Go for a stroll through the city's vibrant left bank, the Hemingway way
By Michael Palin|
A copy of 'A Moveable Feast', a memoir of his Paris days written 30 years on, is obligatory for Hemingway pilgrims. It begins in the ‘wonderful narrow crowded market street’ of the Rue Mouffetard, which in his time was pretty much the way it still is: a working neighbourhood, not yet a tourist ghetto.
To prolong the pleasures of the Rue Mouffetard, we suggest you turn left first of all and begin at the bottom of the hill by the church of Saint-Médard, which has an unusual arrangement of fluted columns inside and was briefly associated with the activities of the Convulsonnaires – not Elvis Presley's backing group, but Protestant hysterics who believed miracles were effected here. Opposite the church is an old house with a painted façade depicting country scenes. There isn't another one quite like it anywhere in Paris.
Most mornings, there's a street market here; the smells of fresh-baked bread, cheese, coffee, crêpes, roasting chicken, almonds, herbs, sausages, shellfish and everything the French find so important in life induce a series of small olfactory orgasms as you start to climb the steeply sloping cobbles. A little way up the hill is a café called Le Mouffetard. It's modest and plain and family-run, and a very good place to watch the ebb and flow of market life.
Follow the road up past a clutch of bars, clubs and inexpensive (mostly Greek) restaurants until it opens out into the Place de la Contrescarpe. There was a Café des Amateurs here, which Hemingway described as 'the cesspool of Rue Mouffetard', and which even he avoided. Now it's reincarnated as the Café Delmas, a cheerful, unselfconscious place popular with students from the local lycées. When we last stopped there, a group of French girls was singing a terrific close-harmony version of 'Happy Birthday' into a mobile phone.
To the right as you look at the café is Rue du Cardinal-Lemoine, and it's not far to No. 74, where on the third floor the 22-year-old Hemingway and his wife Hadley found their first Paris apartment. He remembered it as having cold water and a squat toilet on the landing, the contents of which were pumped into a horse-drawn tank wagon at night. The toilet is inside the flat now, but that’s about all that's changed, except that, at the time of writing, it was on the market for a million euros.
Though Hemingway initially came to Paris as a journalist for the Toronto Star, he was determined to become a proper writer, and to this end he took a room in a hotel round the corner at 39 rue Descartes. He climbed to the top floor, taking with him twigs and bundles of wood to start a fire on cold winter days, and wrote about North Michigan. He has been upstaged by Paul Verlaine, whose death in this same building in 1896 is commemorated by a large wall plaque, while Hemingway is inaccurately described on a sign squeezed in by the door as having lived here between 1921 and 1925.
In ‘A Moveable Feast’, Hemingway recalls writing a story in 'a good café on the place Saint-Michel'. We can retrace his steps there.
Left off Descartes and along past the mighty Panthéon, where the remains of the Great and the Dead can be found, entombed in splendour. Perhaps the spirit of occupants such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Zola spurred Ernest on as he hurried across the windswept Place du Panthéon, clutching his notebook, pencils and the rabbit's foot he used to carry around for good luck.
To the right there is a first glimpse, down the side streets, of the river and the towers of Notre-Dame. University buildings and colleges proliferate. Take Rue Cujas ('1520-1596, Jurisconsulte') past the back of the Faculty of Law, and catch the political mood of the students from the fly-posters on the walls outside the union. When we passed they read 'Non à l’Europe Socialiste. Oui à l'Europe des Etats’, which will come as quite a shock to those brought up on the Red riots of 1968.
Take a right on Rue Victor-Cousin ('1792-1867, Philosophe et Homme Politique'), noting the civilised Les Trois Collègescafé on the corner. This will take you past the main gates of the famous Sorbonne, opened in 1253, and the site of the first printing press in France, founded in 1470.
If you turn into Place de la Sorbonne, then right down Rue Champollion, you will be aware of one of the most important features of Parisian culture, along with books, jazz and clothes: the cinema. There are three of them in this narrow street alone, and between them an excellent cinema-themed café.
We've run out of ways of avoiding the main roads and must now face the noisy Boulevard Saint-Michel. Turn right towards the Seine. In Place Saint-Michel you will search in vain for Hemingway's 'good café' where he sat and wrote, drank Rum St James 'smooth as a kitten's chin', once caught the eye of a pretty girl, and would come and order oysters and crisp white wine to celebrate finishing a story.
Today, the area is chock-full eateries, bookstores and souvenir shops. Main north-south and east-west routes meet here at the river crossing. It's a concentration, a hub, a thrombosis, and apart from an original set of Guimard art nouveau railings on the east metro entrance, there is no reason to dawdle.
