Our walk begins at Place St. Germain des-Prés, easily reached by the metro station of the same name. This square lies on the Boulevard St. Germain, whose cafes were once the premiere meeting places for philosophers and intellectuals, but now, sadly, is more renowned for its traffic and tourists. On one side of the square lies Les Deux Magots, possibly the most famous café in Paris, and one time favourite haunt of the French intelligentsia. The café’s reputation is a little misleading, however, for the existentialists such as JeanPaul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) actually preferred to take their caffeine next door at the Café de Flore. And far from being idle chattering slackers, they sat at separate tables, diligently writing works such as Sartre’s Les Chemins de la Liberté. Where once the ideas that shaped a generation were formed, now travellers plan their next stop.
Given the wallet-tightening prices, this is perhaps not the best place for a rest, so cross over the square to Paris’ oldest Church, St Germain des-Prés, which dates back to 542, though most of its features, including the tower, were added in the twelfth century. Open from the morning until early evening, it contains the tomb of René Descartes (1596-1650), arguably the most important figure in modern western philosophy. You’ll find his tomb towards the back of the church, on the right hand side, as part of a triptych of plain black, hard to read panels. The interior of the church is relentlessly gloomy, and the monument to Descartes surprisingly modest.
Opposite the church, walk along Rue Bonaparte for a few minutes until you get to Place Saint Sulpice. Here you¹ll find Visconti’s fountain, and more pertinently, the Café de la Mairie. Sartre and Albert Camus (1913-60) met here for the last time in 1951. Having worked together on the radical left-wing newspaper Combat, the two fell out, never to meet again. The café was also a favourite meeting place for Paris’ various emigrés, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Beckett.
Walk around to the back of the church that lends its name to the square and then turn left down Rue de Seine, crossing Boulevard Saint Germain, until you come to another café, La Palette. This one has been a haunt of students from the Beaux Arts school since the beginning of the century, and was another favourite of Sartre and de Beauvoir, philosophy’s answer to Hugh Grant and Liz Hurley. Set on a reasonably quiet crossroads, this is one of the better of the historical cafés to stop off and have a coffee at, especially if you can nab one of the outside tables. Any café you stop at is going to be pricey, and this is about as atmospheric as you’re going to get on the modern day left-bank.
Continue along Rue Callot and then turn back towards Boulevard Saint Germain along Rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie and you’ll find Paris’ oldest café, La Procope, opened in 1686. This became a focal point for many in the French enlightenment, foremost among them Denis Diderot (1713-84). Influenced by the English empiricist John Locke, Diderot’s radical ideas foreshadowed much later theories such as evolution and eliminative materialism. It was at La Procope that Diderot and D’Alembert first thought of the Encyclopaédie, which Diderot later edited. This mammoth work was not only a landmark in scholarship, but also a challenge to the authority of the catholic church.
Rejoining the Boulevard St Germain, continue along, before branching off to the right along the Rue Ecole de Mede, turning into the Rue des Ecoles. Apart from the gloriously tacky Boutique Descartes, you’ll come, on your right, to the Sorbonne, one of Europe’s oldest and most distinguished universities. The ubiquitous Sartre and de Beauvoir were both students there
Turn right onto the Rue Saint Jacques and continue up until you come to the Rue Souflott. At the end of this road stands the imposing sight of the Panthéon. Originally commissioned as a church, it was turned into a shrine for France’s great and good by the Revolutionary assembly on its completion in 1790. What is of interest to us is the crypt, which contains the remains of political philosopher, author of the Social Contract, and guiding light of the French Revolution, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-78). A statue of Rousseau also stands, incongruously, in the car park outside, as ignoble a site to remember him as the Panthéon itself is impressive. Others buried in the crypt include Voltaire and Zola.
If you feel like a well-earned break, walk away from the right-hand side of the Panthéon to the right until you get to Rue de l’Estrapada. Follow this along to the left for a few minutes until you arrive at a veritable oasis, the Place de la Contrescarpe. This delightful square, with its relaxing central fountain, is quieter than a lot of the more central locations and provides the ideal spot to sit around and soak up the atmosphere.
You may wish to end your tour here, but one sight remains which the dedicated pilgrim would not want to leave out: the joint grave of Sartre and de Beauvoir. The weary of leg may prefer to hop on the metro and make their way to Raspail station. But if you fancy a walk, you can go via the pleasant Jardin and Palais du Luxembourg. Tracing your steps back to the Panthéon, follow the Rue Souflott to the Boulevard Saint Michel, turn left along this road for about 500 yards until you see the entrance to the Jardins on your right. When you leave the Jardins at the opposite end from the Palais, follow the narrow green stretch of Avenue de l’Observatoire. When it turns to road, carry along and turn right along the Boulevard de Montparnasse. A left turn along Rue Huygens at the junction with Boulevard Raspail will take you to the entrance of the cemetery. A free map is available at the warden’s lodge, just inside the gates, but to find Sartre and de Beauvoir’s plot, just turn right inside the gates and it’s barely half a dozen graves along. Whether this detour is worth it to see the modest gravestone is a matter of opinion, but there other graves to ponder, such as writer Samuel Beckett’s, elsewhere in the cemetery.
Duration: This walk should take upwards of one and half hours, depending on how much time you spend inside the various landmarks and cafés. If you want to visit the Cimeterie de Montparnasse, allow half an hour to get there from the Panthéon.
The walk starts at Métro St-Germain-des-Prés (line 13). If you finish at the Panthéon, the nearest station is Luxembourg (RER line B). The station is on Boulevard St. Michel. For those heading to the Cimetiere du Montparnasse, stations Egar Quinet (line 6) and Raspail (lines 6 and 4) lie at the west and east ends of Boulevard Edgar Quinet.
If you think that we’ve left out anywhere that should be included in this walk, please let us know. All contributions used will be acknowledged.