M° St-Michel, Cluny-Sorbonne, Maubert-Mutualité, Cardinal Lemoine, Jussieu, Place Monge, Censier-Daubenton, Luxembourg
Extending over much of the 5th arrondissement, today’s Latin Quarter remains the center of the city’s university life, full of book shops, literary cafés, art house cinemas and perhaps one too many Greek restaurants. It’s also a quarter thick with reminders of its past, from the Roman baths ruins to Medieval churches and 18th-century gardens. Harder for visitors to image is the Latin Quarter’s long track record of political unrest and rebellion, but these narrow streets saw some of the worst fighting of the Paris Commune in 1871, violent clashes between Resistance fighters and German police in 1944, and the infamous barricades of the May 1968 student uprising.
This isn’t the Barrio
Most historians believe the term Latin Quarter came from the common language spoken by the neighborhood’s clergy and theological students up until the 1792 Revolution. Others say it was named for the neighborhood’s first inhabitants, the Romans. It’s definitely not short for “Latino”.
Begin at the perpetually crowded Place St-Michel, with its dramatic fountain and bronze statue, Saint Michael Slaying the Dragon. Walk a short way up the Latin Quarter’s main artery, the Boulevard St-Michel (or Boul’ Mich, as the students call it), to the Musée National du Moyen Age: Thermes & Hôtel de Cluny (6 Place Paul-Painlevé, 5th M° Cluny-La Sorbonne Tel 01 53 73 78 00). This Medieval museum is set within the well-preserved 15th-century Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny, a former Parisian residence for the abbots of Cluny. The outer walls protect the excavated 2nd-century Gallo-Roman baths, with three mosaic-tiled rooms, the largest used today for medieval music concerts. Founded in 1843, the museum highlights the arts and culture of the Middle Ages, and includes stained glass, altarpieces, ironwork, ceramics, stone and wood carvings, Gothic ivories, embroidery, and the famous Unicorn Tapestries. The mornings are least crowded. Open daily (except Tuesday) 9:15am-5:45pm. Entry €5.50, €4 for visitors 18-25, free for kids under 18 and everyone the first Sunday of month. Museum Pass accepted. There are English tours (90 minutes) on Saturdays at 11:30am and Sundays at 10am (except on certain holidays, call to confirm). Tours cost €6 + entry to museum (under 18 just €4.50).
The medieval-inspired museum gardens were redone in 2000, divided into different sections representing a unicorn forest, medicinal herb garden, and a prairie. There’s also a playground and plenty of good benches for picnicking. Open daily 9am-5:30pm in winter, and 9am-9:30pm in summer. Free entry.
Loop back into the maze of narrow streets off the old Gallo-Romain routes known today as Rue de la Harpe. Off the Rue de la Parcheminerie, where medieval scribes used to work, is the Eglise St-Séverin-St-Nicolas (Rue de Prêtres-St-Séverin), with a 13th-century façade and Flamboyant Gothic interior completed in 1530. After crossing the Rue St-Jacques to Rue Galande, take a last look back at the church for a great photo op.
Behind the tiny 13th-century Eglise St-Julien-le-Pauvre (a Melkite church since 1889) is the Square René-Viviani. Here stands, with the aide of two cement pillars, the oldest tree in Paris supposedly planted in 1602 (although most experts believe it was actually closer to 1680). Covered in creeping vines, this tree managed to survive having its top lopped off by a shell in WWI as well as the the devastating storm of December 1999. The bronze sculpture in the center of the square was added in 1995 as a tribute to the Saint Julien le Hospitaller, one of three patron saints (all named Julien) of the church.
Explore the tiny streets of Rue de la Bucherie and Rue F. Sauton to the Place Maubert. This square was a place of public teaching in the 13th century. The invention of classrooms ended this, and in the 16th century it became a place of public executions. Today its most exciting event is the outdoor market (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings). Across the street is the narrow Rue de Bièvre, named for the tributary from the Seine that used to flow openly through the Latin Quarter. Polluted by the tanneries and butchers of Rue Mouffetard, it was finally covered over in the 19th century. The former president François Mitterrand used to live at #22.
