St.-Germain: The intellectual Paris
When Paris was a feast
Saint-Germain.... how does this sound in your ears? It’s a myth, right. It’s the Fifties, it’s jazz music, in other words it’s the intellectual Paris. Let’s have a short walk through this mythical neighbourhood. There are no jazz bars anymore, a lot of bookshops have been driven out by luxury boutiques and the galleries you find here don't sell cutting-edge art. But it's still Saint-Germain-de-Prés: Your are walking on historical ground. It's very busy, very touristy, but you can’t take a step without bumping into the past. So don’t worry. Everything is different, but nothing had really changed.
Let’s start at Odéon at the foot of the little statue of Danton where the students still meet to go out and have a glass of wine or to go to the movies.
Danton, a leading figure of the French Revolution actually lived here. He knew it wasn’t forever: “My home will soon be nothing, about my name, you can find it in the pantheon of history.”
Look at his head on the statue since his last words walking towards the guillotine and addressed to his executioner were: "Don't forget to show my head to the people. It's well worth seeing."
2. Passage Cour du Commerce
Cross the Boulevard Saint-Germain and take the entrance to the Cour du Commerce just in front of Danton. It’s one of Paris' famous passages, small commercial streets, usually glass covered, invented in the 18th century to allow the Ladies and flaneurs to do their window-shopping without walking through the mud of the streets. This one was inaugurated in 1735.
Marat, another central figure of French Revolution, had his printing house here at number 8 called L’Imprimerie de l’ami du Peuple where he printed his own radical newspaper with the same name Friend of the People. Doesn't look like as if this was the intellectual center of the revolution. So use your imagination.
3. Le Procope
You will come out on rue Saint-André des Arts. Turn left and left again just to have a look at the famous restaurant Le Procope.
You don’t need to eat there as did so many. Not only Danton and Marat, but also Voltaire, Diderot, Musset, Verlaine and Anatole France.
It was inaugurated in 1668 and is one of the oldest restaurants in Paris. Today it belongs to a group and you pay here, of course, more for the history than for the food. In other words: Avoid the tourist trap.
4. Rimbaud: A naked poet
Go back again, walk down rue de l’Ancienne Comédie and take the first street on your left, rue de Buci. At number 10 the famous poet Arthur Rimbaud spent some days in a tiny little room under the roof called a chambre de bonne, the servants room.
But one day he took off all his clothes, threw them out of the window and walked down the street. A naked poet. What a picture. He got kicked out a week later.
5. Place de Fürstemberg
Go on walking down rue de Buci, cross rue de Seine and take the first street on your right, rue de Bourbon le Chateau, a very short street that soon becomes rue de L’Abbaye. Take the next street on the right, rue de Fürstemberg. You will arrive at one of the most lovely and hidden squares in Paris: Place de Fürstemberg.
The square is planted with four paulownias that flower in spring, which makes the spot at this time of the year even more spectacular. No wonder that it always attracted artists, not only to paint it, but also even to live here like Manet and Bazille did.
In 1857 Eugène Delacroix moved into number 6 of Place de Fürstemberg and worked here until his death in 1863. The charming Musée Eugène Delacroix with his atelier and garden is worth a visit.
Head back down the same street and try to catch the tiny passage called passage de la petite Boucherie and you will soon return to the busy boulevard Saint-Germain. Turn right and walk along to Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Have a look inside. It’s the oldest church in Paris founded by the Merovingian king Childebert I in the 6th century.
For centuries the whole area around the church was occupied by the abbatial palace, which was pillaged and burnt by the Vikings and reconstructed under Cardinal Charles I de Bourbon, who was King Henri IV's uncle. A true abbatial palace was constructed in 1586. By this time Saint-Germain-des-Prés abbey had become one of the most beautiful monastic complexes of the Middle Ages. During the revolution, alas, the abbey was turned into a gunpowder warehouse and an immense explosion during the night of August 19, 1794, destroyed most of it.
7. Café de Flore
When you walk out of the church have a look at the building just across the street: That’s where Sartre lived for many years. Since during the war and the German occupation of Paris almost nobody could afford to heat the apartments, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir spent most of the time at the famous Café de Flore a little further up at 127, boulevard Saint-Germain. He had his table there and spent whole days writing, thinking and rethinking the world that just had collapsed before his eyes.
Sartre wrote: “We’ve lived there: from nine in the morning to noon we worked, than we had lunch. At two o’clock we came back to chat with friends until eight in the evening. After dinner we arranged to meet friends there. It might sound strange, but we felt at home there.” Why don’t you have a rest at the Café de Flore? It’s still a mythical place. A lot of actors come here, Karl Lagerfeld shows up regularly later in the evening. And I remember an interview with actress Diane Kruger who was scared by a mouse running under the tables on the upper floor. Expect that prices fit the myth.
