Along with the artists of Montmartre, the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame, one of the most enduring images of Paris is the cafe- dwelling, black- clad existentialist, smoking Gauloises and offering up the occasional bon mot. But there's more to Paris and philosophy than existentialism and some over-priced cafes. If you're planning a trip to Paris and want to find out more, set aside a few hours for a walk along the philosophers' Rive Gauche.
Begin at place Saint Germain-des-Pres, easily reached by the Metro station of the same name. This square lies on boulevard Saint- Germain, whose cafes were once the prime meeting-places of philosophers and intellectuals, but which now, sadly, is more renowned for its traffic and tourists. On the north-east side of the square lies Les Deux Magots, possibly the most famous cafe in Paris, and one-time favourite haunt of the French intelligentsia. The cafe's reputation is a little misleading, however, for existentialists such as Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) and Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) in fact preferred to take their caffeine next door, at the Cafe de Flore. And far from being idle chatterers, philosophy's glamour couple sat at separate tables, diligently writing their influential works. Philosophy of sorts still happens here during the monthly English-language cafe- philosophique, where anyone can walk in and take part in a philosophical discussion.
Given the prices, this is perhaps not the best place for a rest, so cross over the square to Paris's oldest church, Saint Germain- des- Pres, which dates back to 542, though most of its features, including the tower, were added in the 12th century. It contains the tomb of Rene Descartes (1596- 1650), arguably the most important figure in modern western philosophy. The interior of the church is relentlessly gloomy, and the monument to Descartes surprisingly modest. Opposite the church, walk along rue Bonaparte for a few minutes until you get to place Saint-Sulpice. Here you will find Visconti's fountain and, more pertinently, the Cafe de la Mairie. Sartre and Albert Camus (1913-60) met here for the last time in 1951. Having worked together on the radical left-wing newspaper Combat, the two fell out, never to meet again. The cafe was also a favourite meeting- place for Paris's many literary emigres, such as Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Beckett. Walk around to the back of the church that lends its name to the square and then turn left down rue de Seine, crossing boulevard Saint- Germain, until you come to another cafe, La Palette. A haunt of students from the Beaux Arts school since the beginning of the century, this was another favourite of Sartre and de Beauvoir. Set on a reasonably quiet cross-roads, this is one of the better of the historical cafes to stop off at, especially if you get one of the outside tables. Any cafe you stop at is going to be pricey, and this is about as atmospheric as you're going to get on the modern-day Left Bank. Continue along rue Callot and then turn back towards boulevard Saint- Germain along rue de l'Ancienne-Comedie. Here you'll find Paris' oldest cafe, La Procope, which first opened in 1686. …