Continue onto the Quai de la Tournelle for a photogenic view of Notre-Dame. Follow the quay to the modern glass and steel building of the Institute du Monde Arabe (Place Mohamed V, 1 Rue des Fosses St-Bernard, 5th M° Jussieu Tel 01 40 51 38 38), a museum dedicated to Arab-Islamic arts and history. Designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, the building’s south façade is covered in 1,600 panels resembling photographic lenses that open and close to regulate the sunlight. Check out the free views over Paris from the 9th-floor terrace of Le Ziryab, the museum’s North African restaurant and tearoom. The museum is open Tuesday-Sunday 10am-6pm. Entry €4 (free for kids under 18). Museum Pass accepted.
That ugly, hulking building behind the museum is the University of Paris’ Jussieu campus. Hastily constructed in the 1960s to accommodate the exploding Baby Boomer population, it remains an eyesore despite several renovations. Leave all that behind with a detour through the modern sculpture gardens of the Square Tino Rossi to the Jardin des Plantes (entrance Quai St-Bernard or Rue Geoffroy-St-Hilaire, 5th M° Jussieu or Monge). Founded in 1626 as the king’s medicinal garden, it became one of the foremost scientific botanical gardens in the world by the mid-1700s. Today the Jardin des Plantes has over 350 varieties of roses, an alpine garden, tropical and arid greenhouses (open afternoons only, entry €2.50), and winding paths through pines and oaks favored by joggers. The park’s Ménagerie, one of the world’s oldest zoos (open daily 9am-5pm, entry €6, €3.50 for kids 4-16), has a monkey house, kid’s petting farm, lions, and a somewhat sad bear pit. In one grim episode of the 1870 Paris siege, starving Parisians were forced to kill the animals for food.
The 19th-century buildings of the National Museum of Natural History serve as an elegant backdrop to the gardens. The Grande Galerie de l’Evolution (36 Rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 5th M° Jussieu Tel 01 40 79 30 00) is the most impressive, both for its well-presented educational content on the evolution of the natural world and its theatrical Jules Verne decor. The 1994 renovations modernized the museum with a completely open floor plan and interactive computer exhibits while preserving the original wrought iron and glass ceiling, wooden floors and stone walls. The low lighting and life-size animal reproductions from insects and birds to lions and even a prehistoric whale fossil suspended from the ceiling give the place a magical energy. Start at the top floor where you can get the best view of the museum’s architecture, and don’t miss the extinct and endangered species gallery on the second floor. Almost everything is in French, but there are English text sheets around the museum in the wooden boxes labeled “Fiches de Lecture”. One exhibit features a tigress attacking the carrier basket on an elephant. In 1887 the Duke of Orléans was on safari riding in that basket when the tigress attacked, and got away only because the basket broke under the animal’s weight. It was then hunted down, shot, and brought it back to Paris to be stuffed (and later donated to the museum). Make what you want of that evolutionary lesson. If dinosaur fossils are more along your tastes, the Galeries de Paléontologie & Anatomie Comparée exhibit mammoths, Louis XV’s rhinoceros, dinosaurs and austral whales. Open daily except Tuesday, 10am-6pm. Entry €7, €5 for students under 26, free for kids under 4.
Just outside the park gates is the Alhambra-inspired Mosquée de Paris (2bis Place du Puits de l’Ermite, 5th M° Jussieu Tel 01 45 35 97 33). Built in 1922 around a series of garden courtyards, the mosque features a 108ft minaret and Muslim cultural center. Open for visits daily except Friday, 9am-noon and 2pm-6pm. The Mosquée’s elaborately decorated tearoom (entrance at 39 Rue Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire, 5th Tel 01 43 31 38 20) is a pleasant place to stop for mint tea and North African pastries (open daily 9am-11pm). Try and avoid the crowded weekend afternoons.
Just across the Rue Lacépède are the Arènes de Lutèce (Rue de Navarre, 5th M° Jussieu). Built in the 1st century, this Roman amphitheatre once accommodated up to 15,000 spectators (significantly smaller than the ones in Arles and Nîmes). Discovered during road construction in 1869, les Arènes escaped complete demolition thanks to persistent lobbying by Victor Hugo. Today it’s primarily used as a boules court, a kids’ soccer field, and a popular picnic spot.
