Episode 11: Intellectual Paris – Montparnasse and the Latin Quarter

Paris, Sorbonne

The ceiling of the Cluny la Sorbonne metro station is covered in signatures: Molière, Victor Hugo and lots more writers and thinkers. It’s on the borders of the Latin Quarter, or university area, and Montparnasse, former haunt of writers like Hemingway and Jean Paul Sartre. This post takes you round both areas and – a lovely bonus! – to the Luxemburg Gardens, which are in between the two.

The Latin Quarter

The foot of the statue of Montaigne near the Sorbonne in Paris, which students rub for luck before taking an exam
Montaigne’s shiny foot

Students first gathered in the Latin Quarter in the 13th century to listen to outdoor lectures on theology, given by men of the church – in Latin, of course! When Robert de Sorbon began providing them with board and lodging in 1257, the Sorbonne university was born and by the end of the Middle Ages it had 20,000 students. En route from Cluny la Sorbonne to Place de la Sorbonne, you will pass a statue of Montaigne, the Renaissance philosopher, on Rue des Écoles, just opposite the Sorbonne. His foot is very shiny because students about to sit an exam rub it for luck.

The Librairie Philosophique, a bookshop in Place de la Sorbonne, Paris
Bookshop in Place de la Sorbonne

Wandering through La Place de la Sorbonne you can enjoy its studenty atmosphere: lime trees, a fountain, little cafés and bookshops selling titles like Marx’s Class Struggles in France.’ Take a look too, at the beautiful Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, in the Place du Panthéon. It’s the main university library, built in the 1830s on a much older site where Erasmus of Rotterdam came to study. You can arrange to pop inside for a look round on this website.

Shakespeare and company

The Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Paris
Shakespeare and Company

There are lots of bookshops, both new and second hand in the area and the best known of all is Shakespeare and Company, a true Paris institution, to be found at 37, Rue de la Bûcherie on the riverbank, near Notre Dame. Its original owner, Sylvia Beach, ran it, originally on a different site, as an English-language bookshop and lending library, attracting many writers among her customers including Ernest Hemingway who described it as a ‘big, cheerful place with a warm stove in winter’. Today its higgeldy-piggeldy rooms with uneven floors, towering overstuffed bookshelves, many only reachable by ladder, are a big draw for locals and tourists alike. The walls are covered in quotations and old photos of writers and you may find a member of staff playing the piano or one of the bookshop cats asleep on a bed wedged into a corner. You may even buy a book!

The Luxembourg Gardens

The Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris
The Medici Fountain

The lovely Luxembourg Gardens – many people’s favourite Paris park – sit just between the Quartier Latin and Montparnasse and have long been a popular place for students and writers alike to relax. At the northern end you will find well-known beauties like the Luxembourg Palace, now the seat of the French Senate, the exquisitely beautiful Medici Fountain and the boating pond, where generations of families have brought – still bring – their children to sail little boats with coloured sails. Make sure you wander some of the rest to enjoy the tree-lined avenues, sit on some of the green metal chairs provided everywhere, perhaps catch a group playing boules or taking their children on a pony ride. There are a couple of cafes and a number of little booths selling snacks and drinks. Tucked behind the adventure playground is another Paris institution, the puppet theatre, open several times a week to show such classics as Les trois petits cochons.

The Literary Cafes of Montparnasse

An inside view of La Coupole, a cafe / brasserie in Boulevard du Montparnasse in Paris
Inside La Coupole

Montparnasse was the area where writers and artists gathered in the 1920s – think Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Modigliani – and some of their favourite haunts are still open today, albeit having gone a little up market. Le Dôme, La Rotonde and La Coupole are all clustered together on Boulevard du Montparnasse, (at numbers 102, 105 and 108 respectively), serving brasserie meals which cost a little more than many other venues, although the lunchtime set menus can be better value. If it’s atmosphere you seek, you’ll get your money’s worth. At La Coupole, look out for the art deco style pillars inside, decorated by visiting artists decades ago, usually in payment for a meal and for the dance hall on the ground floor, where many of the 1920s crowd spent their evenings. Further along at 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse is La Closerie des Lilas, where Hemingway wrote much of his novel The Sun also Rises. In his Paris memoir, A Moveable Feast, he described long hours spent writing in Montparnasse cafés, ‘entering far into the story and getting lost in it.’

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir working at the Deux Magots Cafe in Paris in the 1940s
Simone de Beauvoir

During World War II, a later generation of writers lived in the area, notably Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir who spent a lot of time in cafés like Le Café de Flore, a little further north at 172 Boulevard St-Germain and its neighbour, Les Deux Magots. Sartre wrote of how he and Simone de Beauvoir ‘more or less set up house’ at the Café de Flore, arriving at 9.00 for a morning’s writing before lunching, talking with friends for a couple of hours and then working again until the early evening. He also described the miserable experience during the German Occupation of Paris in the 1940s of having to watch German soldiers who were ‘tactless enough’ to drink real coffee, while French customers had to make do with ‘some anonymous and ghastly substitute.’

Montparnasse Cemetery

The grave of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone e Beauvoir in Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris
Sartre and de Beauvoir are buried together

In Montparnasse Cemetery, just south of the Boulevard du Montparnasse, you will find the graves of many writers and artists. There are 35,00 graves in total, so downloading a map showing the 100 most visited graves is a must. Among those listed are the composers Saint-Saëns and Serge Gainsbourgh, the sculptor Bartholdi (Statue of Liberty) and many writers including Baudelaire, Guy de Maupassant and Samuel Beckett. One of the most-visited graves is that of Sartre and de Beauvoir, buried together just to the right of the main entrance on Boulevard Edgar Quinet. You will probably find it decorated, some would say defaced, with lipstick kisses left by recent visitors.

Montparnasse Tower

A view of the Eiffel Tower taken from the top of the Montparnasse Tower in Paris
A view from the top of the Tour Montparnasse

And lastly, for a bird’s eye view of Montparnasse and indeed the whole of Paris, including what is reputed to be the best view of the Eiffel Tower, consider visiting the Montparnasse Tower where a lift will whisk you 60 floors up to the viewing level in a matter of seconds. It’s the city’s tallest tower, dating from the 1970s, but it’s not to all tastes. In fact, it is said to have inspired Parisians to demand that no more high-rise buildings would be built to deface their city. The cost to go up is quite steep, but the view from the top is splendid.

Listen to the podcast

Suggested reading

Paris A Literary Companion by Ian Littlewood
A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Tête-à-Tête The Lives and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre by Hazel Rowley
Le Paris de Sartre et de Beauvoir by Pascale Fautrier (in French)


Ernest Hemingway in Paris

Hemingway’s Paris: Latin Quarter, Luxembourg Gardens, Montparnasse 
Hemingway’s Paris 

Links and Reading

Useful websites for tourists

Four comprehensive guidebooks
Lonely Planet Paris
The Rough Guide to Paris
Fodor’s Paris
Eyewitness Paris 

Three Literary anthologies and a history book for travellers
City Lit Paris edited by Heather Reyes
Paris: a Literary Companion by Ian Littlewood
A Place in the World called Paris by Miles Hyman and Steven Barclay
A Traveller’s History of Paris by Robert Cole

Five Paris Memoirs
The Flaneur by Edmund White
Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik
The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebowitz
Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke
The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino