Sitting at a Parisian corner café with my copy of A Moveable Feast – Hemingway’s ode to the city of love – I glance around at other solitary customers. Each are in a different world, removed from the hurly-burly of life. Over a slow coffee and croissant (or even a protein shake), Parisians really are to be found alone in a café reading a novel – an actual a physical book, you understand: you are hard pressed to spot a Kindle or tablet. The world has turned to screens, yet the French still turn the pages of a book. Such café culture says much about Paris and its literary heart.
A century ago, the cultural heart of the city began to shift south from one Mont- to another –Montmartre to Montparnasse. There, writers – such as Hemingway, Joyce and Fitzgerald – and artists, including Dali, Picasso and Miró, found the rents affordable and the cafés welcoming.
A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway’s posthumously published memoir, provides an invigorating guide to the area’s eateries. And little more than the prices have changed. On Boulevard du Montparnasse, Le Dôme bistro continues to laud its class and its prices above the mêlée. Across the road, Le Select still prides itself on accommodating walk-in locals who lean on the bar for a coffee while other visitors dine to be seen on the terrace, much as in Hemingway’s day.
Then an impoverished up-and-coming writer living in a tiny apartment with his young family, the ‘office’ Hemingway habitually worked in during his Paris years was his favourite café, the Closerie des Lilas. Today, the long-standing thick hedge surrounding the café’s terrace encompasses exclusivity more than the simple privacy Hemingway appreciated. He liked the Lilas for its low profile and even lower prices. Hemingway would be less impressed today to find his name emblazoned upon the bar and prices ranging up to €60 just for appetisers.
It was here in Montparnasse that Sylvia Beach opened the original Shakespeare and Company bookstore in 1919. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset have etched Shakespeare and Company onto the tourist map, although for many the allure lies more in Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and F Scott Fitzgerald than Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy or Owen Wilson. After all, the writers of the ‘Lost Generation’ (those who came of age during World War I) found both Paris and Shakespeare and Company first. The Montparnasse store acted as a free and invaluable lending library to struggling young writers like Hemingway and T S Eliot, and it launched the career of James Joyce: in 1922 Sylvia Beach dared to publish Ulysses, whereas US and UK publishers had deemed it too obscene.
Montparnasse is still caught in its history. Crêperies, originating from the Brittany region in northwest France, now pepper the capital, but Montparnasse hosts a glut of them, concentrated on Rue d’Odessa and Rue du Montparnasse for logical historical reasons. When the original Gare Montparnasse opened with routes from Brittany, the steam trains which sighed to a halt carried the necessary ingredients and expertise directly into the heart of Paris. Today, the streets around the train station remain dominated by Breton fare. Wheat flour, sugar-laden dessert crêpes may be most familiar to us, but gluten free buckwheat crêpes – known as ‘galettes’ – offer a healthier alternative. From a simple cheese and salad galette to foie gras, honey, nuts and fig jam, there is a combination for everyone, all to be washed down with an almost obligatory bol of Breton cider (literally served in a bowl). Today, some crêperies offer such far-flung fillings as chicken curry.
231 meters vertically away from diners lining the sidewalks, a lone skyscraper affords a breath-taking vista across the City of Light. Dusk is the perfect time to enjoy the views from Tour Montparnasse – and, fear not, in addition to an observation deck it also hosts both a bar and a restaurant. Witness the Eiffel Tower and the flying buttresses of Notre Dame Cathedral shine into life under the darkening sky.
Facing the cathedral over on the Left Bank sits today’s Shakespeare and Company. At the shop’s back, the cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter run into Montparnasse. In 1941 the Nazi occupiers of Paris closed down Sylvia Beach’s Montparnasse bookstore, but after the war Shakespeare and Company reopened – at the new location. Since 1951, an estimated 30,000 ‘Tumbleweed’ travellers – aspiring writers and artists – have drifted in and slept amid the stacked shelves and piled books of the rambling store. Tumbleweeds are asked to read a book a day and help at the shop for a couple of hours, manning the counter and supervising the queueing system outside during peak times. In lesser cities, shoppers queue up once a year for the launch of a new smartphone. In Paris, they queue every weekend for books.
Across the road from Shakespeare and Company, lining the Seine, bouquinistes – riverfront stallholders – are regulated so as to ensure at least three-quarters of their sale space is reserved for literature and art. Ever present since the Middle Ages, today’s bouquinistes sell original paintings and vintage movie posters, as well as second-hand books.
Heading back south from the river, around Montparnasse today you see the endurance of tradition in the old wooden sailing boats children still prod with sticks in the Jardin du Luxemburg, just as you see it in the imperious bars and brasseries of Boulevard du Montparnasse. There, one lost tradition making a comeback is the imbibing of la fée verte (the ‘green fairy’). Absinthe established itself as the artists’ drink of choice, and then one hundred years ago, it was prohibited across France (and beyond). Thanks to recent deregulation, it’s back. Too early one day, the head barman at Le Select walked me through the traditional process of positioning sugar cubes on top of the glass, like cheese on a grater, and pouring water through it to cloud the (68 per cent alcohol) absinthe below. Ah, the sweet taste of liquid liquorice is rousingly refreshing.
Of course, mere illegality failed to prevent the Hemingway of A Moveable Feast – or characters in his interwar novels – from enjoying the magic of the green fairy.
The title of Hemingway’s memoir is explained by his remark that wherever you go in later life, you take Paris with you, ‘for Paris is a moveable feast’. So, wherever you may be, pick up a good book, a decent drink and feast yourself.
And dream of Paris.