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This is the 10th in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris.
When I surface at the Saint-Michel metro station, I like to dive straight into Rue de la Huchette and savor the buzzing atmosphere of the Latin Quarter. It’s narrow and bustling, full of little shops selling treats and trinkets and restaurants whose waiters stand outside to engage you in banter and entice you inside. If I haven’t been to Paris for a while, there is no quicker way to feel straight back into it!
The Théâtre de la Huchette, a little way down on the right, is a Parisian institution and has been showing two Eugène Ionesco plays ever since February 1957. Ionesco, one of the originators of the theater of the absurd, is not for everyone, but if you would like to see a double billing of La Cantatrice Chauve (The Bald Soprano) and La Leçon (The Lesson), there are performances every week, including one with English subtitles every Wednesday. What to expect? Bizarre conversations between two couples failing to communicate, a teacher-pupil relationship with tyranny at its heart… In short, a portrayal of a world which is difficult to make sense of and where danger lurks.
To watch them is to glimpse the confusion of the world just after World War Two when they were written and it’s also a chance to visit the venue that calls itself “the smallest of the great Parisian theaters.” Just across the road is Amorino, the Italian ice-cream parlor which does wondrous things with gelato and macarons.
A couple of streets away is Rue de la Harpe where, right at the far end, I chanced upon Monk, La Taverne de Cluny, a bar and jazz club where the décor drew me in and the menu offered one of my favorite options, a build-your-own salad. I opted for the three-ingredient version, choosing lentils, dressed beetroot and goat’s cheese, and settled back to admire the laid-back black and gold surroundings: little round tables with the Monk logo, photos of iconic jazz musicians, display cases of craft beer bottles – they sell over 50 varieties – and posters for their upcoming music and comedy events. The background music – Georges Brassens and Joe Dassin’s Les Champs Élysées – oozed French charm and really I think I couldn’t find a more charming lunch stop anywhere in the Quartier Latin.
Next, I popped into two of the nearby churches. First, Saint Séverin, originally built in the 13th century on a site where the hermit Séverin had lived, although today only the bell tower dates that far back. Most striking to me were the stained-glass windows because they are an intriguing mix. Behind the altar are gothic windows dating from the 15th century and as a striking contrast there are seven contemporary windows which were installed in 1970. They are beautiful, mosaic-style designs, each accompanied by bible quotations. For example, the verse “I am come to send fire on the earth” (Luke 12, verse 49) is illustrated by a design full of overlapping flame shapes in vibrant red, purple, orange and yellow. It’s modern and radiant.
Nearby is Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, built as a church in the 12th century, and also used as a meeting place for some of the Sorbonne’s first students. So there is Romanesque architecture to admire and a chance to imagine groups of young men clustering around the clerics whose teaching – in Latin of course! – they sought. And yet, there is another layer on top, because in the 19th century the church was passed to the Greek Melkite Catholic tradition and so amidst the original pillars and medieval arched windows you will also see the rich colors of icons in the Byzantine style. This all makes St Julien, one of the city’s oldest churches, unique and one excellent way to visit it is to check their program of regular classical music concerts.
Next door to St Julien-le-Pauvre is Square Viviani, a little park named after René Viviani, the socialist co-founder of l’Humanité, a man of peace who found himself prime minister of France during the early months of the First World War. I sat for a while on one of the benches which are dotted among the trees and around the central flower bed. Then I went to read the 13 names of Jewish children from this area, aged between one and six, who were murdered in the concentration camps during the war. They are engraved onto a glass panel, along with the reminder that “your memory is their only burial place.” Just at the entrance is another memorial board, this one to Amandine Giraud, a young diver from the Brigade Fluviale de Paris who died while on duty on the river in 2018. I reflect on how seriously the French take the idea of memorialization. Paris is full of plaques noting things we should not forget.
The Square Viviani is just next to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop and always a good place to end a walk. Its ramshackle interior, with uneven floorboards and books stuffed into every nook over several floors, is like nowhere else. Quotations and old photos fill any space left between the shelves and up the stairs, where you will find a couple of beds squeezed in, rumored to be used by travelers passing through Paris who pause long enough to work here for a while. Browsing up there I found, in no particular order, a piano being played by a girl with waist-length hair (whether customer or member of staff was unclear), an ancient typewriter, perhaps from the 1920s (might it have been used by Ernest Hemingway?) and a sofa with a propped-up notice reading “Aggie the cat was up all-night reading. Please let her sleep.” There was no cat. But there were photos of Virginia Woolf, Georges Simenon and, cigarette in mouth, Daphne du Maurier.
On the route along the quais back to St Michel metro station, I passed a little opening between two buildings which is the entrance to the narrowest street in Paris, La Rue du Chat Qui Peche, or “Fishing Cat Road.” The details are blurred, but it is said that in the 16th century a man used to fish in the Seine from here, aided by his cat who was quick to pounce when a catch was in the offing. Some say the cat was murdered and thrown into the Seine, only to reappear later and take up fishing again. Whatever the truth of that, the fact remains that this little street is less than 2 meters wide, a curiosity it is interesting to spot as you pass by. It was just one of the many and varied little quirks thrown up on one particular afternoon in one particular tiny corner of Paris.
Théâtre de la Huchette
23 Rue de la Huchette, 5th arrondissement
Monk La Taverne de Cluny
51, Rue de la Harpe, 5th arrondissement
Tel: +33 (0)1 43 54 28 88
Concert program at St Julien-le-Pauvre
1 Rue Saint-Julien le Pauvre, 5th arrondissement
Follow Marian’s footsteps
Enjoying our “Flâneries in Paris” series? Read Marian’s previous article, exploring Saint Paul and Place des Vosges, here.
Lead photo credit : Place St-Michel Metro Station, Creative Commons