Autumn in Paris. The Left Bank. Right about lunchtime and for the next few hours till 4:30pm, groups of friends, stylish couples, intellectuals, radical thinkers and businessmen fill the seats of cafes and brasseries either side of Boulevard St-Germain. The view from the sidewalk is inspiring; for the legacy of post World War II St-Germain-des-Prés remains in situ: intellectual life centered around bars and cafés is today teeming. Philosophers, writers, actors and musicians mingle in the spot where Jean-Paul Sartre and his lover Simone de Beauvoir would meet and develop their philosophy of existentialism over a drink.
The bars and cellars remain, as have the 17th century buildings but signs of change are evident in the affluent shops dealing with art, antiques, books and fashion taking root.
St-Germain-des-Prés is Paris’ oldest church
At 3 Pl St-Germain-des-Prés Kingsley and I came across the oldest church in Paris, St-Germain. Originating in 542 when King Childebert build a basilica to house holy relics, this church became a powerful Benedictine abbey which was suppressed during the Revolution when most buildings were destroyed by fire in 1794. The present church dates from the 11th century and houses famous tombs such as the 17th century philosopher René Descartes, poet John Casimir and the king of Poland who later became abbot of St-Germain in 1669. It’s ancient sandstone walls are now covered in the most lush verdant ivy I’ve ever seen.
Les Deaux Magots is famous for its patronage of celebrities such as Hemingway
At 6 Pl St-Germain-des-Prés, we found the world famous café Les Deux Magots which trades on its reputation as a rendezvous of the literary and intellectual elite of the city. This derives from the patronage of Surrealist artists and young writers including Ernest Hemingway in the ’20s and ’30s. The café’s name comes from the two wooden statues of Chinese commercial agents (magots) that adorn one of the indoor pillars.
Paris is known for its Salons de Thé
Next door we came across the classic Art Deco interior of Cafe de Flore, with its all-red seating, mahogany and mirrors, which has not changed since the war. In this café terrace history comes to the present: post-war intellectuals would meet here and take their drinks, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir meeting their ‘family’ (avid followers) as they thrashed out a new philosophy: Existentialism. Today writers and book publishers debate their own ideas of what life is all about over a cool G&T.
Famous Cafè de Flore open 7:30am till 1:30am daily
The Left Bank’s most celebrated thoroughfare, Boulevard St-Germain, spans 3km and curves three districts from the Ile St-Louis to where we cross the Seine at the Pont de la Concorde. We walked it in one go. The extraordinary architecture all around us is homogenous because the boulevard was another of Baron Haussman’s bold manifestations of urban planning. We spot the late François Mitterrand’s private city residence, the Musée de Cluny, the Sorbonne University all before crossing the colourful Boulevard St-Michel. Here we stroll past the Odéon Theatre and onto historic St-Germain-des-Prés and lively café terraces brimful with the well dressed who lunch. Beyond here and onto the river Seine, the Boulevard becomes more exclusively residential, then distinctly political with the Ministry of Defence and the National Assembly. And it is here that we take breathe, look over to the Right Bank, and cross the Seine.
One of the most enduring images of Paris is the cafè scene