Lost and regained in the Latin Quarter

By Siddharth Dasgupta
Lost and regained in the Latin Quarter
A QUIET GRANDEUR | Paris combines the best of both the worlds with its picturesque cityscape and a cosmopolitan centre (Pic courtesy - Siddharth Dasgupta)

Paris bohemian heart has many a treasure for the carefree traveller. But is any of this even relevant given the devastation that was wreaked upon the city so recently? Traveler and writer Siddharth Dasgupta seems to adamantly think so and here he curates a vivid selection of enriching experiences that offer an unabashed celebration of ‘Gay Paree’

Paris lies ravaged; Paris too shall rise. In the wake of all that occurred this past November, my mind is consumed by thoughts of a city abounding with lyrical flirtations, from no more than a few months ago. Amidst fleeting glimpses of familiarity on the television, it had dawned on me that perhaps the best way to remember, love and strengthen Paris is to celebrate everything that the capital itself cherishes with a deep passion.

All of these and the intangible romance that the city holds is perhaps never more keenly felt than when you’re in the laidback throes of the Latin Quarter. Spanning the 5th and some of the 6th Arrondissements, this fabled neighbourhood shimmers with legends of the past while charming its way through present-day Paris. From being a hunting-ground for authors of the Voltaire and Sartre vintage to being the Left Bank’s enduring intellectual centre, Quartier Latin has owned it all. There’s nothing more to be done save for throwing away those tour guides and getting lost.

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QUARTIER LATIN | Home to France's oldest university, La Sorbonne, this bohemian neighborhood owes its name to Latin being the then common language of students, who continue to throng it today (Pic courtesy-Siddharth Dasgupta)

QUARTIER LATIN | Home to France’s oldest university, La Sorbonne, this bohemian neighborhood owes its name to Latin being the then common language of students, who continue to throng it today (Pic courtesy – Siddharth Dasgupta)

A BISTRO & CAFÉ AFFAIR: You can’t walk a couple of steps in the Latin Quarter without bumping into a stylish café or a bistro brimming with character. For the cream of the crop, save the Quarter’s two never-ending, bisecting avenues – Boulevard Saint-Michel and Boulevard Saint-Germain – for later, and duck into the hundreds of arterial alleyways flowing out from them. Give the tourist-clogged rue de la Huchette a wide berth and let your instincts guide you toward something a touch more special. Eric Kayser (14 rue Monge) delivers note-perfect coffee, croissants, pastries, and al fresco bar-stool seating, and is your window into a decidedly Parisian way of life. For an all-in-one affair, Place St. André des Arts (right next to Place Saint-Michel) is a sheltered enclave filled with bistros where time and tide appear to have frozen in the wake of centuries-old stories and Quartier Latin’s Roman aesthetic.

LES BOUQUINISTES AND THE SEINE: Snug in its address on Paris’ fabled Left Bank, Quartier Latin always gives you the impression that the Seine is no more than a whisper away. Which is about right. Quai de la Tournelles runs along the Seine, bringing with it Les Bouquinistes – the riverside booksellers who line up every day from around 10 in the morning and bring with them a treat of secondhand books, rare French editions, original scribbles and paintings, posters, curios, and an inescapable roguish charm. This quintessential experience demands that you take your time as you amble along from stall to stall along the quays beginning from Pont Marie, open Parisian skies at your disposal.

 GASTRONOMISTS' DELIGHT | Dotted with cheerful cafés, bars, and shops, The Latin Quarters spoils one with choices of delectable bistro fare(Pic courtesy-Siddharth Dasgupta)

GASTRONOMISTS’ DELIGHT | Dotted with cheerful cafés, bars, and shops, The Latin Quarters spoils one with choices of delectable bistro fare      (Pic courtesy – Siddharth Dasgupta)

FOOD, LEGENDARY FOOD: In this neighbourhood, every great meal is aromatic of the past. And across one holy trifecta of unforgettable brasseries, you’re reminded just why. At Les Deux Magots (6 Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés), ghosts of Hemingway, Picasso and James Joyce mingle carelessly over sumptuous wild burgundy snails and roasted duck with figs. Literally a skip away meanwhile, the fashionable Café de Flore (172 Boulevard Saint-Germain) counts de Beauvoir and Sartre as its lingering patrons, best savoured over duck confit and French champagne. Hop across the road, and Brasserie Lipp (151 Boulevard Saint-Germain) brings you a sophisticated peek into conversations that Chagall and Camus might once have engaged in over traditional French roasts and soufflés. Finally, walk into 1686 and Paris’ oldest restaurant for dinner at Le Procope (13 Rue de l’Ancienne Comédie), a stunning remnant of old-world charm. [Tip: If looking for a romantic dinner for two, then look no further than the vaulted basement dining-rooms of the charming Parisian bistro with a changing ‘adroise’ menu, Le Réminet, located across from Notre Dame and just down the street from Saint-Michel. AmEx cardmembers can call to book and avail 20% off on the food bill here].

