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[Editor’s note: With all the talk of the trendy 11th arrondissement and the bobo hang-outs on the Canal St Martin, correspondent Marilyn Brouwer crosses the river to pen an ode to St Germain and its vibrant history…]
The sixth arrondissement has always been synonymous with writers and artists, its cafes more famous for their clientele than the food or drink they served. Café de Flore, Les Deux Magots and Brasserie Lipp on Boulevard Saint Germain immediately evoke the image of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus in deep philosophical conversations or Ernest Hemingway scribbling away at a corner table, still poor and taking advantage of a warm café on a cold winter’s day.
Although there is much more to St Germain than its cafés, their influence and attraction in shaping its character and history cannot be dismissed.
Le Procope, situated on the Rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie, may not have been the first café in Paris but it is certainly reputed to be the oldest, still in business 380 years on.
It still remains popular with the literary community, book publishers and editors but now the well publicized attractions of its wonderful interior and lengthy history make it more probable that you’ll be rubbing shoulders with another tourist than a literary great.
A short walk down rue de Seine was Francis Bacon’s favourite café, La Palette. (He liked it because it reminded him of Soho and he could relax in the bar undisturbed or have a meal in the small, unpretentious, restaurant at the back.) His preferred hotel was in rue des Saints-Pères and after London, Paris and St Germain were where he felt most at home.
And perhaps the feeling of belonging, especially for foreigners, was another reason for the attraction of St Germain.
Sylvia Beach opened her bookshop, Shakespeare and Co, on 8 rue Dupuytren in 1919 (then moving to rue de l’Odéon), and her influence cannot be underestimated in making Paris the literary and cultural center of the world in the 20s and 30s.
James Joyce, whose corner Sylvia Beach fought both unstintingly and financially, was only one of the greats attracted to her bookshop and her warmth. Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Samuel Beckett, André Gide, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Paul Valéry all profited from knowing Sylvia Beach and her bookshop.
After WWII American soldiers, sailors and jazz musicians and writers flocked to Paris, the quaint streets, bars and jazz clubs of St Germain an obvious attraction. Le Tabou in Rue Dauphine, then a jazz cellar club, drew artists as renowned as Sydney Bechet, Miles Davis, Juliette Greco and Boris Vian to play there.
Oscar Wilde died there in the Hotel d’Alsace (now L’Hôtel) at 13, Rue des Beaux Arts; Richard Wagner lived for a while in the wonderful Rue Jacob lined with antique shops and interior design gems. Serge Gainsbourg made his home in Rue de Verneuill, now a shrine, covered in graffiti which is constantly renewed by his faithful admirers.
Dissected by the main boulevard, the geography of St Germain influenced the areas and character of the streets to the north and south of this divide.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés is bordered on the north by the Seine, the rue des Saints-Pères to the west, rue de Seine/Mazarine to the east and rue de Four to the south with Haussmann’s Blvd St Germain running through it in a great swathe. It was more than fortunate that Haussmann– more for financial than aesthetic reasons– left untouched the quirky, small streets and squares meandering towards the Seine.
In the center of St Germain, on the boulevard St Germain stands L’église Saint-Germain-des-Prés whose origins as a monastery date back to the 6th century. (The rue du Four was named because it housed the ovens used by the monastery.) The church was rebuilt in 1000AD and became the central focus of everyday life in the quartier.
As far back as the Middle Ages, St Germain was already famous for its annual fair and market place, attracting more than 300 stalls. After the last vestiges of this famous market in rue Mabillon were demolished in 1813 to make way for fashionable clothing shops, the arcaded St Germain covered food market was opened in 1992 on the ground floor. The fresh vegetables, fish, meat and cheese are beautifully displayed and encompass Italian, Greek and Chinese delicacies as well as traditional French fare. The atmosphere is calm and unhurried, bright and clean.
A short walk away is the Place St Sulpice with its monumental fountain facing L’église Saint Sulpice, the second largest church after Notre-Dame in Paris. The church was built in 1646 on the site of a 13th century Romanesque church. (And fans of The Da Vinci Code flock here to uncover its secrets…)
Continue you up the delightful, narrow rue Ferou with Rimbaud’s 100-line poem Le Bateau Ivre inscribed across the 300 meter wall. (Arthur Rimbaud wrote this in 1871 when he was only 16 years old.) The tiny rue Ferou was the home and studio of Man Ray from 1952 until his death in 1976. And when Hemingway married his second, wealthy wife, Pauline Pfeiffer in 1927, they also lived in rue Ferou. (A far cry from life in rue Cardinal Lemoine when he was broke and married to Hadley.)
At the top of rue Ferou across the rue de Vaugirard lies the splendid Luxembourg Gardens, this wonderful respite in the heart of Paris beloved by Parisians, children and tourists alike. Marie de Medici, the widow of Henry IV, commissioned the gardens in 1612. The 23 hectares contain lawns, tree lined promenades, flowerbeds, a shallow basin where children sail their boats, a marionette theatre, children’s playground, tennis courts and cafés. The iconic green metal Paris outdoor chairs are in abundance. Take your book on a sunny day and just chill out.
As for shopping! From large department stores to tiny boutiques, St Germain has it all. Serious shoppers head for the rue de Rennes which stretches from Blvd St Germain in a straight line as far as Montparnasse. Blvd St Germain is retail therapy for every shopaholic and if chocolate is your passion, the best chocolateries can be found including Maison Georges Larnicol, Patrick Roger and Patrice Chapon. The window displays are stunning that anyone even considering dieting is advised to rush past with eyes averted.
There are so many favorite places in St Germain it is hard to choose just one. The rue Jacob with its desirable antique shops; the classic Place Furstenberg with the Delacroix museum accessed via a corner courtyard; rue Dauphine leading to Pont Neuf or my own favorite– which seems to distill the magic of St Germain in one eclectic and electric street– the rue de Buci.
Filled with cafés, bars, delicatessens, bookshops, bakeries, and the bright yellow Buci News on the corner, rue de Buci even boasts its own market. This little street is vibrant with life day and night: for lunch, diners enjoy mussels and oysters, their tables spilling onto the pavement; come nighttime, revellers sit on bar terraces until 4 in the morning. Indeed, rue de Buci has everything one imagines St Germain should be. It even has its own jazz band during the weekends playing on the corner where the street joins Rue Mazarine.
Multiplex cinemas, intimate cinemas, easy transport by metro and buses, within walking distance to Notre Dame, the Seine, Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre…
Is Saint Germain still the coolest quartier in Paris?
I have no doubt.
Lead photo credit : Easter process in rue de Buci. Photo: Marilyn Brouwer