Instead, take the Rue de la Huchette east off the place and follow it across Rue du Petit Pont into Rue de la Bûcherie. Here, sandwiched in a row of 16th-century houses, leaning at all angles, is Paris's most interesting foreign bookshop, Shakespeare & Company. Though it isn't the original shop run by Sylvia Beach throughout the 1920s and 30s at which Hemingway, Joyce, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound and others were regular visitors, it continues the tradition of personal and idiosyncratic service. The staff are surrounded by books, which rest on shelves so precariously balanced you feel that if you took out the wrong volume it could bring the entire shop crashing about your ears. The shop has sleeping accommodation for visiting writers and serves tea on Sundays. Walk across to the Seine and turn west along the Quai des Grands Augustins. Hemingway liked to browse here among the bouquinistes – the second-hand booksellers whose dark green metal boxes are clamped to the stone walls of the embankment. Even on a quiet day, with less than a third of them open, the esoterica on display is utterly beguiling: everything from ancient leather-bound treatises on medicine to magazines with names like the Fetish Girls, back copies of the Revue Naturiste, old postcards, prints of tropical butterflies and even a Hotspur comic from February 1946 – 'Trained by Tick-Tock Tacklers – A Dazzler Drake Story'. While browsing, you may catch the strains of a lone saxophonist playing moody jazz on the towpath below, the sound enclosed and amplified by the stone walls on either side, until the lights change and the next wave of traffic drowns him out.
When you get a chance, dive across the road and seek the quiet of Rue des Grands Augustins, passing on the left No. 7, a fine example of a Left Bank townhouse (or 'hôtel', as they call them), complete with wide stone gates and an internal courtyard for horse and carriages. This was Picasso's studio for many years – it was where he painted the Guernica – and where the Hemingways met up with him in 1946. Central Paris may well have the cleanest streets in the world. Water is sluiced down the gutters twice a day, garbage collected daily, and at several points on the walk you will doubtless come across the green men of the Propreté de Paris, scrubbing streets and hosing rubbish bins with a thoroughness Lady Macbeth would be proud of. Which is why it's surprising that Rue des Grands Augustins is so rich in graffiti. Maybe it merely emphasises that these are still working working streets, full of shops, small business, laundromats, hair stylists and people going to and from their apartments.
Turn right on Saint-André-des-Arts, and cut through to Rue Jacob, a long straight street full of elegantly displayed antiques. Keep your eyes peeled for an open doorway that might reveal some of the fast-disappearing old courtyards. At the junction with Rue Bonaparte is the Café Pré aux Clercs, a Hemingway favourite, which is only a few doors down from the Hotel d’Angleterre where he spent his first night in Paris (in Room 14).
On a noisy junction at the end of Rue Jacob once stood the highly fashionable Brasserie Michaud's. This is where Hemingway pressed his nose to the window to watch James Joyce and his family eating – and all talking Italian – and where Fitzgerald confided in Hemingway that he was worried about the size of his penis. Hemingway took him into the toilet, studied it and reassured him that there was nothing to worry about. The only reason for spending any time here now is to visit what may well be the remains of the original loo – it has an art deco inlaid glass door, an old-fashioned squat toilet and a graceful iron cistern. (But if someone claiming to be F. Scott Fitzgerald asks you to go in there and check the size of their willy, remember he died in 1940.) Head on up Rue des Saints-Pères, passing on your left the Faculty of Medicine whose brutal neo-Fascistic façade seems to match the equally alienating swirl of smoke and noise as cars and bikes rev up the hill beside you. Boulevard Saint-Germain is equally busy, but wider, and accommodates the traffic better. Along to the left are the well-visited cafés of Les Deux Magots and Flore. Though the roadside tables are the most popular, you must go inside for the period atmosphere and best-looking decor. The first floor of Café de Flore is especially recommended. If you don't want to pay to enjoy the passing scene on the boulevard, there is a small waiterless haven on the corner of the Rue des Saints-Pères called Square Taras-Chevtchenko, which is a perfect place to meet, read or try and fold up your map. Take a right on to Rue Bonaparte, passing an imaginative piece of street sculpture that looks like a burst water main.
