FRANCE  |  Paris, France Travel Guide
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Saint-Germain des Prés

Saint-Germain des Prés

Saint-Germain des Prés is the "Cradle of Existentialism." This was once the quarter of men of letters and artists, of surrealists and existentialists, the quarter of jazz cellers filled with cigarette smoke and endless philosophical debates. Here the intellectuals of Paris, people like Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir met with artists such as Jacques Prévert, Boris Vian or Juliette Gréco.

The public is now a different one, but the renowned places have remained the same – for example, the Café de Flore in which Sartre sat the whole day and wrote, or the Café Deux Magots where today members of the international jet-set can be seen. The narrow romantic streets are full of memories and are a wonderful place just to stroll.

In the entire quarter there are beautiful and often unusual shops, which offer a wide and fascinating range of goods: first-class bookstores, boutiques selling eccentric or classic fashion, antique dealers, art galleries, graphics and print dealers, and at the crossing Rue de Buci Rue de la Seine, colorful market stalls. Saint-Germain is still one of the most attractive, dynamic and “typically Parisian” quarters of the capital of France.

Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés: The Abbey "in the Meadows"

In the center of Saint-Germain-des- Prés stands the oldest belfrey in France, a massive Romanesque structure, built around the year 1000. Itwas part of one of the largest abbeys in Paris, the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Not only the tower remains but also the early Gothic church, the interior of which is still Romanesque, and the abbot's palace (3 – 5 rue de l’Abbaye). As early as the 6th century the abbey was given its name, after the canonisation of the bishop Germanus who is buried here. Right into the 17th century the abbey lay outside the city limits "in the meadows," as the words "des Prés" indicate. The Palais Abbatial (abbot's palace) behind the church was constructed in the late 16th century. The brick work is framed with the lightcolored sandstone which is typical for Paris and the roof is made of shimmering blue slate.

In the immediate vicinity of the square in front of the church you will find the illustrious cafés, Café Deux Magots and Café de Flore as well as the classic restaurant Brasserie Lipp, where hearty specialties from Alsace are served. The cafés have, in the course of the years, in no way lost their aura as a rendezvous for intellectuals and nowadays – though overpriced – have become known as tourist attractions.

Musée Eugène Delacroix

Opposite the abbot's palace there is a specially idyllic spot: the circular Place de Furstemberg. This court of honor and the avenue leading from Rue Jacob, was laid out by the francophile Southern German prince, Egon Wilhelm Graf von Fürstenberg, who at the end of the 17th century was appointed by the Sun King Kouis XIV as abbot of Saint-Germaindes-Prés, in recognition of his loyalty to France. Where, in the shade of huge trees with blue flowers, fabric shops now offer their expensive wares, the coaches and horses of the abbey were once housed.

In a house at the end of the small, picturesque Rue de Furstemberg the painter Eugène Delacroix (died 1863) spent the last years of his life. Today this building is a museum, which admittedly has only a few paintings (and not the most famous ones) by the great French Romanticist, but does have numerous lithographies, sketches and designs by him, for example impressions of his journey in North Africa. In the tranquil garden is the studio, in which his last great works were created. Delacroix moved here in 1857, to be near the church of Saint-Sulpice, in which he was commissioned to paint an entire chapel.

Rue Jacob / Rue Saint-Benôit

Innumerable antique dealers and fabric shops, with a varied and interesting selection of goods give Rue Jacob its special flair. The street is an "in" place – not just with American tourists and not only since yesterday. For one hundred years predominantly culture and history buffs, visiting Paris from the New World, have been able to find accommodation in the Hôtel d'Angleterre just beyond Rue Bonaparte. Now, however, this old and worthy hotel has modern rivals, for example La Villa, a hotel in the luxury category and stylish down to the last detail, situated to the east of Rue Bonaparte (29 Rue Jacob).

