Paris Urban Walk III
The first two episodes in this short series of Paris walks took their cues from paintings and historic photos. This Paris urban walk shall be guided by words.
Hemingway’s Moveable Feast
I would like to invite you to follow me on a literary walk through the Paris of Ernest Hemingway – or rather: the small corner of it that he describes in what is (perhaps) his most widely read book, A Moveable Feast. We will be following him on walks that he undertook himself – some of them through streets that appear to have changed little since the 1920s.
But be aware that, while I was letting you off easy the first two times, this walk is a little bit longer and will clock in at roughly three hours. As a bonus, however, there is a specially nice restaurant waiting for you at the end.
We start near Notre Dame Cathedral. Hemingway appears to have walked in Paris mainly from his home to the flats of his expat friends or to the pub, but there are also one or two areas where he rambled around for mere pleasure: down the quais of the Seine and, specifically, in the small park at the very tip of the Ile de la Cite which is called the Square du Vert Gallant.
Cross over the bridge behind Notre Dame Cathedral to the adjacent Ile St Louis …
… and leave the island by crossing the Pont de la Tournelle onto the Left Bank. Continue straight up the Rue Cardinal Lemoine, crossing first the Boulevard St Germain and then the Rue des Ecoles.
Hemingway walked this way many times, because it was “the shortest route” between the river and the house at the very top of Rue Cardinal Lemoine (no. 74) where he and his wife Hadley lived from January 1922 until August 1923.
This 20-month period is at the heart of A Moveable Feast, and Hemingway writes about it with a warmth and tenderness that appears to be somewhat missing from the account of his second stay in Paris (from January 1924 to March 1928) when he was already a published author and his private life had become much more complicated. Warmth is perhaps an odd choice of word, considering how much of his writing is about the very lack of it.
You find the Place Contrescarpe on your right hand side, immediately behind the Hemingway house. This square and the Rue Mouffetard down your left hand side, a “wonderful narrow crowded market street”, would have been very much “home” for the young couple, and if you turn right, you will pass the kiosque were Hemingway bought his daily racing paper.
You also pass the now rather swanky Cafe Delmas, called the Cafe des Amateurs in the 1920s and lovingly described by Hemingway as “the cesspool of the rue Mouffetard”, “a sad café” and “evilly run”.
Continue further down the street into Rue Descartes where Hemingway rented a separate room to write (the attic of no. 39, on your right hand side: the house where the French poet Paul Verlaine died).
This is also along the route of the walk he describes more warmly than any other: past Lycee Henri IV on your left, France’s most prestigious High School, and the church St Etienne du Mont into the “windswept Place Pantheon” and down Rue Soufflot into what seems to have been his favourite place in Paris …
There was, Hemingway tells us, one particular reason why he loved to walk through the Luxembourg gardens so much: when you were skipping meals, he says, it was the best place to walk because you “saw and smelled nothing to eat from Vaugirard to the Observatoire”.
Hunger is as much a leitmotiv for Hemingway as the cold, although at times one cannot help wondering how much of that is real poverty and how much bohemian pose. (Throughout his hunger walks, he appears rather chipper, not to say smug about his decision of “having given up journalism for the sake of writing literature”, and there always seems to have been money in the Hemingway household for travel, restaurants and betting – not to forget his “writer’s studio”, a strange luxury for a man who can’t afford to eat. In an area, which, even at the time, cannot have been the cheapest in Paris, literally a stone’s throw away from France’s top High School, some other prestigious educational institutions and the Law Faculty of the Sorbonne.)
But before we enter the Luxembourg gardens, there are two places that we should visit first. Turn right into Rue de Medicis and right again past the back of the Odeon theater before crossing the theatre square into Rue de l’Odeon, where – on no. 12 – you can spot the former home of Sylvia Beach’s original Shakespeare and Company bookshop (today’s namesake near Notre Dame Cathedral is a post-WWII revival by a different owner), a rental library for all those expats who (like Hemingway) had “no money to buy books”.
At the time a “lovely, warm, cheerful place” on a “cold, windswept street”, its is now a clothes shop. In their shop window, however, they do display a photo of Ms. Beach with James Joyce whose Ulysses she had famously printed herself after the book’s obscenities had frightened off more conventional publishers.
At the end of the street, turn left for the church St Sulpice and its “quiet square with benches and trees”, leaving it through Rue Ferou at the bottom. Hemingway describes this street in one of his walks, but Rue Ferou was to take on a more significant role later in his life when he moved here with his second wife Pauline in 1927. Their former house is the one at no. 6. No more poverty then, apparently. (He was already a celebrated young writer at the time, but the house was purchased by Pauline’s family who were rich.)
Now enter the Luxembourg gardens, explore it a little and leave it on the right hand side of the Museum, one of Hemingway’s favourites, walking straight into Rue de Fleurus. It was here, at no. 27, where Gertrude Stein lived and Alice Toklas invented the Hashish cookie. Ms. Stein, the fairy godmother of modernism, operated what must have been the city’s most famous “artistic salon” at the time, frequented by the likes of Joyce, Picasso and Matisse (something straight out of Midnight in Paris.)
Turn back on Rue de Fleurus, right into Rue d’Assas and right again at the bottom into Rue Notre Dame des Champs. It was here, in a house with the number 113 (“over the sawmill”) where Hemingway lived with Hadley from Jan 1924 until their separation in 1926. The house no longer exists, it would have been where you now find no. 115 bis, but you can still see the back door of the bakery right opposite where he sneaked in to walk “past the good bread smells of the oven into the shop that fronted on the Boulevard Montparnasse”.
This is the last stop on this Paris urban walk. But if you want, you can wrap up the afternoon with a visit to Hemingway’s favourite Parisian restaurant which happens to be literally around the corner (back where you came from and right on Boulevard Montparnasse).
He also appeared to have liked Lipp (opposite the church of St Germain des Pres on the Boulevard St Germain), but it is the Closerie de Lilas to which he dedicates an entire paragraph of wistfulness, having already called it “one of the nicest cafes in Paris”:
The Lilas is open 7/7 and serves food all through the day. Do not, however, expect to find a cheap neighbourhood bistro – it wasn’t that kind of place even in the 1920s when it already enjoyed a reputation a the premier meeting place for the city’s left-wing intelligentsia. (Lenin came here to play chess.)
Hemingway never says that it was cheap, but that’s what most people have come to believe, probably on the basis of what he wrote elsewhere about skipped meals and under-heated apartments. A Moveable Feast is a great guide through the Paris of the 1920s, but perhaps not always the most reliable source.
Then again, it was the writer himself who warned us:
This third and last walk is brought to you by New York Habitat. Immerse yourself in Paris’s Latin quarter by staying in one of their choice apartments.