What do you think of when you envisage the Latin quarter?
Is it students discussing existentialism and the works of Proust in cafes while puffing on their last gauloise? Is it impoverished writers huddled over their coffees scribbling away dreaming of becoming the next Satre or Apollinaire?
Whatever it is you may be disapointed in the now very borgeois Latin Quarter. The air of interllectualism still pervades thanks to the world-famous Sorbonne university but nowadays the cafes will be inhabited by tourists from Nagasaki, Newcastle or Nantucket. But it is still exquisitely beautiful and a day should be set aside to wander its bookshops, markets, cafes and the elegant Jardins de Luxembourg.
The Latin quarter retains its warren of medieval lanes that grew up around the southern entrance to the city at the Pont Neuf. Solidly working class it gains its name from the Sorbonne university whose official language was Latin. This was one of the first universities in Europe, and when the hundred years war broke out with England students were recalled from the Sorbonne which led to the formation of Oxford and Cambridge. The main drag of Quartier Latin is the Boulevard St Germain which hasn''t changed it appearance since medieval times and its solidly working class population in 1789 were the first ones at the barricades for the revoloution. But the areas heyday was before and after the second world war. It is still not hard to find the atmosphere of penniless chic the area is famous for. Not long ago it was possible to find Jean Paul Belmondo and Roman Polanski arguing away in its cafes. It may take abit of looking but that is still there..
All metro lines pass through the Quartier Latin whose hub is the Place St Michel. This is also a RER station and fed by at least four metro lines. But I think the best place to enter it is from the Louvre across the Pont des Artes. This beautiful footbridge gives beautiful views up and down the Seine. The quais at this point are worth a look with green souvenir stalls selling oil portraits of Paris and black and white photographs. Any alley south of here will take you into the Latin Quarter and the narrow medieval streets are thronged with comic-shops, galleries, open-air restaurants and American honeymooners walking hand in hand. Rue Dauphine is especially pretty with a bustling market with flower stalls, fresh fish and plucked lapins (rabbits) ready for the pot.
Cobbled streets will take you to the main street of Boulevard St Germain and west along here is the St Germain des Pres Eglise. This is a very old church dating back to the 10th century showing just how ancient the Latin Quarter really is. The traffic on Boulevard St Germaine is ferocious so I would recommend a walk to the south along Rue Bonaparte. The claim that the Latin Quarter is now exceptionally bourgeois can be sustained down this rue with its haute courtre and designer shops - way out of the range of struggling students. Rue Bonaparte opens up into the exquisite Place de St Sulspice (see photo). The square is bedecked in brown marble and overlooked by the Eglise St Sulspice. In the centre is a baroque fountain ordained with lion statues. The place is generally deserted and you may have the place to yourself.
But go south along the cobbled Rue Servondani (very Roman name?) to the Jardins de Luxembourg. As European capitals go, Paris isn''t as green as London or Vienna, most of its public parks are covered in gravel - but the Jardins de Luxembourg is different and is a real oasis in the middle of the Latin Quarter. The Renaissance palace overlooks the gardens with their flower beds and mazelike hedges. Parisians relax here with games of football going on on the grass and children playing in the sandspits. But if you head east, past the dome of the Pantheon (see photo)you will hit the environs of the Sorbonne. This is the heart of academic France and the monolithic buildings go back to the 12th century. You can usually enter their porticoed door and while we were there there was a terrific exhibition of modern art.
Outside is the Place Sorbonne where you can relax in a cafe under the plane trees or collapse with all the other exhausted travellers. But my next recommendation is distinctly not ancient and is probably my favourite building in Paris as it was such a surprise - The Institut de Monde Arabe. It is at the eastern end of Boulevard St Germain overooking the Seine. The French do modern architecture so well and the fact that the buildings are set against the ancient cityscape of Paris seems to enhance them. The Institut is a tall metallic modern structure on a vast square. The ten-storey wall facing the courtyard is made of thousands of photosensitive cells designed like Arab latticework. The cells are sensitive to light and as the clouds move across the sky snap open and shut creating a wall of movement. The effect is c''magnifique!
The view from the top of the building takes in the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame and the quais are not far away and make a good walk. But the quarter is made for kicking back so find yourself a cafe, buy a copy of Satre, put on your dark glasses, light up a cigarette and pretend to be a French interllectual....