I Love Touring Paris - the Latin Quarter (fifth Arrondissement)

by : Levi Reiss

The 5th arrondissement is on the Left Bank of the Seine River in central Paris. It is often known as the Quartier Latin (Latin Quarter) even though it's been a long time since many people have spoken Latin there. The population is slightly under sixty thousand and the district provides almost fifty thousand jobs. It is fairly small; less than a square mile (about two and a half square kilometers). This is one of the oldest districts in all Paris and offers some attractions dating back to the time of the Romans who never called it the Latin Quarter. The Roman town Lutetia was built in the First Century BC.

The Arenes de Lutece (Lutetia Arena) once held at least fifteen thousand spectators and considerably fewer gladiators. It was built in the First Century AD and included the longest Roman amphitheater. The 135 foot (over 40 meter) long stage hosted both plays and gladiator fights. There were probably animal cages as well, surely not for the plays. The upper level held the poor, the slaves, and women while the lower level was reserved for the big shots. In case the spectators got bored they had a great view of the Seine River.

The city was sacked by barbarians in the year 280 and some of its stone was removed to build up the defenses. The arena was subsequently transformed into a cemetery, and then filled with the construction of city walls in the early Thirteenth Century. The arena was more or less forgotten; nobody knew where it was but neighborhood kept its name. The arena was accidentally rediscovered in the 1860s during the construction of a streetcar depot on the site. The famous Nineteenth Century writer Victor Hugo played a major role in preserving these ruins. The area became a public square in 1896 and is open to the public daily and evenings in the summer.

The Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute) was established in 1980 by eighteen Arab countries and France. This Institute provides extensive information about the Arab world and promotes its cultural and spiritual values. The Institute also supports cooperation and cultural exchanges between France and the Arab world, especially in science and technology. In 1989 it won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

The Jardin des Plantes is France's main botanical garden. It includes an aquarium, and a small zoo founded with animals from the royal menagerie at Versailles (not the two-legged variety). Its gardens include a rose garden, an alpine garden, an Art Deco winter garden, Australian and Mexican hothouses, and a maze.

The Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle (National Museum of Natural History) was founded during the French Revolution. It was quite a center of scientific research. One of the winners of the 1903 Nobel Prize for Physics, Henri Becquerel, held its chair for Applied Physics when he accidentally discovered uranium's radioactivity. Four generations of Becquerels held this chair from 1838 until 1948, which must be some sort of record.

The Musee de Cluny, officially known as Musee National du Moyen Age (National Museum of the Middle Ages) is perhaps the most outstanding medieval building in Paris. It was the town house of the Abbots of Cluny, dating back to 1334 but was rebuilt in both Gothic and Renaissance style starting near the end of the Fifteenth Century. The Musee de Cluny has a fine collection of important medieval artifacts, in particular tapestries, Gothic sculptures, and illuminated manuscripts. Herman Melville mentioned this museum in his famous novel Moby Dick.

The Thermes de Cluny are what remains of Third Century Gallo-Roman baths. Its best-preserved section is the frigidarium, the cold-water pool in which bathers dipped to close their pores after enjoyed the hot-water sections. Some of the original decorative wall painting and mosaics remain intact. These baths were not well defended and probably destroyed by barbarians, those dirty barbarians, towards the end of the Third Century.

The Pantheon (from a Greek word meaning all the Gods) was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris. It sits on top of Montagne Sainte-Genevieve and overlooks all Paris. While it is a great-looking building its architect died before completion, and not all his plans were followed. It had been meant as a church to honor the recovery of King Louis XV, but the French Revolution intervened and the Pantheon was transformed into a mausoleum. In alphabetical order, some of the great buried here include Braille, Dumas, Hugo, Marat (French Revolution leader disinterred after little more than a year), Moulin (French Resistance leader), Sklodowska-Curie, Soufflot (Pantheon's architect), Voltaire, and Zola.

The Latin Quarter is home to many universities and other centers of higher education, and naturally scads of bars, bistros, restaurants, and nightclubs. Some schools have relocated to more spacious quarters in other parts of the city or region, surely to the regret of their student population.

Of course you don't want to tour Paris without sampling fine French wine and food. My article I Love French Wine and Food - A Maconnais (Burgundy) Chardonnay reviewed such a wine and suggested a sample menu: Start with Pate en Croute de Grenouilles au Bleu de Bresse (Frog and Bresse Blue-Cheese Pie). For your second course savor Poulet de Bresse a la Creme-Trompettes de la Mort (Free-Range Bresse Chicken in Creamy Sauce with Horns of Plenty Mushrooms). And as dessert indulge yourself with Ile Flottante (Floating Island, a Meringue Island in a Custard Sea.) Your Parisian sommelier (wine steward) will be happy to suggest appropriate wines to accompany each course.