anything you can do with cheese, they can do it, and at a reasonable price! And all this on what was, apparently, one of the earliest Roman roads into Paris.

Getting back to culture, you might head back to the quays along the Seine to find the bouquinistes, secondhand book traders with little barrows and stalls along the riverside. I’ve never failed to find something I wanted, though some of the prices are high and some of the stalls seem to be almost entirely devoted to nineteenth century Bibles.

Since France is the country of the Cannes Film Festival and the Nouvelle Vague, you’d expect a scattering of cinemas, and if you head towards Rue Champollion (map) just behind the Sorbonne, you’ve got a marvelous choice. You can visit Le Filmotheque , (map) showing all kinds of obscure art-house and old films, or Le Champo (map) just round the corner with its regular themed film festivals. Le Champo is currently showing Buster Keaton and a selection of Cassavetes films, a very odd mix! And great news, the tickets won’t break the bank at EUR 8 top price (seniors get discounted tickets at Filmotheque).

There’s one thing, though, that I have to tell you. The Latin Quarter isn’t what it was. I’ve been told this by so many people that I have it on very, very good authority.

One lady told me: “It’s not what it was in the 1970s.” Her friend leaned over and said, “Don’t listen to her! She never knew the real Latin Quarter – not the way it was in the Sixties!”

Photos: bouquiniste by ErrorTribune on flickr: Institut du Monde Arabe by dynamomosquito on flickr: :Musee de Cluny by Olivier Burchez on flickr: Rue Mouffetard by paprikadefrance on flickr

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Tags: architecture, Art, history, museum, top-feature


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