Just around the corner in Rue Saint-Benôit is the traditional hub of the Parisian jazz scene. In Bilbouquet, which also has very good cuisine, the stars have been performing here for several decades. Every evening after 10:30 p.m. every corner of this little street is swinging, bringing to life again the 1950's, when Saint- Germain-des-Prés was the vibrant quarter of the French beat generation.

Rue Jacob ends at Rue des Saints- Pères, where the exclusive district of art galleries and antique dealers begins. There are now more than 120 shops located at the Carré Rive Gauche. In the shop windows you can see art and craftwork from almost all periods and countries.

Musée d'o;Orsay: Museum of the 19th Century

Whereas in the Louvre, on the other side of the Seine, painting from the time up to about 1860 is on display, approximately 6000 exhibits in the Musée d'Orsay, which was opened in 1986, date from the period between 1848 and 1914. The old train station, Gare d'Orsay has blossomed into a world-famous museum, where crowds come to see above all the extensive state-owned collection of Impressionist works for instance by Manet (Déjeuner sur l'herbe; 1863), van Gogh (Dr. Paul Gachet; 1890) and Renoir (Moulin de la Galette; 1876). All the significant movements of the fine arts of the 19th and 20th centuries, such as sculpture and photography are also represented here.

Institut de France: Seat of the Immortal

Past the exclusive shops of the Carrée Rive Gauche and, unfortunately, with the traffic noise from the wide quays in your ears, some few hundred meters farther you reach the École des Beaux Arts of the old Academy of Art of Paris, a complex with a mixture of old, modernized and new buildings.

The architecture of the Institut de France', built in 1667, is more interesting. In its chapels the assemblies of the forty so-called “Immortals,” the members of the Académie Française take place. Its purpose is to guard the purity of French language and culture. The dictionnaire which it publishes has for centuries determined which words belong to the French language and how they should be written. It is kept in the historic Bibliothèque Mazarin, the Institute’s library, one of the most beautiful in Paris.

In contrast to the exuberant Baroque architecture of the Institute, the Hôtel des Monnaies, the former mint, situated on the Quai de Conti and dating from the 1770's is an example of severely classical architecture. It is open to the public and has an interesting exhibition named Monnaie de Paris in which the history of money in France is documented.

Rue des Grands Augustins

Along the Seine – past the bouquinistes, the book-sellers on the quays – you come to Rue des Grands Augustins. In this old street where there was once a monastery, you can experience the peacefulness typical of the lanes in the quarter Saint-Germain-des-Prés. A plaque at the courtyard entry of house no. 5 indicates that Picasso once lived there: the Hôtel d’Hercule, an old 18thcentury residence of the nobility offered the artist enough space on the top floor for him to work and receive guests. One of his most famous works, Guernica, was created here. Picasso's partner of that time Dora Maar, lived around the corner and recorded the development of the apocalyptic work with her camera. Shortly after the masterpiece was completed, the passionate relationship between the two also ended.

The Rue des Grands Augustins also has a culinary highlight: the tea shop Mariages Frères – hundreds of kinds of tea, and spices from all over the world, in a cosy shop, decorated in an oldfashioned style. Upstairs there is also an elegant tea salon.

Cour du Commerce Saint-André

Rue des Grands Augustins then joins Rue Saint-André des Arts, the main tourist street of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, which leads into Place Saint-Michel. As in every district where tourists gather, there are the usual shops, snack restaurants and sales stands.

Towards the end of the street, shortly before the beginning of the bustling market street, Rue de Buci, there is a small, picturesque lane called Cour du Commerce Saint-André. It leads past tiny shops, cafés and the Catalonian Center to the main street of the district on the left bank of the Seine, the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The most influential journal of the French Revolution, Marat's Ami du Peuple was printed in the Cour du Commerce.

Many of the ideas published in Ami du Peuple were most probably worked out in discussions in the café next door, Procope, which opened in 1686 (now an elegant restaurant, entrance in Rue de l'Ancienne Comédie) and which was a meeting place of the Radicals.