Follow boutique-flanked Rue Bonaparte up to Saint-Sulpice, and then go left along Rue Saint-Sulpice. This is an unusually arid stretch for refreshment of any kind, but relief is at hand if you can make it to the Carrefour de l'Odéon. This is a popular gathering spot, and the Horse's Tavern has a quite un-Parisian bias towards beer, boasting twelve different brands on draught and 180 in bottle. We'd suggest you keep going up the attractive rue de l'Odeon until you come to the Bar Dix, a small, dark, friendly dive that serves jugs of sangria and is right next door to the original premises of Shakespeare & Company. This is where Joyce's 'Ulysses' was first published, where Henry Miller borrowed books that he never returned, and where Hemingway smashed a vase of flowers after reading a particularly bad review. It's now a Chinese import business. At the end of the street is a superb fish restaurant, La Méditerranée, part of a small crescent of buildings that faces the elegant columned portals of the Odéon, Théâtre de l'Europe. The fact that there is a theatre in the centre of Paris committed to productions from all over the continent, let alone one as prestigious as this, shows how natural and unselfconscious is the French relationship with Europe. And a stroll beneath the columns at the front of the theatre, looking back the way you've come, offers a wonderful tracking shot of Saint-Germain.
Take a right down Rue de Vaugirard, past the gendarmes in their plastic boxes outside the Senate, and into a narrow lane called Rue Ferou. No. 6 is an imposing building with stucco swags and medallions and a courtyard with gates guarded by a pair of sphinxes. This was Hemingway's last apartment in Paris, and a greater contrast with the cold-water, outside-lavatory flatlet on Cardinal-Lemoine could hardly be imagined. But by that time, Hemingway's bohemian days were over. After four years in Paris he had established himself with a hit novel — 'The Sun Also Rises' — and a second and much richer wife, Pauline Pfeiffer. Throughout the whole seven years he lived in Paris his favourite refuge was the incomparable Jardin du Luxembourg, a 60-acre park laid out in the early 17th century, which never intrudes upon or overwhelms the area around it. It is the city park par excellence, big enough to offer corners of peace and quiet, small enough to walk across in a matter of minutes. It connects what can loosely be called the Left Bank with Montparnasse.
As you walk in off the busy Rue de Vaugirard, you enter a serene and calming world created by a series of artfully constructed vistas. Immaculately trained avenues lead to low, dark, miniature forests of precision-planted limes and chestnuts reminiscent of the backgrounds of Bellini and Uccello paintings in which awful things go on. These in turn give way to wide, open terraces aching out over the elegant pond and the Palais du Luxembourg. The gardens are dotted with 19th-century park furniture, little pavilions and shelters, all beautifully kept. Hemingway talks often of the Jardin. He walked here with Hadley and their first son Jack, he loved to look at the Cézannes in the Musée du Luxembourg, and he came through here when he was very poor because 'you saw and smelled nothing to eat from the Place de l'Observatoire to the Rue de Vaugirard'. And, above all, he came through here on his way to visit his greatest single artistic influence in Paris: Gertrude Stein.
As the park has so little changed, you can be pretty certain that if you make your way along the fresh-swept gravel paths, out of the middle gate onto Rue Guynemer and across to Rue de Fleurus you will be seeing pretty much what Hemingway saw as he made his way along to Stein's apartment at No. 27. 'It was easy to get into the habit of stopping in at 27 Rue de Fleurus for warmth and the great pictures and the conversation,' he wrote. Stein introduced him to writers and artists, and to new ideas about painting and writing. She and her friend Alice B Toklas served them liqueurs made from plums and raspberries. They fell out eventually and called each other names; but then Hemingway did that with most people who helped him.
The apartment blocks on Rue de Fleurus are big, bland, expensive and dull, and we should move rapidly to Boulevard Raspail, left and then left again on to Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs. The poet Ezra Pound lived at No. 70, and it was here that he introduced Hemingway to one of his first publishers, Ernest Walsh. Hemingway, in turn, taught Pound to box. 'He has the general grace of the crayfish,' he wrote to a friend. In 1924 Hemingway moved to an apartment at No. 113, above a sawmill (which is why it was cheap). Nowadays the concrete-coated block is part of the Ecole Alsacienne. Much of the area is home to schools and colleges; if you want to see the France of the future, turn up there about midday when the cafés are full of students, and try to squeeze into the Avant-Scene bar.
