A special kind of magic occurs when we emerge from a subway station to one of the most famous sites on earth. Natasha and I had decided we would spend this weekend on some long-awaited tourism, and awakening to a picturesque snowfall did little to dampen our spirits. We soon set off for the Latin Quarter, taking the RER B train from the Cité Universitaire a few stops to St. Michel / Notre Dame.
Just like the subways, the RER B is underground, and it’s pretty deep since it crosses the Seine River just after our stop. We had a few escalators and stairs to return to ground level, but when we emerged, we immediately understood where we were, because the façade of Notre Dame Cathedral loomed massively against the snow-filled sky! We of course felt the same pressure to pause and stare as everyone else, but then we were at a crowded corner of pavement between the street on the “rive gauche” of the Seine and the Petit Pont (bridge). We crossed the street and sheltered near the Shakespeare and Company book shop.
Having begun reading Paris, by Julian Green, I was determined to take in the view of Notre Dame from the Square René-Viviani, which adjoins the St. Julian the Poor church. Oddly enough, St. Julian and Notre Dame churches were constructed almost simultaneously (1170 AD and 1163 AD, respectively). The only Parisian churches still standing from an earlier period are St. Germain des Pres (parts from 990 AD), St. Martin des Champs (parts from 1067 AD), and St. Pierre de Montmartre (parts from 1134 AD).
The Square René-Viviani where we stood has developed a rather interesting set of stories. Its rather odd fountain dates from 1995, but the locust tree standing near the church, surrounded by a circle of stone, is reputedly the oldest tree planted in Paris, dating from 1601. One can see a fair amount of stone rubble and ruins in the square. Some of these are rubble left here from the 19th century refurbishment of Notre Dame. On the west side of the church one can find a Roman paving stone!
We continued our stroll down the Quai de la Tournelle, but we turned to the right at the Institut du Monde Arabe. I would say that we chose this route because we were interested in the Sorbonne University campus adjoining it, but we really chose the path because it would shelter us for a few blocks under an overhang of the building! We turned to the southeast to make our way to the Jardin des Plantes.
It was a relief after three weeks of uninterrupted urban living to turn into the green space of the Jardin des Plantes. Perhaps a European or American reading this will think my next statement a bit weird, but my experience of living in South Africa caused me to feel shock at the size of the tree trunks we encountered in the garden. Considering that the royal garden was first created in 1635, these trees have had opportunity to grow quite large.
Natasha and I climbed the spiraling path to the gloriette de Buffon. Some of the snow had melted on the ground, creating a treacherous surface. We waited for a moment so that some couples and families could depart the little gazebo at the top of the mound. We could relate to the adults who were gingerly testing their footing with each step down the stairs. By contrast, the teenagers and kids hardly stopped launching snowballs at their parents and each other as they dashed about! The view was perfectly lovely, even if we couldn’t see very far due to blowing snow.
As we moved into the next section of the Jardin, we passed between two green houses to arrive on the massive esplanade before the Museum of Natural History. Since we couldn’t see very far, it seemed that the field behind us stretched to infinity. Like all other museums, however, this one was shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
I paused in the snow shadow of the massive museum to plan our next steps. We wanted to see the grand mosque of Paris, which we remembered was in the neighborhood. After a couple of minutes, I declared that we needed to look on the opposite side of the road, just a bit toward where we had entered the park. We walked around the corner of the building and immediately it was obvious that we were looking at the mosque! In my photo, the minaret is peeking up behind the central dome of the building. When we passed the building along Rue Daubenton, we got a better look at the minaret. It seemed to me to have been transported from North Africa. It was simply beautiful.
Having described a broad outline of the Latin Quarter, we realized we had hardly scratched the surface of this historic district. I am still looking forward to visiting the Arènes de Lutèce, the Panthéon, and the Jardin du Luxembourg (to say nothing of the museums the area offers). Still, we were proud of ourselves for our adventure on foot. We retired to our temporary housing by a subway followed by a streetcar.