The Indefatigable Marc Soleranski: An Excellent Guide to the Latin Quarter


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Photo by Bernard Rautureau ©2007
Paris is a forever tantalizing city whose layers upon layers of history defy total absorption. Marc Soleranski has made it his business to take on this challenge – and if you have the stamina to follow his lead, and if your command of the French language is reasonably good, prepare yourself for total immersion in the Paris of ‘autrefois’ or other times. The Latin Quarter tour we joined was organized by the Société de la Littérature de la Poste et France Télécom.
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Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

We met at the footsteps of the Pantheon in the 5th arrondissement. Most guidebooks will tell you that Paris’s origins began on the Ile de la Cite where the Parisi, a Gallo-Celtic tribe, lived, but our tour started at the epicenter of the Roman settlement that once included a forum where Rue Soufflot now stands. While the Parisi depended primarily on the river for their commerce and livelihood, the Romans’ major concern was building roads from one end of the empire to the other. So, if you were to take Rue St. Jacques and keep walking you’d end up in Orleans. Go the other direction and you’d end up in Calais. During the Middle Ages, these routes served the pilgrims who traveled to St. James of Compostela in Spain to view sacred relics. They could also take Rue Mouffetard, head to the south of Paris along the Bièvre River – and eventually end up in Rome.
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Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

The Pantheon is a fitting place to begin a visit to Paris because the former church was originally dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of the city. She is credited with fending off Hun attacks, not as a soldier as Joan of Arc is portrayed, but simply through fervent prayer. When many fled the city, Genevieve remained and subsequently saved the city with her prayers.
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Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

Nowadays the Pantheon (renamed during the French Revolution) designed by architect Soufflot holds the remains of the illustrious Victor Hugo and Voltaire. (As I mentioned in a previous post, Catherine the Great, a great fan of Voltaire’s, dearly wanted Voltaire’s remains transferred to Tsarkoe Selo in St. Petersburg, but this was one battle she did not win).
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Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

You may choose not to go inside the Pantheon but rather spend more time visiting the adjacent St. Etienne du Mont church (as we did) considered by many to be a masterpiece of the 15th and 16th century.

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The Mannerist style represents a transition from Renaissance and could be considered a a precursor of the Baroque style. Each church in Paris has its particular aura –the great gothic monuments such as Notre Dame de Paris, St. Eustache and St. Denis pay tribute to a Greater Power, reaching eternally upward, and at the same time attempting to mirror the magnitude of unrivaled majesty.

St. Etienne-du-Mont retains allusions to the Lord in Majesty, but this is a church that exudes warmth rather than grandiosity. Inside the church, the architecture retains the principals of Gothic construction yet the décor is Renaissance. It houses St. Genevieve’s relics (what little remains).
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Photo by Chris Card Fuller ©2007

One of the highlights of the interior is the rood loft which undulates across the altar in a way that makes stone seem as fluid as wine. It was probably built in 1530 at the same time as the choir. This is a unique example of a rood loft in Paris. A rood screen is the decorative screen (which could be constructed of stone, wood or metal) that was used to separate the congregation from the clergy in certain churches. In this example, the rood loft still allowed the congregation to view the rites of the Mass (which may be one of the reasons it was never removed). Up until the mid-60s many Catholic churches still had a communion rail separating the altar from the congregation.

Everywhere you look, you will find a richness of detail: the wood carved base of the pulpit, Samson, created by Claude Lestocard is just one sample of the artistry. The fine wood carved organ loft built by Jean Buron (17th century) is said to be the oldest organ loft in Paris. The intimate chapel of St. Genevieve is tucked in the right hand corner. Excellent examples of 16th-17th -century stained glass adorn the chancel.

Visiting St. Etienne du Mont and the Pantheon was only an iota of our full day’s visit with Marc Soleranski which included a number of important sites in the Latin Quarter: The Roman combination arena and amphitheatre (the ‘Arènes de Lutèce’), the Sorbonne, the College de France and Calvin’s Tower, the Roman baths in front of the Musee Cluny, remains of Philippe Auguste’s wall – just to give you an inkling of this marathon tour.

Although the tour covered Latin Quarter history ranging from Roman occupation up to present day students’ impressions, the major theme dwelled on the great luminaries of the Middle Ages who walked, studied – and taught on the streets of the Latin Quarter such as Abelard, Erasme, St. Bernard de Clairveaux, Calvin, Loyola, beginning a tradition of learning which we have inherited and is truly a tradition handed down for universal benefit.

And, if you’re wondering why I have lingered so long at St. Etienne-du-Mont, this is my favorite church in Paris.

If you do not feel sufficiently fluent to follow a French tour, my suggestion would be to pick up a copy of Les Guides Bleus (the Blue Guides) Paris, Prentice Hall, 1991, originally published by Hachette Guides Bleus. You can buy this guide book in English. It offers detailed descriptions of many Paris streets, buildings, churches and neighborhoods. If you feel overwhelmed at times by all there is to absorb – remember that no visit to Paris should be your last visit. Save something for the next trip!