Saint Germain was once the epitome of Left Bank intellectual chic, playing host to the ruminations of Jean-Paul Sartre and his acolytes. These days of course, it’s more luxury than literary, and the expensive cafés are no place for starving writers.
Welcome to the most expensive and sought-after district of Paris!
St Germain essentially covers most of Paris’ 6th district. Situated on the left bank, is it bordered to the north by the Seine, to the south by the Luxembourg gardens, to the west by the Latin Quarter (5th) and to the east by Invalides (7th).
The village-like atmosphere of Saint Germain is home to prime fashion boutiques, bistros, restaurants and galleries. The centre of gravity of the area is the Eglise St-Germain-des-Prés (church) that marks the intersection of rue Bonaparte and boulevard Saint Germain. This is the location of the 3 symbolic establishments that are the Café Les Deux Magots, the Café de Flore and the Brasserie Lipp.
The majestic Luxembourg gardens that mark the south of Saint Germain is no doubt the most beautiful park in Paris with gorgeous trees, green lawns and French-style flowers beds around a pond where children play with small sailing boats.
Now for some insider secrets!
- Origin of the name:
Saint Germain is named after the eponymous church that was commissioned by Saint Germain, Bishop of Paris. Originally, the area was called “Faubourg (suburb) Saint Germain”, due to it being on the outskirts of the oldest part of Paris, the Marais. Times change, as the old faubourg is now one of the most central parts of Paris!
Incidentally, this is the oldest church in Paris and was originally erected in 542 (how many capitals have buildings dating back to 3-figure years?) to house holy relics. During the Revolution, the church was burned and was subsequently rebuilt in the 19th century (the philosopher-mathematician René Descartes is buried there).
At this time, the “Faubourg” was dropped and the name became “St-Germain-des-Prés”, the extension “des-Prés” (literally, “of the fields”) referring to the proximity of the area once called Prés-aux-Clercs, to distinguish it from Saint-Germain-le-Vieux. In practise, people simply use the shorthand “Saint Germain”.
- The world famous cafés:
Saint Germain is home to Paris’ two most famous cafés, the Deux Magots and the Flore, almost side by side, by the church. The two dispute which 1930’s surrealist artists and which 1940’s existentialist philosophers frequented their tables. No matter, both are (much) more expensive than your average café and you should realise that you’re paying for the history and the location rather than exquisite tastes or service…
Les Deux Magots means the Two Magots: a strange name indeed, inherited from the name of oddments store that used to occupy the spot, and refers to a name given to two statues that have been retained inside and have become the establishment figureheads.
- What’s with the graffiti?
At #5 rue de Verneuil, near in intersection with rue Bonaparte, you might have seen a house covered in Bronx-like graffiti, while all the surrounding buildings are impeccable. Curious, to say the least…
Have you heard of Serge Gainsbourg? The late French musician (first husband of Jane Birkin) was a huge celebrity in his home country. His home is located on rue de Verneuil, and since he passed away in 1991 the exterior has become a place where fans come to celebrate his greatness, hence the graffiti. Although the neighbours once tried to paint over the ‘mess’ it was quickly restored by Serge fanatics and daughter Charlotte has apparently been trying to turn the home into a museum as everything remains intact as it was the day he died.
- Don’t lose your head!
It was supposedly at #9, Cour du Commerce St-André where Dr. Guillotin perfected the decapitating machine he put his name on. A chilling reminder of the long history of Paris.
- Is French language in trouble?
Since 1805, the building at 23 Quai de Conti has been the location where the 40 members of the Académie Française have worked on the official dictionary of the French language.
I’d imagine they’re probably working overtime right now, reluctantly (they’re a somewhat stuffy bunch) integrating more and more English words into accepted French usage (jogging, shopping, week-end, thriller, design, prime time, best of…). Hey, that’s no excuse not to speak a little French to the Parisians you meet, ok? 😉
- Celebrity snippets:
I don’t have much to say about Brangelina I’m afraid, other than they once rented a short-term penthouse apartment in St Germain that had a retractable roof (the only “convertible apartment” I’ve ever heard of!).
Instead, my celebrity snippets concern somewhat older historic figures.
Picasso finishes “Guernica” in his atelier at 7 rue des Saints Augustins, where his friend Man Ray often came to visit him.
The Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), where many well-known French politicians including Jacques Chirac once studied, was located at 13 rue de l’Université. During the Revolution, the location was used as an ammunitions depot.
Following World War II, St Germain was very much the intellectual centre of Paris. This was the period when philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, writer Simone de Beauvoir, actress and singer Juliette Greco and author Albert Camus ‘existentialized’ at the Deux Magot, the Café de Flore and the Brasserie Lipp.
François Mitterand, French president from 1981 to 1995, had a town house near the crossing of boulevard Saint Germain and rue de Bièvre.
What’s more, his favorite eatery was Brasserie Lipp, which is located on Boulevard Saint Germain just opposite the Café Deux Magots and has been part of the Saint Germain scene since 1880.
The day of the death of President Pompidou (who commissioned the famous modern art museum building that he gave his name to) in 1974, Mitterrand was having lunch at the Brasserie when he heard the news. He was seen to suddenly get up and run off, tailed by the waiter and the bill. Mitterrand turned around and firmly stated: “You will send it to me at the Elysée (presidential Palace)”, so confident he was to be elected at the upcoming election (turned out he wasn’t, having to wait until 1981).
Brasserie Lipp is a mainstay of the area and owes its fabled reputation to its long-standing traditions. The menu hasn’t changed in 40 years and the waiters have all been there for many years, in order to maintain close bonds with the patrons (curiously, “patron” means customer in English but boss in French).
Today, the Lipp myth is upheld by a distinguishes clientele of politicians, nobility, journalists and celebrities.
Opposite Lipp and beside Les Deux Magots is one of St Germain’s bigger bookstores, which attracted the likes of T.S. Eliot, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound, as well as their French counterparts André Gide and Paul Valéry.
The rue du Dragon is a short street running from boulevard St Germain towards the Bon Marché department store. Most of the buildings date back to the middle ages and Victor Hugo lived at #30.
Le Procope, the world’s first coffeehouse, founded in 1686, is situated at 13 rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie – just a few blocks west of the cafés. It is no longer a coffee house, but rather an elegant restaurant. Supposedly Voltaire would drink 40 cups of its coffee per day. It was also a haunt of the young Napoléon I.
- I’m such a child!
To finish, I simply can’t resist sharing my weakness for Amorino’s Italian gelato ice creams. Whenever I’m in the area, I feel compulsively drawn to their parlour on rue de Buci (a fab little street known by the locals for its small open food market). Blood Orange Creme and Black Chocolate would be my recommendation.
Oh dear, now my mouth is watering… 😛
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