Opposite Hemingway's apartment there was a bakery, and Hemingway remembers going 'into the back door that fronted on to the Boulevard du Montparnasse and out through the good bread smells of the ovens and the shop to the street.' If you look carefully, you'll find a short steep stairway that still leads to a boulangerie and patisserie. It all smells so good that you may be tempted to buy one of their sensational filled baguettes, give up the walk and go back for a picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg. But we're almost there. The front door of the Patisserie Grascoeur opens on to the Boulevard du Montparnasse and a final massed climax of Hemingway sites. Turn left for Librairie Abencerage at No. 159, an upmarket travel bookshop that was once the Hotel Venitia, which is where Hemingway carried on an adulterous affair with Pauline (who became the second Mrs Hemingway in 1927). Carry on to the junction with rue de l'Observatoire, where you will find La Closerie des Lilas – one of Hemingway's favourite writing, eating and drinking spots. He became disillusioned with it when it went upmarket in 1925. He was particularly appalled that the waiter was forced to shave off his moustache. The American Bar they opened then is still there, and you can sit and have a cocktail named after him beside a brass plaque that also bears his name. Alternatively you can sit at the front and look out past the statue of Marshal Ney flourishing his sword and see beyond it, across the road, the sign of the Hotel Beauvoir. This is where Hadley Hemingway and their young son stayed after Ernest left her for Pauline, and Paris began to turn sour for all of them. 'Paris was never to be the same again, although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed,' he wrote of the break-up. La Closerie des Lilas (with its own chapter in 'A Moveable Feast') is a convenient place to stop, but if you would like a cheaper restaurant and a more collectable metro station at which to finish, then turn right out of the Closerie and follow the Boulevard du Montparnasse to Place Vavin. Here you have a choice of classic brasseries, all well known to Hemingway: La Rotonde, Le Dôme, La Coupole, Le Select.
Pass them by for now and turn off the main road up Rue Delambre, where you will find the historic site of the fabulously named Dingo Bar. It's now called the Auberge de Venise, and the food is Italian, but surely that's a small price to pay for eating on the spot where Hemingway first met Fitzgerald and the two English aristocrats on whom he based the characters of Duff Twysden and Mike Guthrie in 'The Sun Also Rises' (the book that made Hemingway, and Hemingway's Paris, famous).
We've covered the ground the way Hemingway liked to do it. On foot. As far as we can remember, he doesn't mention a single metro station, even the one at the end of the rue Delambre and at the end of our walk: Edgar Quinet, 'Poète, Historien, Homme Politique 1803-1875.'
Auberge de Venise 10 rue Delambre, 10th (01.48.04.88.44). Open: daily 11.30am-2.30pm, 6.30pm-12am. Cosy Italian restaurant with fine food.
Le Bar Dix 10 rue de l'Odéon, 6th (01.43.26.66.83). Open: daily 6pm-2am. Trendy venue that was a hotbed of activity in 1968.
Café de Flore 172 boulevard St-Germain, 6th (01.45.48.55.26). Open: daily 7am-2am. Expensive café that used to be a haunt of the Surrealists, and now hosts filmmakers and café philosophique sessions.
Café Pré aux Clercs 30 rue Bonaparte, 6th (01.43.54.41.73). Open: daily 6.30am-2am.
La Closerie des Lilas 171 boulevard du Montparnasse, 6th (01.40.51.34.50). Open: daily 12pm-2.30pm, 7pm-11.30pm. Better value in the brasserie than the restaurant. Get a 'Hemingway cocktail' here.
La Coupole 102 boulevard du Montparnasse, 14th (01.43.20.14.20). Open: Mon-Fri 8am-12am; Sat-Sun 9am-12am. Reliable French food in this legendary art deco brasserie. Les Deux Magots 6 place Saint-Germain des Près, 6th (01.45.48.55.25). Open: daily 7.30am-1am. Expensive and classy one-time haunt of Sartre, Beckett and de Beauvoir.
Le Dôme 108 boulevard du Montparnasse, 14th (01.43.35.25.81). Open: daily 12pm-3pm, 7pm-11pm. Legendary Montparnasse fish house; also an upmarket café-bar.
Horse's Tavern 16 carrefour de l'Odéon, 6th (01.43.54.96.91). Open: 7am-2am. La Mediterranée 2 place de l'Odéon, 6th (01.43.26.02.30). Open: daily 12pm-2.30pm, 7.30pm-11pm. Stylish types enjoy excellent fish in beautifully refurbished surroundings.
La Rotonde 105 boulevard du Montparnasse, 6th (01.43.26.28.26). Open: daily 6am-2am. A classic café-brasserie offering oysters and sandwiches.
Le Select 99 boulevard du Montparnasse, 6th (01.45.48.38.24). Open: Sun-Thu 7am-3am, Fri-Sat 7am-5am. Large, grand and historic, this self-styled 'American bar' is one of the giants of Montparnasse nightlife.
Hôtel Beauvoir 43 avenue Georges Bernanos, 5th (01.43.25.57.10).