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The Latin Quarter, Paris

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The Latin Quarter, Paris

Translated by Amy Stamford — 4 years ago

Original text by Patricia Saiz Díaz

The name makes you think of images of Bohemian Paris at its peak. Despite its numerous renovations, leading to its loss of identity, the countless streets that make up this area continue to attract tourists and Parisians. Originally, the quarter was home to the students of Paris, located on the left bank of the Seine. Often, the people that visit the Latin Quarter are hoping to discover some of the charm that they have read in the works of Camus, Sartre and Beckett.

St Michel Fountain, the heart of St. Michel remains in the St. Michel Square (Metro St. Michel) with its Baroque fountain showing San Miguel killing a demon of some sort. It was once the site of numerous protests and social unrest. One of the main events of the French resistance to Nazi occupation took place in the square, and the famous 1968 riots, where students took over the square, also took place here! Oddly enough, it became a central location for workers to gather for the same cause when announcing mass strikes, which eventually led to the fall of the De Gaulle government. It has also been called the "Washington Square Park", where hippies, artists, writers, poets, dancers, musicians and art students would gather.

The Latin Quarter is crossed by the Saint Germain Boulevard and Saint Michel Boulevard. These are the two main great streets that cross the area, with hundreds of winding streets leading from them. St. Andre des Arts Square is aligned with hundreds of trees, and was once a gathering place for many French artists. Today, it is still surrounded by numerous bars and restaurants. Walk to St. Michel until you reach Blv. St. Germain. The two streets cross near the Cluny Museum on Boulevard St. Michel, a museum well worth visiting. It is located on some ancient Roman baths (an amazing piece of architecture itself) and full of incredible artefacts and works of art of medieval Europe. Personally, I think it is one of the most interesting and beautiful museums in Paris. Inside, there is the famous tapestry called the "Lady and the Unicorn", as well as the original heads of the statues from the Notre Dame Cathedral, stained glass, jewellery, early paintings, stonework, and even a medieval garden. (It is located at 6 Place Paul-Painleve, Metro Cluny-La Sorbonne. It costs: 7 euros, closed Tuesday).

The cafés near the Sorbonne, on the way to St. Michel, are interesting in their own right. I prefer the cafés at the top end of the street, after passing the Cluny, which are generally less crowded and more authentic as far as bars go. There are good bookshops and art bookstalls in this area too. This is no coincidence, the Sorbonne is just a few blocks away so students are always looking for cheap deals on their required reading. You can take a small detour and go and visit the legendary university, or stop at the pretty little square called Place de la Sorbonne on the left, and enjoy a coffee at the hotel chain there, a classic student haunt. Across Blvd St Michel is the Rue Monsieur Le Prince which leads onto Blvd St Germain and the Odeon Metro station. On the way, you will find several student-oriented bistros and a couple of Japanese restaurants. Also, on Polidor at 41 Rue Monsieur le Prince, is one of the oldest bars in Paris, first opened in 1845. For a cheaper option, go to Brasserie Balzar at 49 Rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne, which has been open since 1898... but make sure you have a reservation if you go on Friday or Saturday night because it can get very busy.

To get to the Pantheon, still walk down Blvd St Michel until you reach Rue Soufflot where you turn left. At this point, you have reached the Pantheon. If you still can't see it, well look again because you can't miss it! It is very grand and is supported with numerous Greek columns and a Roman vault. Pantheon is a Greek word that means "all gods" which in this case means, the gods of French literature, of the arts and sciences. Many important people are buried here, in what is essentially a huge mausoleum. It was originally built as a church, when its foundation was constructed in 1758. After the revolution, the new government decided it was more politically correct to make it somewhere where French greats are buried. Unable to make up their minds (all this philosophy has confused them), the building has been a church twice, thus swapping between this and its current function. (Imagine being the priest here, no job security). Some of those buried there include Voltaire, Rousseau, Honoré Mirabeau, Marat, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Jean Moulin, Marie Curie, René Descartes, Louis Braille and the architect Soufflot. (What a coincidence) In this very building in 1851, the famous physicist, Foucault, demonstrated the rotation of the earth by hanging his pendulum 67 meters from the dome. As you enter the building, you will see an inscription reading: Aux Grandes hommes la patrie reconnaissante (For great men, the grateful nation).

The Pantheon is very close to the Luxembourg Gardens, so it's worth going to walk around them and enjoy one of the most beautiful green areas in Paris. Many people come here when the weather is nice. The Palais du Luxembourg was built in the 17th century by Marie de Medicis, King Louis XIII's mother. It dominates the northern end of the park along with a large pool where children can sail boats and Parisians read the newspaper or soak up the sun.

Maison De Gyros, Paris. Heading back to the river, you can walk around the streets behind the Museum of Cluny, that are filled with Tunisian kebab shops and Greek restaurants. None of these restaurants break plates like true traditional Greek specialities. But you will find this in the ultra-touristy Rue de la Huchette. The waiters pose as Greeks and shout 'OPA! ' and smash plates on the sidewalk beneath their shiny shoes. I love a good Northern African dish, but why these places are determined to make you think you're in Athens, when you're clearly not, is beyond me. But maybe you have always wanted to visit Athens but you can't so this will have to do. I can't say whether the food was good or not because I only chatted with the front of house staff. There are a few bars, some with live music, singers singing romantically on the piano or guitar, both men and women. If you are on a budget you will find plenty of fast food restaurants, souvlaki shops, sushi, bakeries, Indians and "authentic French cuisine" written in large print in English... so it must be true.

