There is change in the air on the Left Bank. On rue de Seine, fashion boutiques, top-notch restaurants and independent food outlets have breathed new life along the narrow pavements and into the tree-lined courtyards. The art scene still provides the backbone of the Rive Gauche, but this transformation means there is a new buzz about the place.
For those who complain Paris is turning into an enormous open-air museum, rue de Seine on the Left Bank provides a perfect riposte. Where once there were only art galleries and musty antique book stores, now the street buzzes with enterprising start-ups. Stylish men’s prêt à porter stores such as Vercourt and Armand Ventilo have usurped ailing art galleries, while terraces at independent food outlets such as da Rosa and La Fromagerie 31 have sprung up in place of parked cars.
Rue de Seine – which straddles a large swathe of Saint-Germain-des-Prés from quai Malaquais on the banks of the Seine up to rue Saint-Sulpice – still has a thriving art scene. The street, with its narrow pavements and leafy courtyards, dates back to 1259. Its most famous resident was Henri IV’s estranged wife Reine Margot who lived at numbers 2 to 10 at the beginning of the 17th century. There is a small park now, Square Honoré-Champion, where the queen’s palace once stood. Further up on the other side, in the shadow of the grandiose L’Institut de France, is another small park, Square Gabriel-Pierné. With its delightful book-shaped stone benches – the message is clear: you are entering a world of learning. Up until the student demonstrations of 1968, many of the capital’s universities were close to rue de Seine. There are fewer now but many former revolutionaries have returned to the scene of their greatest triumph, either to live or open galleries.
According to Drew Harré, a chatty New Zealander who co-owns fish restaurant La Boissonnerie, rue de Seine is a day-time hub. “It’s art, it’s commerce, it’s about food and wine,” he says. “As soon as night comes it’s more across the other side of the street towards la rue des Canettes.” Marie Victoire Poliakoff, an art gallery owner who has lived her whole life on rue de Seine, is cautiously optimistic about the changes. “Galleries go and they come back again. There are several clothes shops now and other outlets... As long as people stick around and enjoy being here, that’s enough for me.”
No 27 & 31 L’Arc en Seine
Specialising in French art deco, this gallery-cum-boutique is renowned for the pared-down beauty of its furniture – and flamboyant prices.
No 33 Librairie Fischbacher
This art bookshop has stayed in the Fischbacher family for eight generations. Picasso was a regular.
No 43 La Palette
Be-stubbled Jean-Francois is surely the grumpiest head waiter in Paris and serves up a mean guillotine (jambon sur pain poilâne). The artistically indolent atmosphere on the terrace takes some beating.
No 49 Olivier Castellano
Since the Quai Branly museum opened over two years ago, Saint-Germain has become the centre of the tribal art world. Olivier Castellano’s gallery is the perfect microcosm.
No 51 Armand Ventilo
Shirts in Egyptian cotton, cardigans in Irish wool, jeans in Japanese toile. These are French designer clothes with a real flair for “chic fatigué”.
No 51 Jacqueline Subra
European antique jewellery at affordable prices. There’s a even a pawnbrokers for those hard-up artists palming off their wares.
No 62 Marquise de Sévigné
This family company began making chocolate in Strasbourg in 1898. First prize in 2005 at the Salon du Chocolat for its delicious Piémont variety shows the Marquise has still got it.
No 62 Da Rosa
Since opening six years ago, this Portuguese épicerie/cantine has become famous for its cured hams and Sauternes marinated raisins. Top French chef Joël Robuchon is a client.
No 64 La Fromagerie 31
With its tiny restaurant this is a great draw for tourists who don’t want to cart their cheeses back home. All the varieties are made from unpasteurised milk and served with salad and bread.
No 69 La Boissonnerie
Great food, especially the fish, at reasonable prices. The co-owner Drew Harré is a former wine taster and has built up a terrific cellar. This is why the French take their time over lunch.
No 72 La Joie de Vivre
This home equipment store is a good place to do some last-minute Christmas shopping. Some of the furniture hails from India and it’s all made to last.
No 74 Paul Prouté
A family-run business that’s wonderful to nose around for antique etchings and drawings. The two sisters who work cheek by jowl studied at the Sorbonne.
No 78 Cire Trudon
Established in 1643, Cire Trudon is officially the oldest candlemaker in the world and one of the few that make to order. The Aga Khan and the King of Morocco are regular clients.
No 95 Le Boudoir de Marie Victoire Poliakoff
One of the more interesting galleries along rue de Seine. More akin to a collector’s cabinet than a traditional gallery, it reflects Mme Poliakoff’s love of art in all its forms.
No 99 Vercourt
This elegantly lit shop carries stylishly cut men’s prêt à porter at affordable prices, as well as ties and cotton shirts in understated gingham patterns.
No 4 Vannina Vesperini (rue de Tournon)
Just a couple of doors up from rue de Seine is this eye-catching store selling stunning haute couture lingerie.