Odéon: Theaters and Movie Theaters

Busy by day and night, the section of Boulevard Saint-Germain around the Métro station Odéon is dominated by some of the largest of the movie theaters which are typical of Paris. In the evening there are usually long lines, especially when there is a nouveauté (new movie) to be seen, possibly one which has won a prize in the festival at Cannes.

The Café Danton, which gets its name from the large statue on the traffic island opposite, commemorating the great revolutionary, is always well-filled. The atmosphere of the literary Saint-Germaindes-Prés has been at least partly retained here, not so much because of the guests who frequent it, but by the interior décor in the style of the 1960's. If you are not able to find a seat here, you can go around the corner to the Carrefour de l'Odéon to the Comptoir du Relais, a bistro with a sunny patio on the pavement, which serves simple dishes and a good selection of wines by the glass.

The pillars of the Théâtre de l'Odéon, from which the quarter gets its name, give it a majestic appearance. The theater was built at the end of the 18th century in the classical style. The state-owned theater company has a repertoire of mainly contemporary works. The interior can only be seen during performances.

Fans of architecture will find their mecca right beside the theater – in the bookstore Le Moniteur, which stocks just about everything in book form that has to do with building and buildings. Opposite this there is also an art bookstore.

Marché Saint-Germain

To the west of Odéon lay the center of the village, which grew up around the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. One important source of income for the abbey was the Marché Saint-Germain, founded in 1176. It was a permanent, covered food market, consisting of 140 small shops. You can shop today in the modernistically reconstructed market hall, which now however only takes up a small area on Rue Lobineau.


The church of Saint-Sulpice towers over Place Saint-Suplice, a square bordered by chestnut trees. It is one of the largest churches in Paris and the towers are conspicuous because they do not match; the south tower was never finished. Inside the large sanctuary it is worth taking a closer look at the two fonts in front of the pillars of the central aisle – they are made of genuine halves of giant clams, resting on daintily ornamented marble bases, with representations of all kinds of sea creatures.

The most interesting feature, however, is the first chapel on the south side. The Chapel of the Holy Angels is the last great work of the painter Eugène Delacroix. In 1861 he completed three murals on the walls and ceiling of the chapel. They can above all be regarded as the culmination of Delacroix' work because the painter has here united all genres. In The Fight Between Jacob and the Angel historical painting and still life are combined with landscape painting. Opposite this, in Driving Helidor out of the Temple, architectural features replace the landscape.

On the church square we reccommend trying the traditional Café de la Mairie. A detour towards Boulevard Raspail can also be recommended for those interested in fashion; in particular to the west of Saint-Suplice there are elegant fashion boutiques. Here you will find the designer shops of Sonia Rykiel, Givenchy and Kenzo, whereas the boutique of Yves Saint-Laurent is near the church.

Jardin du Luxembourg

The present-day Rue de Vaugirard marked the city limits to the south of Paris in the 17th century. Outside of this line, the Palais du Luxembourg was constructed, beginning in 1611. Marie de Medici, the widow of Henri IV, the French king who was murdered in 1610, commissioned Salomon de Brosse, one of the most important architects of the time, with the planning. Her palace was to resemble the Palazzo Pitti of Florence, in which Maria was born. Today the building houses the French Senate.

The park, Jardin du Luxembourg, (entrance at 15 rue Vaugirard), is now more important than the palace itself. From the central section of the palace there is still a wide view southwards to the tree-lined Avenue de l'Observatoire. Baudelaire, Verlaine and Rilke in their time admired the Baroque Fontaine de Médicis, between the plane trees. Seventy busts and statues of prominent French citizens now adorn the park.

Children can rent model sailing boats at the Grand Bassin and adults can relax and enjoy the sunshine using the metal chairs (free of charge) which are scattered throughout the park.

Last updated February 10, 2012
Posted in   France  |  Paris
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