x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Off-centre on the Left Bank

St-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter, the embodiments of the intellectual, artistic and rebellious Paris of film and literature, are the home today of flea markets, elegant shops and cafes, and make an ideal base for exploring this famous city.

The Sacré Coeur basilica of Montmartre, one of the busiest tourist areas in the French capital.
The Sacré Coeur basilica of Montmartre, one of the busiest tourist areas in the French capital.

St-Germain-des-Prés and the Latin Quarter, the embodiments of the intellectual, artistic and rebellious Paris of film and literature, are the home today of flea markets, elegant shops and cafes, and make an ideal base for exploring this famous city, says Justin Cartwright You are more likely to see tourists at the Cafe Flore than a Sartre, and Boulevard St Germain is plastered with expensive designer names, but St-Germain-des-Prés this is still the Paris of youth. It's the home of the Sorbonne, the Académie Française, the Odéon Theatre (once the Comédie Française), the Beaux Arts, France's most famous school of art, and any number of academic and fine-art publishing houses. Alongside the great academic edifices of cloisters, corridors, echoing lecture rooms, with their galleries of classical statues and their busts of les immortels, there are still the evocative medieval streets, the small cinemas, the antiquarian bookshops, the art galleries and student hangouts that create a distinct and closed university atmosphere, an aura as tangible as the cigarette smoke that used to hang thickly over the brasseries and cafes, of earlier, fabled existentialist days.

My wife and I are staying in a tiny flat in a narrow street near the vast church of St Sulpice in St-Germain-des-Prés; we buy our bread at Paul and take morning coffee in the Jardin du Luxembourg, which is just at the end of our street, have a drink most evenings on the piazza outside the Odéon, shop at St Germain market, dine in old-fashioned restaurants and go to the cinema to see classic films. On Sunday we buy our lunch at the vast weekly organic outdoor market in Boulevard Raspail. It's an astonishing sight; as de Gaulle said, how do you govern a country with two hundred and forty-six cheeses? We also browse a few of the hundreds of galleries and antique dealers and elegant little shops in Rue Jacob and visit museums daily, although a lifetime would not be enough to see every fine painting that Paris has to offer. This sense of wallowing in French civilisation is sheer bliss.

Most of the more obvious parts of Paris are in easy walking range of St Germain. We have wandered as far as the Jardin des Plantes down the Seine in one direction and up to the Musée d'Orsay in the other. There is a famous statue of a lion eating a human in the Jardin de Plantes - look out for the victim's feet which are clearly going to be the second course - and there is also a very quaint menagerie, once the royal animal collection. The most beautiful animal there, looking understandably restless in a small enclosure, is the snow leopard. I love this kind of unexpected corner in cities, which are, after all, the end product of very human aspirations and strivings; great cities have a character and a life that makes them unique.

One day we crossed the river to the Ile de la Cité and walked all the way to the Marais, via the enchanting plant, pet and bird shops on the Quai de l'Hôtel de Ville. I wasn't really familiar with the Marais but it has become one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in Paris; its hub is the Place des Vosges, a perfect and unspoilt 17th-century square, commissioned in 1605 by Henri IV, and wonderfully elegant, without any of the overbearing Bourbon style of later centuries. One of the loveliest tea shops I have ever encountered, Dammann Frères, is at No 15; it is an exercise in style. There is something deeply appealing about the importance Parisians place on the exquisite, from the way they display food to the deep attachment they have for small cinemas, indeed everything that makes cities liveable. I think it springs from their love of the good things in life and their sense that what we have indisputably is the here and now.

We don't walk absolutely everywhere: at the beginning we bought five-day passes for unlimited travel on the buses, the Metro, and the RER, another commuter rail line, and a museum pass, which is a good value and allows you to go straight into crowded museums like the d'Orsay. Another breeze is the taxi-boat: for a relatively modest sum you can go up and down the river hopping off and rejoining wherever you like, seeing all the principal sites along the way. If you are travelling by Eurostar you can get the Metro pass and the museum pass in advance. Many museums are closed on Mondays, and some on Tuesdays, so do your research before you buy the pass or else aim to start on a Wednesday. Velib - Velo Libre, that is, meaning "free cycle" - is a terrific initiative, and every 300m throughout Paris you will find the distinctive bikes attached to terminals. Just feed in your credit card, a deposit is authorised, but not taken, and off you go. The first half-hour is free, and after that it is US$1.50 (Dh5.5) per hour for the first hour, $4 (Dh11) for the second hour $6 (Dh22) per hour for the third hour and every additional hour thereafter. You can return the bike by attaching it to a terminal in any one of the hundreds of locations. The system seems to be working well, although there are rumours of the distinctive bikes turning up on eBay. Velib is an absolutely great option on a fine day and increasingly used for convenience by Parisians.

We have felt a tremendous pressure to see as much art as we can: the Louvre is a life's work on its own; last week we crossed the river on the Pont des Beaux Arts and spent a day there, but we hardly scratched the surface. (The Mona Lisa is very small, by the way and comes with crowds of tourists.) Not far from the Louvre, Monet's late, great water-lily panoramas are housed in two huge rooms at the Musée de l'Orangerie at the Place de La Concorde end of the Tuileries. You have the sense that you are surrounded by his garden. Movingly, these huge canvases were done partly from memory, as Monet was going blind when he painted them. The Musée d'Orsay on the other side of the river is a little cluttered, but since the hanging of the wonderful impressionist paintings, formerly in the Jeu de Paume - by all the great names from Renoir to Cézanne - it has become a far more interesting place. The view across the Seine of Montmartre from the cafe terrace is astounding.

From our base in St Germain we range far and wide - to Cimetiere du Père Lachaise to see the graves of Chopin, Edith Piaf, Simone Signoret, Jim Morrison, Baudelaire, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Brancusi and Serge Gainsbourg among many others. I wonder what we are expecting from these graves; what we get is a study of changing fashions in tombs. Jim Morrison's grave is tucked away, but there are always herbal tributes placed on it by fans, usually rather vacant looking Germans and Americans. His parents, apparently, didn't want his remains sent home. Still it is tranquil and atmospheric place to end up. Father Lachaise is not himself buried here: the cemetery was built on his land.

One day we visit Montmartre - woefully inundated by tourists, the streets are full of tat, but still surprisingly charming, with its evocative little museum that looks north over Paris's last vineyard. We go to a marionette show in Luxembourg Gardens to see the statues of the Emperor and the Nightingale. We watch children sail old-fashioned boats on the round pond, and once we go out to the Bois de Boulogne and cross on a small ferry for lunch at the Chalet des Îles. By the end of the first week I feel strangely optimistic and reassured, because Paris, for all its changes, is still one of the most life affirming cities on earth. travel@thenational.ae