Crossing Rue Monge, continue up the stairs of Rue Rollin to the Place de la Contrescarpe, a lively square surrounded by cafés with perfect people-watching terraces. To the left is the beginning of the animated market street Rue Mouffetard, a long, winding street that used to be the main road between Lutèce and Rome. Its village atmosphere described in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast (he lived around the corner at #74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine) has hardly changed over the years, save for perhaps the proliferation of crêpe stands and…more Greek restaurants. The top of the street is dominated by bars (especially around the Rue du Pot de Fer), packed with students after dark. The open market stalls towards the bottom of the street are open Tuesday through Sunday morning (closed at lunch), often to the joyful accompaniment of street musicians on the weekends.
As one of the oldest streets in Paris, the Rue Mouffetard figures in many historic anecdotes. One particularly bizarre episode took place in 1732 at the Eglise St-Médard (#141) when the grave of a beloved Jansenist minister in the church cemetery became associated with miraculous cures. It became the site of massive hysteria as sick Jansenists came to eat the dirt, causing Louis XV to close the cemetery with a sign that read, “By decree of the King, no miracles of God may be performed here”.
Enjoy an impromptu picnic in the small church garden, or take time to explore the tiny side streets such as the Rue de Arbelète. Cut back up the hill via Rue Lhomond and Rue Tournefort. At the corner of the Rue de l’Estrapade you should be able to see the dome of the Panthéon (Place du Panthéon, 5th M° Cardinal Lemoine or RER Luxembourg Tel 01 44 32 18 00). Originally commissioned by Louis XV in 1744 as a basilica to replace the ruined Abbey Ste-Geneviève, the Panthéon was only finished in 1789 due to funding problems. Two years later the Revolutionary assembly declared it a “Panthéon for great men who died in the period of French liberty”, including Rousseau and Voltaire. Over the years it was changed again into a church, then the HQ of the Paris Commune, then finally back to a mausoleum when it received the ashes of Victor Hugo in 1885. Other honored residents include Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Jean Moulin, Marie Curie and Alexander Dumas. Designed by the architect Soufflot, the Panthéon is considered a masterpiece, although the inside is a bit cold and the crypt is downright creepy. Open daily 10am-6pm, entry €7, €4.50 for visitors 18-25, free for kids under 18. Museum Pass accepted.
Next door is the Eglise St-Etienne-du-Mont (Place St-Geneviève), home to the shrine of Saint Geneviève (the patron saint of Paris) and the city’s only surviving roodscreen (a sort of carved stone bridge from which sermons were given in the 15th and 16th centuries).
The Latin Quarter’s oldest schools can be found in the maze of streets below. Continue down the Rue de la Montaigne Ste-Geneviève, left at the Rue de l’Ecole Polytechnique, and straight through the pedestrian-only Rue Lanneau to the Place Marcellin-Berthelot. The unique Collège de France (#11) was created by King François I in 1530 to teach secular subjects ignored by the Sorbonne (such as Greek, Hebrew, philosophy and mathematics). To this day, all classes are free and open to the general public. Cross the Rue St-Jacques and walk around the Université de Paris IV to the Place de la Sorbonne, the heart of La Sorbonne. Most of the school was rebuilt in the 19th century, with the exception of the 17th-century Chapelle de la Sorbonne, with its trademark dome. Have a peek in to see the regular arts and scholarly exhibitions (open Tuesday-Sunday, 1pm-7pm, free entry). End your exploration of the Latin Quarter with a coffee in one of the cafés overlooking the busy square of students, professors, and ever-present street performers.
The History of the Sorbonne
Created in 1215 with the blessing of Pope Innocent III, the Sorbonne became a prestigious center of western theological study. Over the next seven centuries its role changed many times as the institution evolved. For example, the Sorbonne was originally against any scientific advancement (even denouncing Réné Descartes), and sided with English and Burgundians in the hundred Years’ War, sending their most imminent scholar to Rouen to prosecute Joan of Arc. The biggest change to the institution came after the Revolution, when the Sorbonne’s religious affiliation was dissolved, and it became the seat of centralized, State-run education. After the events of May 1968, the Université de Paris was divided up into 13 independent universities, with the Sorbonne’s buildings used by the Université de Paris III and IV. It remains the symbolic heart of the university.