To reach Shakespeare and Company bookstore, keep walking down the alley across the street and you will finally get to Shakespeare and Company Bookstore at # 37 rue de la Bucherie. You have to visit this hidden gem of Paris. Out of all of the English language bookstores in Paris, this is the most interesting. The shop is a remake of the original shop, which was previously damaged by a fire. Founded by Sylvia Beach in the 20s, it became a focal point for American expatriates such as Pound, Hemingway and the Irishman James Joyce. Actually, it was Sylvia Beach who finally agreed to publish the formerly rejected Joyce's novel, Ulysses (which was a good move). The store was subsequently acquired by George Whitman, who is an iconic figure in the expatriate community in America. Sylvia is now is her 90s so the shop is run by her daughter. The store continues to offer shelter to young writers and poets who are allowed to sleep in the store in exchange for a few hours work. If this seems strange, I think it should be hailed as a remarkable act of generosity and empathy in an age when such things no longer happen. The architecture of the store is very interesting; a maze of sloping shelves, secret cubicles, stacks of books, old sofas, posters and the occasional cat. This is a place has preserved its history wonderfully. If you want to buy a book, why not buy it here and help keep this small enclave of culture alive. There is also an area outside of the store which is a wonderful place to sit and admire the Notre Dame Cathedral, which stands across from the river.

If you are interested in seeing some "Flamboyant Gothic" architecture, check out the nearby church, San Severino, in Rue St. Severin. Observe the medieval stone of the sewer system still visible on the street. This church was named after an inmate of the sixth century and apparently took longer to build than the nearby Notre Dame. There is a 15th century ossuary (bone yard) inside and exceptional stained glass window depicting the seven sacraments. It isn't well known that there are some beautiful engravings from 1920 by the great painter Rouault inside of this church. Rouault was trained as a stained glass artisan, hence the obvious reference in his famous later paintings with samples of different colours.

Continue on Rue Galande to see the historic church, St. Julien le Pauvre. Chances are you will recognise the church from countless paintings. Because this church was first erected in 1170, it may be the oldest official church in Paris. In the 17th century, it was bought by the Hotel Dieu, and became a salt warehouse. Finally, it was given to a branch of the Byzantine church led by the Melkite Greek! The garden is a beautiful place to sit where you can imagine what the left bank was like in the 16th century. This is the medieval heart of Paris.

There are several culinary and wine tours that you can do in the Latin Quarter of Paris, for example, the Tasting Wine Tour in the Latin Quarter, the Baguette Bistro, Culinary Traditions of Paris etc. There are also plenty of cheese shops, chocolate makers, sausages and other food stores run by chefs or food journalists. The Latin Quarter Walking Tour explores the beginnings of Paris, taking you through the heart of Parisian history and touching on everything from Roman ruins to the great intellectuals of France. The Paris Rive Gauche Walking Tour - Latin Quarter and Notre Dame shows the finest beauty of the heart of Paris, passing through the "L'île de la Cité", before arriving at the Gothic masterpiece: Notre Dame.

Shop along the Rue Mouffetard like the local Parisians do, complaining about the high prices of the best selections of teary cheeses, fresh bread and charcuterie. Take a seat in a bustling cafe or act like the locals and sit at the bar, where the drinks are always cheaper. Moviegoers will not have to look far to find a small revival movie houses showing old American films in English (VO = version originale). Not far from here is the white magnificent Grand Mosque of Paris, with its impressive minaret. Past the mosque is a lovely, little garden - Jardin des Plantes, a botanical garden where you can find three natural history museums, the most famous being the Grand Gallery of Evolution. Inside, children can admire huge whale skeletons, along with all kinds of taxidermy. Some of the most interesting places to visit in Paris are located in this neighbourhood, including the Museum of Cluny and the Institut du Monde Arabe. You can visit the Arenas of Lutetia and see ancient history mixed with modern life. It is actually a Roman amphitheater and one of the most popular locations among children to go and play football.

For hotels in the area check out Le Petit Belloy in the heart of the Latin Quarter, Boulevard Saint Germain and Notre Dame. The Villa des Princes on 19 Rue Monsieur le Prince are close to Luxembourg Gardens a few meters from the Boulevard Saint Germain. Hôtel des 3 Collèges is ideally located on a quiet street in the heart of the famous Latin Quarter, and offers comfortable accommodation, Wi-Fi and free parking. All three of these hotels are 2 stars and not too expensive. The Best Western Trianon Rive Gauche 3 star hotel offers comfortable rooms and are tastefully decorated. The Jardin du Luxembourg and Boulevard St Michel are close by, and so is the 3 star Hotel, Fontaines du Luxembourg. For those looking to spend a little more money, look to stay at the Résidence & Spa Le Prince Regent is a 18th century building restored into an apartment hotel between Boulevard Saint Michel and Boulevard Saint Germain.

The main street, Boulevard St-Michel, is a busy street, where former bookstores have now been replaced by clothing store chains and many fast food joints, but don't let that stop you from visiting it! There are (almost) as many French people wandering the streets here, as there are tourists. There is also St-Michel's Square, which serves as the main entrance to the Latin Quarter. There is also the 19th century fountain which shows San Miguel killing "the great dragon". Today, the fountain serves as a meeting point, and is a central focal point of the neighbourhood: a little dirty, but extremely popular.

When you have had enough of the crowds, leave the boulevard and explore the side streets, where you can find quirky shops and intimate bars. Or stop for a 'demi' (half a pint of beer) in one of the cafes on Place de la Sorbonne, the most popular square amongst students. Around the streets behind the Pantheon, you can still find plenty of academics discussing philosophy while sipping espresso... But today, the 5th arrondissement is also one of Paris's most charming and coveted places to live.

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