Travel review: St. Germain, Paris
- Credit: Archant
For someone who considers himself fairly well-travelled, there are some glaring omissions in my travel history to date.
Among our own British Isles, I am yet to set foot in Scotland or Northern Ireland.
But even less excusable, from a travel convenience point of view, was my neglect of Paris until now.
The French capital is one of the most culturally and historically rich cities in the world and for Londoners it’s just a two-hour train journey away.
The Eurostar route from St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord is almost certainly cheaper and more convenient than any internal flight from London to Edinburgh or Belfast.
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Arriving at Gare du Nord, you are just yards from one of the city’s numerous Métro lines – by far the cheapest and most convenient mode of public transport in Paris, though not as good as London’s Tube.
We hopped straight off the Eurostar and onto Métro Line 4, heading south from Gare du Nord and passing beneath the River Seine to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the westernmost section of the city’s Left Bank.
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This southern bank of the Seine has long been famous as the haunt of bohemians and intellectuals.
Historically, it was considered the hub of counterculture and creativity, in contrast with central Paris on the river’s northern bank, aptly referred to as the Right Bank, which was considered more closely aligned with the Establishment.
Embracing the bohemian spirit of St. Germain, we took residence during our stay in L’Hotel, a charming four-star boutique in a quiet side street backing onto the Seine and notably the final residence of Oscar Wilde.
The hotel is responsible for two of Wilde’s final bon mots, purportedly made shortly before his death in 1900.
It was in L’Hotel, then known as Hôtel d’Alsace, that he was recorded remarking, “I am dying beyond my means”, and famously, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has to go.”
Stepping inside L’Hotel is like stepping back in time, into a dimly-lit, moody lair of opulence. It feels like a snapshot from Wilde’s own decadent imagination.
The hotel’s centrepiece is a magnificent spiral staircase that pierces its core and leads to six floors of individually-designed bedrooms and suites. There are just 20 in total, each exuding the hotel’s opulent spirit.
Built into the vaults is an underground hammam pool and steam room which can be reserved for use in hour-long slots.
There is also an in-house one Michelin star restaurant and a classy little bar offering high-quality cocktails and nibbles. But as with all of Paris, you will need a big purse to indulge in the hotel amenities.
Outside of the hotel is a myriad of charming narrow streets, full of art galleries exhibiting just a handful of pieces each.
With property prices in this part of Paris looking very much like prices in the most affluent areas of London, it is hard to fathom how so many gallery spaces can sustain themselves in St. Germain’s salubrious surrounds.
Further south from the hotel and its neighbouring galleries and antique dealers is Boulevard Saint-Germain – the main road dissecting St. Germain – lined with high-end shops and a few historic cafes.
There are restaurants and cafés aplenty in the streets branching off Boulevard Saint-Germain, but do not expect to find many cheap options in this neighbourhood. The more well-known eateries are obviously the more expensive but on the whole it’s a pricey place to eat.
We found a delightful little restaurant called La Jacobine tucked away along a little cobbled alleyway off Boulevard Saint-Germain.
This rustic brasserie offers a wholesome, reasonably-priced menu of home-cooked dishes in hearty portions. The French onion soup is the best I’ve tried anywhere.
If the sun is shining in St. Germain then head east to the Jardin du Luxembourg, the chief green space of the Left Bank.
Overlooked by the Palais du Luxembourg, seat of the French senate, this expansive garden – with a round pond at its centre and dotted with colourful floral arrangements – makes for a refreshing stroll.
And if the heavens open – as they did for much of our visit – then head to the Musée d’Orsay, along the riverfront on the western edge of St. Germain. This grand former railway station is now home to an unparalleled collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art.
Fortuitously, we made our visit in time to catch a four-month van Gogh exhibition which allowed us to get face-to-face with some of the artist’s most famous paintings.
It made for a befitting end to our Paris experience in the city’s artistic heartland where the likes of van Gogh, Gauguin and Wilde once walked.