CHEESE AND CHOCOLATE HUNTING: This is Paris, and indulgence is a virtue no less. It feels at times that there are more fromageries and boulangeries than people in this area, so choose wisely. For cheeses, Rue Mouffetard is the only street you need. While Androuet (androuet.com) offers up a gorgeous selection including Bethmale du chèvre and Le Bambois, it’s Mouffetard’s blissful al freso Sunday market that gives you a large selection of charcuterie, runny cheeses, and an experience worth savouring. Also, Laurent Dubois (www.fromageslaurentdubois.fr) brings you treasures such as the Camembert stuffed with Calvodos-soaked apples, but make sure you’re loaded with Euros! To sate your sweet tooth, Marie-Hélène Gantois’ Mococha (89 rue Mouffetard) packs flavours from three master chocolatiers.

TRYST WITH TREATS | Biting into legend and intrigue at the crémerie-restaurant Polidor, a historic establishment serving authentic recipes (Pic courtesy-Siddharth Dasgupta)

TRYST WITH TREATS | Biting into legend and intrigue at the crémerie-restaurant Polidor, a historic establishment serving authentic recipes (Pic courtesy – Siddharth Dasgupta)

SPIRITED ESCAPADES: Given the heady vibe and the large student presence, it’s but natural that the Quarter would be overflowing with bars and wine shops. Its throbbing heart lies in the quadrant between La Sorbonne and the Panthèon, with a celebratory atmosphere pervading rue de la Montagne-Sainte-Geneviève, rue Mouffetard, and the crowded, student-heavy terraces on place de la Contrescarpe. Rock up at Bar Tabac (7 place de la Sorbonne) for its sun-kissed terrace and a 19th Century spirit; la Closerie des Lilas (171 Boulevard du Montparnasse) is your address for classic cocktails and a piano-bar setting with memories of Trotsky, Picasso and Hemingway floating around; dalliances and drinks mingle well at the candlelit, jazz-infused Le Petit Café (6 rue Descartes); but if it’s rock that your heart craves, Le Piano Vache (8 rue Leplace) throbs with a wild heart and loud hedonists; leaving you with Le Bistrot des Artistes (6 rue de Anglais) for an exuberant collage of Afro-Cuban sounds and the best mojitos in all of Paris.

BONJOUR SHAKESPEARE: I’ve saved the best for last. Lying all raggedy and romantic on the cobblestoned half-road that is rue de la Bûcherie, Shakespeare & Company welcomes the free-spirited soul with a wealth of second-hand editions, rare books, French classics in English, and an abundance of folklores. This is, in my rather biased opinion, the most charming little bookstore in the world. As ghosts of the Lost Generation and oft-repeated stories of Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Generation mingle through the ceiling-high bookshelves, an intellectual clientele, an air of poignancy, and that fabled green and yellow visage, life and literature appear as willing bedfellows in an enduring love affair.

LITERARY LOVE | Once the haunt of luminaries like Voltaire, Rousseau and Verlaine, this legendary independent bookstore is a treasure trove for the bibliophile (Pic courtesy-Siddharth Dasgupta)

LITERARY LOVE | Once the haunt of luminaries like Voltaire, Rousseau and Verlaine, this legendary independent bookstore is a treasure trove for the bibliophile (Pic courtesy – Siddharth Dasgupta)

Later, having a glass of deep red on a houseboat flanking the Seine, I reflect on Quartier Latin with fondness. I’ve spent quality time with legendary sidewalk cafés, I’ve immersed myself in the intellectual ambience pervading these spaces, I’ve waded through atmospheric bookshops; I’ve dived headfirst into all the bohemian lure on offer, and I’ve flirted with a romance that could only ever be Parisian. A few months hence, I still know with surging certainty that the devastation is but temporary. For this is a city that revels in its identity and rises on the wings of its audacious beauty. I remember that as I’d taken that last sip by the Seine, I was certain that the phrase I was going to leave Paris with wasn’t “Adieu” but “Au Revoir’. Switch to now, and it’s a thought that rings true with even deeper conviction.

Siddharth Dasgupta is an Indian novelist who also articulates travel for the likes of Conde Nast Traveller and Travel+Leisure.