Paris The Left Bank - Boulevard Saint Germain
You can buy entire books and guides telling you where to walk in the city, but, really, there is little need to look beyond all three and a half kilometres of the Boulevard Saint-Germain. From its beginnings at the Pont de la Concorde and the Assemblée Nationale all the way to the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Pont de Sully leading to the Bastille, the Boulevard Saint-Germain is the backbone of the Left Bank that joins together the dots of a million lives and destinies, past, present and no doubt future. Like many of Baron Haussmann’s initiatives, the establishment of the Boulevard in the 1850’s necessitated the bulldozing of buildings, including the prison of the Abbaye Saint-Germain, previously located at #168. Today the boulevard is a gleaming showcase of commerce, mixed with the vestiges of 1950s café philosophising and the remnants of a medieval past in the church that gave the road and surrounding area its name. To take it all in, then, from start to finish, walk across from the Place de la Concorde with the Assemblée Nationale on your right. The boulevard is unassumingly quiet here and overshadowed by the large chestnut trees on either side. Comprised of two hôtels particuliers, the Maison de l’Amérique Latine is worth a look at #217 on the right-hand side and home to small temporary exhibitions from time to time. The interior gardens are a refreshing contrast to the asphalt tunnel feeling that the boulevard can sometimes conjure up outside. One easy way to do this is to reserve a table at the restaurant, which has a large outside terrace when the weather is good. There is no shortage of specialty stores along the road starting at the intersection with the Boulevard Raspail. Take Alexandra Sojfer at #218, for example, who continues a tradition of umbrella shops at this address since 1834. As you approach the Église Saint-Germain-des-Près, you have on the left hand side of the road your choice of places to see and be seen in. Le Rouquet at #188 is perhaps the most modest of them all. Run by the same family for the past 70 years, the bar layout and neon lighting déco has hardly changed in all that time and as a result Le Rouquet has retained an unpretentious air of the past; the food has declined, however, so maybe best stick to the beer, or a café en terrasse. The luminary Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots have had so much written about them there is hardly anything to add, but suffice to say the cafés were popular with the Existentialists and consumed much of their stipends. The area is now synonymous with the writers as the city councillors recently decided to re-christen the area opposite the Église Saint Germain-des-Près as Place Jean-Paul Sartre et Simone de Beauvoir. The cafés remain phenomenally busy today, and in springtime, the seats outside are still the best place in the city to soak up whatever sun may be going, regardless of who may be sitting next to you. There is a great French bookstore called L’Écume des Pages at #177 who have a fine collection of postcards outside for anyone who is still sending them these days. One restaurant worth stopping into at this juncture, if you are too lazy to stray much further, is Brasserie Vagenende at #142, a legendary boullion of times past which has had its Belle Époque decor restored. Keep walking along the boulevard and after many more shops and restaurants you will come to the Place Henri Mondor, still a popular meeting place at the statue of Danton, where the escalators from the Métro below spill commuters and tourists alike onto the pavement. It is busy here, with streets from the Seine to the north, and to the south up to the Théatre de L’Odéon and several pedestrian crossings all intersecting.
It stays busy all the way down to the crossing with the Boulevard Saint-Michel with the Roman ruins of Cluny on your right, and then onto the intersection with the Rue Saint-Jacques, the original route from Paris to the Camino de Santiago. Continue straight on to the Place Maubert where a few times a week there is a great outdoor market surrounded by specialty food shops. (At this juncture, it is worth straying slightly off the boulevard up the Rue Monge to the Mutualité, and the very traditional Église Saint-Nicholas du Chardonnet just beside it. Take a seat just opposite at the low-key Le Palais café at #16 Rue Monge where they are always delighted to get visitors. Listen to the church bells peal and observe the mass-goers and visitors to the Mutualité conference centre). Back on the boulevard the human waves begin to subside as the tree-lined sidewalks return to the cavernous tunnel just as it started. There are plenty of nice restaurants at this less visited end. Keep going to the end until you reach the Institut du Monde Arabe and reward yourselves with a visit to the top floor of this architectural feature where an authentic thé à la menthe, poured from on high, awaits. For the really curious, a good approach would be to walk the entire length of the Boulevard on the left hand side starting from the Pont de la Concorde, have your thé à la menthe, and then walk back on the other side of the road. You could probably repeat this every day and still see something new (and definitely someone new) on each occasion.