South of the river, the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) has long maintained an “alternative” identity, opposed to the formal ambience of the Right Bank. Generally understood to describe the 5e and 6e arrondissements, the Left Bank was at the heart of les évènements, the revolutionary political “events” of May 1968. Since that infamous summer, however, gentrification has transformed the artists’ garrets and beatnik cafés into designer pads and top-end restaurants, and the legend is only really kept alive by the student population of the Quartier Latin – so-called for the learned Latin of the medieval scholars who first settled here, or possibly for the abundant Roman ruins. It is in fact one of the city’s more palpably ancient districts.
The pivotal point is place St-Michel, where the tree-lined boulevard St-Michel begins. It’s a busy commercial thoroughfare these days, but the universities on all sides still give an intellectual air to the place, and the cafés and shops are still jammed with young people. Meanwhile, on the riverbank you’ll find old books, postcards and prints on sale from the bouquinistes, whose green boxes line the parapets of the riverside quais. It’s a pleasant walk upstream to Pont de Sully, which leads across to the Île St-Louis and offers a dramatic view of Notre-Dame.