8. La Hune, much more than a bookshop
Just across the street, is another mythical spot: a bookshop called La Hune. Again Karl Lagerfeld is a regular there. He has an incredible collection of art books and often buys several copies of the same book in order to cut the pictures out.
La Hune is the epicentre of the intellectual Saint-Germain. Also because it doesn't close before midnight (at 20 h on Sundays).
In the building just across the street Diderot used to live. He wrote his Salon here and started a mind-blowing enterprise: the Encyclopédie.
9. Rue Saint-Benoit: Marguerite Duras
Take the rue Benoit on your right and remember that Marguerite Duras lived here at number 5, 3rd floor, left hand side.
The French writer and film director often associated with the Nouveau Roman, but too special to be part of a school, used to go the the Jazz Club Saint-Germain-des-Prés, at the corner of rue Saint-Benoit and rue de l’Abbaye.
From 1948 on, Boris Vian invited Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington and Miles Davis to play at the club. I for my part like the graffito of Misstic, unfortunately untranslatable: "Make the word the love-putty of a phrase". Got the message?
1o. A bit of intellectual gossip
Continue on rue Saint Benoit and turn left when you get to rue Jacob. Ernest Hemingway used to live at the Hotel Jacob and Jane Birkin lives a few doors away with her bulldog Dora. Rue Jacob then becomes rue de l'Université. At the corner with rue des Saints-Pères you will see a restaurant called Le Comptoir des Saints-Pères, formerly the Michaud.
Hemingway used to observe James Joyce and his family eating there and speaking Italian, why not. Later, when Hemingway could afford to have dinner there, he met up at Michaud's with Scott Fitzgerald whose (depressive) wife Zelda apparently complained about the size of her husband's penis . Hemingway, a practical man, took him into the toilet to check out. Apparently there was nothing to be worried about. But since them the toilets of Michaud have been famous.
11. Another myth: Serge Gainsbourg
Now turn right into rue des Saints-Pères and take the next street on your left. Here we are at rue de Verneuil where Serge Gainsbourg spent the last years of his life.
You can't miss number 5, bis of rue de Verneuil: the walls are covered with graffiti. Can you imagine a more beautiful declaration of love?
Inside, Charlotte, his daughter, left everything untouched. The walls are still legendary black, the piano, the paintings, even his shoes are still there. Charlotte actually wanted to transform her father's house into a museum, but it didn't work out. The house is too small.
12. Voltaire & Chirac: Why not?
Ok, you might be getting tired now and you get the impression that at every corner of Saint-Germain there is a story. Right. And to cut a long story short, just follow rue de Verneuil. When you arrive at rue de Beaune, turn right and walk torwards the Seine. You will arrive at Quai Voltaire. Right at the corner you'll find the Restaurant Le Voltaire. This is the house where the philosopher and writer lived and finally died in 1778.
Much later, the officers of the resistance movement met here. Continue on your right. If you are an attentive observer, you will see other signs and inscriptions on the walls, you will see the names of Alfred de Musset, Henry de Montherlant, Richard Wagner, Oscar Wilde. And one day, maybe, Jacques Chirac's name will also be on a sign. The ex-president is indeed living at number 3 Quai Voltaire, above the famous colour merchant Sennelier, in a 180 square meter apartment belonging to the family of assassinated Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri for a probably ridiculous rent. In 2007, when he moved in, the Figaro newspaper said the Chiracs would only be staying there temporarily while they found somewhere else to live. Apparently they didn’t have time. The Chiracs are still here. A scandal? Come on, we are in France. Nobody cares two hoots about it anymore.
13. Ecole des Beaux Arts
Here comes the highlight for the very end of our walk: carry on walking down Quai Voltaire eastwards to Quai Malaquais, walk past the Ecole des Beaux Arts and turn into Rue Bonaparte. At number 14 you will arrive at the entrance of the famous school of fine arts inParis. Pretend to be a mature art student, be self-confidence and just walk into the courtyard and then the building. Nobody will chase you out unless you’re part of whole bus-tour.
Try to visit the glass covered Palais des Etudes: It’s an amazing place. But you can still top it if you have the chance to visit the chapel, just on your right hand side when entering the courtyard. Erected in 17th century as a covent, couvent des Petits-Augustins, it’s the most ancient part of the building. It’s here that Queen Margeret of Valois and Catherine de Medici started one of the first art collections of Paris.
13. La Palette
Congratulations. You did it. Now you have an idea of what you haven’t seen in Saint-Germain. It needs a lifetime to study the history of this neighbourhood. But you did very well. Now you deserve a rest at La Palette, the restaurant where Cezanne, Picasso and Braque used to eat.
Take rue des Beaux-Arts just in front of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, turn right on rue de Seine and you’ll find La Palette on the next corner (43, rue de Seine). Hemingway loved their tarte Tatin, the famous upside-down apple tarte, and I have to confess: me too.