Remember that the reason this part of Paris is called “The Latin Quarter” is because here are found France's oldest and most prestigious educational establishments. Since medieval times the major schools and universities have been located here, and in that time period, Latin was the language of scholarship. So I thought it would be appropriate to at least walk past and learn a bit about some of the great institutions of learning located in this part of the city. Walking south on the Boulevard St-Michel, you will pass on the left the chapel of La Sorbonne. The Sorbonne dates from the 1100's and is still the seat of learning particularly for the Humanities. There is a very attractive little plaza in front of it with some enticing cafés for having a little something before continuing the stroll. In just another block or two turn left onto la rue Soufflot and you will have in front of you one of the most dramatic sites in Paris, the Panthéon. This beautiful building was completed in 1791 but has an interesting history. Way back in 507 A.D. the king Clovis converted to Christianity and built a basilica on the spot where the Panthéon stands today. Sainte Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris, who protected the city from barbarians was buried in the basilica in 512. In 1744 King Louis 15 attributed his recovery from a serious illness to the prayers of Ste-Geneviève and decided to have built a prestigious church on the same spot, dedicated to this saint. His chief architect, Soufflot, made the plans—modeled after the Pantheon in Rome--but died before the project was finished. By the time it was completed around the time of the French revolution, it was decided to make of the building not a church, but a national pantheon, as a resting place fit for the great men of France. It is constructed in the neo classical style with grandiose Corinthian columns. So today it stands as a temple to those who have contributed to the glory of France, and across the top it says: Aux Grands Hommes La Patrie Reconnaissante (To the great men, a thankful country). Interred here are many of the most famous French such as Victor Hugo, Pierre and Marie Curie, Alexandre Dumas, Emile Zola, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Louis Braille (inventer of the braille system for the blind). Just a bit to the left of the Panthéon is the lycée Louis Le Grand, one of the most famous lycées which offer preparatory classes for entrance to France's “Grandes Ecoles”, which we will touch on in a moment. And just at the back of the Panthéon is another of these lycées, Henri IV. For both of these high school age schools there are very difficult and competitive requirements for admission. Lycée Henri IV is known as one of the most demanding secondary level schools, and also offers preparatory classes for entrance into the Grandes Ecoles. One hundred percent of its students pass the rigorous baccalauréat exam, while the national average is around 80%. And a student here can brag that he or she attends the same school as some notable alumni such as Guy de Maupassant, de Musset, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone Weil. The Grandes Ecoles are an elite higher education path outside the main framework of the French university system. Admission is by competitive written and oral exams that students usually spend 2 years preparing for, some of them at one of the two lycées mentioned above. Perhaps the most famous and prestigious of these special schools is the Ecole Normale Supérieur, located just a few blocks south of the Panthéon. This is the most selective and most challenging institution of higher learning in France, founded in 1794. It is a national legend and has trained the leading French intellectuals. Among its alumni are Henri Bergson, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Louis Pasteur. All of the French Nobel prize winners across all disciplines are alumni. You can almost feel the intellectual energy emanating from this part of the city. From the Place du Panthéon we will walk to the left of the building on rue Clovis and then turn right on rue Descartes.
Following along on this street we arrive at Place de la Contrescarpe, a youthful gathering spot, in an old part of Paris at the top of what is called the Montagne Ste-Geneviève, one of the highest points in Paris. There is a fabulous restaurant just off the Place on rue Blainville called La Truffière where I always had the farewell dinner for my adult tour groups. It now has a Michelin star and is quite expensive, but will offer you an exceptional dining experience. For the less expensive fare that most of us look for, look no further: just keep walking on rue Descartes which changes name to la rue Mouffetard and you will find lots and lots of little eateries with outdoor dining, especially on a little side street called rue du Pot de Fer. This whole part of town is fun to tour at night, but if you are here during the day, just keep walking down the famous and narrow rue Mouffetard with all its shops and food and especially at the end of the street don't miss the well-loved produce market. The whole area described in this article is usually quite free of tourists, so just enjoy this special slice of the Left Bank.