Although I’ve never lived in the Latin Quarter, it’s always been an important part of my Paris life. Ever since my first visit as a wide-eyed teen, I’d dreamed of a slope-roofed matchbox apartment in one of the narrow, meandering streets of the fifth arrondissement (although I have no reason to complain these days, with my adorable, if minuscule, first arrondissement loft). Later on, as a budding French cinephile, I would while away my afternoons in the tiny arthouse cinemas around the rue des Ecoles (if you’re keen to do the same, check out Le Champo, or La Clé a little further afield).
These days, I go to university in the fifth, and my soon-to-be-workplace is there too. So is the dreamy musée Cluny, the Museum of the Middle Ages, an oasis right in the centre of the bustling Cluny-La Sorbonne area. Housed in the thirteenth-century Hôtel de Cluny, once home to the Cluny abbots, the outside of the museum is as celebrated as its interior. Clustered around the building on its Boulevard St Michel side, nestled among the metro exits and busy cafes, lie the exposed remnants of Gallo-Roman baths. (If Roman ruins are your kind of thing, wander a bit further up the hill and discover the Arènes de Lutèce). Once inside, there are innumerable Medieval sculptures, engravings and artworks to discover.
The museum’s crowning piece is the vibrant wool and silk La Dame et la licorne (The Lady and the Unicorn) tapestry series. The tapestries date from fifteenth-century Flanders, and are widely considered to be one of the greatest Medieval artworks in existence (George Sand loved them, so they must be good). Lush, intricate and wonderfully restored, they are displayed in a cool, dark room and illuminated with spotlights to bring out their deep, rich reds and blues. Beautiful.
La dame et la licorne, A mon seul désir.
The Latin Quarter has been the site of many wine-fuelled, decadent nights out, the destination of choice for countless Sunday walks and picnics in the Luxembourg Gardens and the home of several dear friends. But it is perhaps most special to me because of the early mornings I used to spend there.
A couple of years ago, when I lived in a teensy little studio in the 15th arrondissement, I was studying at a little language school in the Latin Quarter, near the Panthéon. Several times a week, classes began at 8am. On those mornings, I would get up before sunrise, sip espresso at my windowsill, then traipse down to the Emile Zola metro in the dark. More often than not, I would stop at the boulangerie around the corner for a buttery, flaky croissant, still warm from the oven. Emerging from the metro on Boulevard Saint Germain, I would climb the St Geneviève hill just as the sky began to glow, the Panthéon silhouetted against the skyline. There was nothing particularly eventful about those mornings. But in those quiet moments, wandering in the dark, still groggy from sleepiness, I felt like I had Paris all to myself. Moments like those make the Latin Quarter, and its treasures like the musée Cluny, all the more magical to me.