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.
Opposite Pont de Sully, you can’t miss the bold glass and aluminium mass of the Institut du Monde Arabe, a cultural centre built to further understanding of the Arab world. Designed by Paris’s favourite architect, Jean Nouvel, its broad southern facade, which mimics a moucharabiyah, or traditional Arab latticework, is made up of thousands of tiny, photo-sensitive metallic shutters. Inside, its museum aims to present a broad history of the Arab world, going back as far as prehistoric times (the oldest exhibit, a statuette of an earth goddess from Jordan, dates from the seventh century BC). If the collection feels sparse in places and slightly confusingly arranged (by theme, rather than chronologically), you do at least get a sense of the cultural diversity and richness of the Arab peoples. The institute also puts on temporary exhibitions and concerts of Arab music, and there’s a library and specialist bookshop. The rooftop café-restaurant is a fantastic place to enjoy a mint tea and the view towards the apse of Notre-Dame.
The Jardin des Plantes was founded as a medicinal herb garden in 1626 and gradually evolved into Paris’s botanical gardens. There are shady avenues of trees, lawns to sprawl on, rose gardens, a sunken alpine garden, historic glasshouses, museums and even a zoo. Magnificent floral beds make a fine approach to the collection of buildings that forms the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle. Best of the lot is the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, housed in a dramatic nineteenth-century glass-domed building (the entrance is at the southwest corner of the gardens). Though it doesn’t actually tell the story of evolution as such, it does feature a huge cast of stuffed animals, some of them striding dramatically across the central space. Live animals can be seen in the rather mangy ménagerie near the rue Cuvier gate. Founded here just after the Revolution, it is France’s oldest zoo – and looks it, though there are some more pleasant, park-like areas where you can see deer, antelope, goats, buffaloes and the like, grazing happily enough.
A few steps east of rue Mouffetard, beyond place Monge, with its market and métro stop, stands the crenellated Mosquée de Paris, built by Moroccan craftsmen in the early 1920s. You can walk in the sunken garden and patios with their polychrome tiles and carved ceilings, but not the prayer room. There’s also a lovely courtyard tearoom/restaurant, which is open to all, and an atmospheric hamam (Turkish bath); bathing here is one of the most enjoyable things to do in this part of the city.
The Montagne Ste-Geneviève is topped by the grandly domed and porticoed Panthéon, Louis XV’s grateful response to Ste-Geneviève, patron saint of Paris, for curing him of illness. The Revolution transformed it into a mausoleum, and the remains of giants of French culture such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo and Zola are entombed in the vast, barrel-vaulted crypt below, along with Marie Curie (one of only four women), and Alexandre Dumas, of musketeers fame, who was only “panthéonized” in 2002. The interior is overwhelmingly monumental, bombastically classical in design. The dome, however, is pretty impressive – it was from here, in 1851, that French physicist Léon Foucault suspended a pendulum to demonstrate vividly the rotation of the earth: while the pendulum appeared to rotate over a 24-hour period, it was in fact the earth beneath it turning. Unfortunately, the working model of the pendulum that usually hangs from the dome has been removed while the building undergoes lengthy restoration work.