Strolling the Latin Quarter: A Perfect Walk on the Left Bank

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Strolling the Latin Quarter: A Perfect Walk on the Left Bank
In the middle ages, walking the Latin Quarter would not have expended many calories. The Latin Quarter consisted of the area immediately surrounding the Sorbonne. La Sorbonne was a theology college created by Robert de Sorbonne in 1235. It is the oldest university in France, and even today, probably the most famous. Then it specialized in science and literature and only Latin was spoken, giving the area its name and adding to its reputation as the most historical area of Paris. Arguments still abound regarding the exact boundaries of the Latin Quarter today. Now expanded to encompass some of the 6th arrondissement, it is generally accepted that the area emanating from the center where Boulevard Saint-Michel intersects with Boulevard Saint-Germain, going north to the Seine (including Quai Saint Bernard and Quai Montebello), south to the Luxembourg Gardens, from Odéon to Port Royal, can be claimed as the Latin Quarter. Much more of a respectable walk… It was in 52 BC that the Romans conquered the Gauls and built the city of Lutetia. As the city expanded, roads and arenas were built. The present day Rue Saint Jacques was the main paved street (cardio maximus), leading from the Seine to the Forum at the top of Sainte Genevieve hill. (Other original streets, now modernized, include Blvd Saint-Michel, Rue Galand and Rue Mouffetard.) In the year 310, the name of the city was changed from Civitas Parisiorum to Paris. The legendary Place Saint Michel, just a few paces from the Seine, is just as good a place to start our walk as any. With its baroque fountain featuring Saint Michel killing a demon, it has remained the favorite spot for student demonstrations, (seemingly every weekend!) It was a rallying place for the resistance during the Nazi occupation of France in WWII and the student protests of 1968. To the left of Place Saint Michel, stumble up the narrow, cobbled streets of Rue de la Huchette, bustling with cheap restaurants, kebab shops and Turkish pastry establishments. This area, including Rue de la Harpe, is much maligned as too touristy and known, often condescendingly, as ‘Little Athens’, but for students and those on a budget, the vibrancy of these streets will always have their own, special charm. Indeed Rue de la Huchette boasts both the Theatre de la Huchette and the Caveau de la Huchette, formerly a 16th century wine cellar but since 1949, the go-to Jazz Club. The narrowest street in Paris, the rue du Chat-qui-Pêche is only 1m80 (5’11) wide and runs for 29m (95’) adjacent to 14 Rue de la Huchette down to the Seine. The walls appear to lean in on themselves like a protective stone umbrella, the daylight at the Seine, a welcome sight. At the end of Rue de la Huchette cross over Rue Saint Jacques onto Rue de la Bucherie, with the famed bookshop, Shakespeare and Company which not only faces the Seine but also has a great view of Notre Dame Cathedral. The Square René-Viviani next to Shakespeare and Company is a great place for taking your coffee, sandwich and book, if only to gaze at Notre Dame in a peaceful setting. Other churches of interest, Saint Severin in rue Saint Severin and Saint Julien le Pauvre in the rue Galande, have their own fascinating histories and are well worth a visit if old churches are your thing. Doubling back to Boulevard Saint Michel– either by the Seine or Rue de la Huchette– again make your way up the left hand side of the Boulevard. (A side detour on the right down rue Saint-André-des-Arts is definitely worthwhile, filled with Lebanese restaurants, bars, eclectic shops and a great little cinema. It’s a well used cut through to Rue de Buci and the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Again on the right side of the Boul‘Mich are several book shops with outside stalls selling cheap, second-hand books in English.) Continuing up the Boul‘Mich, cross over Boulevard Saint Germain and here at the intersection is the Musée de Cluny, a must for anyone interested in medieval architecture, artifacts, tapestries and jewelry. The Roman baths can be seen from the street and there is even a medieval garden where you can sit and take a break. The building was formerly begun by the Abbots of Cluny in 1334 and was rebuilt between 1485 and 1510. One if its most famous occupants was Mary Tudor. However it was in 1843 that an amateur collector, Alexandre Du Sommerard, moved into an apartment on the first floor of the Hôtel des abbés de Cluny. On his death, Du Sommerard’s collection of medieval artifacts was bought by the state as well as the building it was housed in. The Gallo-Roman thermal baths of Lutetia, dating from the late first century, have huge architectural significance. Over the last two centuries, numerous legacies and purchases, including the Lady and the Unicorn tapestry, amount to some 24,000 works on display covering the Roman Empire, early Middle Ages, the Romanesque era and the Gothic. Past the Cluny Museum we come to the heart of the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne University. At the top of Place de la Sorbonne, the building is well worth a closer look and if you are lucky the concierge might let you peep into the courtyard. (You can always stop at the Tabac de la Sorbonne for a quick coffee and croissant and enjoy the student ambiance.) Just past the Sorbonne, up the Rue Soufflot, is perhaps my own, personal, favorite building: the Panthéon. Impossible to miss, it dominates the skyline and now that the exterior has been…
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Lead photo credit : Sorbonne, blue hour. Photo: Jan Remund/ Flickr

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After some dreary years in the Civil Service, Marilyn realized her dream of living in Paris. She arrived in Paris in December 1967 and left in July 1969. From there she lived in Mallorca, London, Oman, and Dubai, where she moved with her husband and young son and worked for Gulf News, Khaleej Times and freelanced for Emirates Woman magazine. During this time she was also a ground stewardess for Middle East Airlines. For the past 18 years they've lived on the Isle of Wight.

