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Paris: Life on the Left Bank

Jardin des Plantes, with building of Grande Galerie de l'Evolution in background.
Image courtesy: Lonely Planet Images

History, architecture, lively locals and thriving markets meld beautifully in Paris’s Latin Quarter, on the left of River Seine.

Her dainty floral print blue-and-white kurta is as Delhi (Lajpat Nagar, to be more specific) as her love for jalebi, chaat and Chinjabi food. Armed with nothing more than a city map, she decides to explore the City of Lights, the City of Love: Paris. Vignettes of romancing couples – kissing, holding hands, clicking selfies – stalk a lovelorn Rani, the protagonist of the successful Hindi film, Queen, on her journey through the streets of Paris.

We move with her from the majestic boulevards of Champs Élysées to the thriving streets of the Latin Quarter. Rani is lost in her thoughts when a vendor accosts her by the River Seine. He woos the lonely ‘honeymooner’ into buying a padlock, chain it to a bridge and toss the key into the river.

The famous the ‘love bridge’ Pont de l’Archêveché.
Image courtesy: CC BY-SA 2.0/flickr/sonic.knight

A tradition as Parisian as the hallowed kiss below the Eiffel Tower, the ‘love bridge’ in the city’s Latin Quarter is adorned with locks attached by couples. These locks are inscribed with initials and often decorated with ribbons. There is more than one such bridge in Paris, but Pont de l’Archêveché is truly symbolic of undying love. The mosaic of bright ribbons and padlocks on the bridge – which crosses over from Notre Dame to the Left Bank – is the handiwork of lovers from across the world. In May 2010, civic authorities cleaned up love locks from the other famous love bridge, Pont des Arts on the Right Bank, in a nocturnal operation. In defiance, couples flocked to Archêveché.

Now that we are on the bridge, let’s follow it to the Left Bank. On this side of the Seine is the hub of academic life in Paris. Don’t jump to conclusions. ‘Academic’, in this case, doesn’t stand for things ponderous, dry or boring. Centred on Sorbonne’s main university campus, this area is dotted with bistros. Jazz and jam sessions are a regular feature in the Medieval cellars (used as prisons for Revolutionaries). And the list of pubs grows with every passing day.

Exterior of Shakespeare and Co. bookshop in the Marais.

As you walk off Archêveché, you are greeted by a charming riverfront lined with curio booths and little carts selling books. Standing on the riverside is Shakespeare & Company, a bookstore that has made it to the silver screen more than once. This is where Jesse (Ethan Hawke) is reunited with Celine (Julie Delpy) in Richard Linklater’s much acclaimed film, Before Sunset. Woody Allen revisits the bibliophile heaven in Midnight in Paris.

Dining outside Les Deux Magots in the St Germain area.
Image courtesy: Lonely Planet Images

The nearby St Michel, one of the main boulevards in the Quarter, is your passport to quaint European charm. Think criss-crossing medieval alleys, buskers in the sun, portrait artists in a row, pizzerias and pubs, crêperies and cafes… and you are at St Michel. The other main boulevard in the Quarter is St Germain. There remains a startling cinematic quality to this soulful part of the Left Bank where artists, writers, actors and musicians cross paths. Allow plenty of time to stroll the neighbourhood side streets and stop at its fabled literary cafes.

Find yourself a good map or a good Parisian (which, some say, is rare to find) and do the Left Bank Literary Loop. At 12 rue de l’Odeon stood the original Shakespeare & Company where owner Sylvia Beach lent books to Ernest Hemingway and edited, retyped and published Ulysses for James Joyce. L’Hotel, on rue Jacob, is where Oscar Wilde died. On the same street lies Hotel d’Angleterre, famous for being home to Hemingway on his first night in Paris.

Bottle shop on rue Mouffetard.
Image courtesy: Lonely Planet Images

One Left Bank experience you can’t do without is a dekko at the marché (market) on rue Mouffetard, one of the liveliest neighbourhoods in Paris. It is more than just a daily outdoor vegetable and produce market. Fromageries stand cheek-by-jowl with patisseries, fish and meat, and wine shops. Cheeses, stuffed olives, macaroons, baguettes, foie gras, tea, champagne, eclectic homeware – rue Mouffetard could be the biggest reason for excess baggage on your return flight. The road itself is almost 2000 years old and has buildings dating from the 12th century.

If refinement – of the cultural and historical variety – rules your holiday agenda, Left Bank can keep you busy for at least a whole week. Assuming you have only a day or two, keep the list of must-see sights to just four:

Jardin des Plantes, the 24-hectare botanical gardens.

Exterior of Pantheon.
Image courtesy: Lonely Planet India

Panthéon, a neoclassical building. In its crypt lie the graves of Voltaire, Rousseau, Braille, Emile Zola and Madame Curie.

Musée d’Orsay, the treasure house of impressionist masterpieces and art nouveau architecture.

Les Invalides, a monumental hotel complex that houses Napoleon’s tomb.

AUTHOR'S BIO: Aditi Sengupta is Delhi based and is a senior commissioning editor at Lonely Planet India.