Comments

  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2019-03-22 13:03:17
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Thanks Hazel, one day we'll meet up and you can show me your Chirinquito bars and I'll probably just get lost! Regards Marilyn

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  • Hazel Smith
    2019-03-18 17:18:56
    Hazel Smith
    Wonderful article, Marilyn. I stay in the Fifth when I'm there - steps around the corner from the Place de la Sorbonne in your photo. - just not often enough. I've been lost in Paris so many times, but it's really not a hardship, is it?

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  • Mike Buchanan
    2019-03-08 14:42:51
    Mike Buchanan
    Would love to stay in contact with a mature woman who travels to Paris on a fairly regular basis. Was in Paris two years ago and fell in love with the city. Would like to travel there with someone who knows Paris. Mike

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  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2019-02-16 18:54:58
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Hi Pam, Ho Chi Minh may very well have worked in a Chinese restaurant in the 5th arrondissement. He lived in Paris on and off for seven years from either 1917 or 1919 and one of his addresses was in Rue Monsieur Le Prince in the 6th, bordering the Latin quarter. He had also worked as a cook on a steamship in 1911. I do hope you discover the restaurant he worked in. Fascinating stuff! Kind regards and thanks for sharing the memory. Marilyn

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  • Pam Hughes
    2019-02-16 15:36:55
    Pam Hughes
    I realized after reading this lovely article and the comments that I have not spent enough time in the 5th. I spent a lot of time there as a 19 year old but not enough on subsequent trips. One of the times I was there, I was taken to a Chinese restaurant in what I believe was the in the 5th and was told Ho Chi Minh had worked there. On a subsequent trip I located it again. Does anyone remember or know where it might be. As I recall you walked up stairs to get to the dining room. Pam

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  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2019-02-15 13:39:35
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Hi Emma, I'm so glad you enjoyed the article. The Rue de la Montaigne Sainte Genevieve, runs off Rue Monge, past the Catholic church of St Etienne du Mont and into the Place de Pantheon. I'm sure you'll find it on your next trip to Paris and I hope you have a wonderful time exploring the whole of the Latin Quarter. Kind regards. Marilyn

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  • EmmaS.
    2019-02-15 05:55:59
    EmmaS.
    Thank you for this fabulous article. As a frequent visitor to Paris who stays in the 5eme, I can't wait to explore some of the spots I have missed. My question is where is Sainte Genevieve Hill? Is it the Hill that leads up from Bd St. Michel up to the Pantheon? Thanks!

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  • Nicholas Cox
    2019-02-15 03:38:15
    Nicholas Cox
    A lovely article about my favourite part of Paris! Just one minor correction, the narrowest street in Paris is actually Sentier des Merisiers in the 12eme. Less than one meter wide in places, this fascinating passageway is lined with pretty half-timbered houses.

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  • Sharon
    2019-02-14 21:16:13
    Sharon
    I love this area and several years in a row stayed in the same small hotel. Then they remodeled and tripled their prices and so the next years I found a cute little place in the Marsis. Still love the Museum Ian’s Luxembourg jgardens, Pantheon, little restaurants and street market each week. Love the bookstores, theSorbonne and the amazing stained glass In The church by modern artist. No memory for names. It will always be my favorite part of the city. You can sit on the curb and sketch passerby’s and feel right at home.

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  • Maureen Brouillette
    2019-02-14 19:45:28
    Maureen Brouillette
    I think so too Annette:-) The author is turned around.

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  • Stephan
    2019-02-14 19:11:25
    Stephan
    On my last visit to Paris, I stayed in the Latin Quarter on the Rue des Boulangers. I fell in love with the neighborhood immediately and look forward to staying there again. On my last day, I toured the Institut du Monde Arabe and was mesmerized by the wonderful exhibition of Middle Eastern gardens along with the history of irrigation. Amazing!

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  • Marilyn Brouwer
    2019-02-14 14:00:29
    Marilyn Brouwer
    Told you my sense of direction was bad...Apologies!

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  • AnnetteC
    2019-02-14 13:09:55
    AnnetteC
    "the area emanating from the center where Boulevard Saint-Michel intersects with Boulevard Saint-Germain, going south to the Seine (including Quai Saint Bernard and Quai Montebello), north to the Luxembourg Gardens, east to Odéon and west to Port Royal"... Ummm, I think your map is upside down!

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