There are certain aspects of Paris that have always captured my imagination, most of them in some way related to literature. The French Revolution, for example, fascinates me, a fact I trace back to middle school when I read Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Charles Darnay, Sydney Carton, Madame DeFarge and her nasty band of peasant rebels all made Paris seem real to me long before I had an opportunity to actually see it. Then, Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Miserables added to my panorama of Paris.
From Victor Hugo, fast forward to the Jazz Age of the 1920s, when artists and writers swarmed to Paris like bees to honey. If you saw Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, you have a feel for the era when American expat writers such as Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in Paris but seem to spend more time carousing than writing. That was about 90 years ago, but you can still see most of the places that Hemingway describes so beautifully in A Moveable Feast. The book is a virtual guidebook to the places he found most remarkable when he lived in Paris with is first wife, Hadley in the 1920s (and with subsequent wives later on).
The story goes that, in the 1950s, a trunk full of notes on his first years in Paris turned up at the Ritz Hotel. That gave him the raw material to write A Moveable Feast. So, take a little stop at the Ritz, near the Place Vendôme, especially at the hotel’s Hemingway Bar. During the Liberation of Paris in 1944, Hemingway considered it one of his first duties to “liberate” the Ritz bar and order martinis all around. Here at the Ritz, Hemingway asked Mary Welsh to become his fourth wife. The hotel is closed for renovations but will open this year. CoCo Chanel lived at the Ritz and one of the rooms in the Imperial Suite re-creates one of Marie-Antoinette’s rooms at Versailles.
If, like most of us, you lack the Versailles-level budget required to stay at the Ritz, consider staying in the Contrescarpe neighborhood where Hemingway lived in the 1920s. Be sure to pause at 74 Rue de Cardinal Lemoine where he and Hadley lived from 1922 to 1923, “the Paris of our youth, when we were very poor and very happy.” He describes their apartment:
Home in the rue Cardinal Lemoine was a two-room flat that had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic container, not uncomfortable to anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse.”
This apartment is where Hemingway wrote The Sun Also Rises, the book that made him famous. Below it is a shop that used to be a bal-musette or dance hall. It appears in The Sun Also Rises as the bal where we first meet Lady Brett. (Rest assured, you don’t have to live like a starving artist in this neighborhood. If you can book far enough ahead, try the Hotel D’Angleterre where Hemingway once stayed.) Wander Place Contrescarpe, a rough old square packed with cafes and apartments that couldn’t have changed since the 1920s. Take a morning stroll through the Marche Mouffetard (prime time is Saturday and Sunday morning), a fantastic market with produce, cheese, wine and just about anything you’ll need for your own feast, a picnic by the Seine or in the nearby Luxembourg Gardens.
If you walk downhill from Hemingway’s apartment on Cardinal Lemoine you’ll come to the Seine where you’ll see the famed expat bookstore, Shakespeare and Co., and across the street, Notre Dame Cathedral. From here, you can follow the steps of Jake and Bill in The Sun Also Rises as they circle the Île St-Louis. The stalls of the bouquinistes–sellers of antique books, magazines and a bit of tourist trash–line the walk along the river. Hemingway used to stroll here and chat with the booksellers. “I would walk along the quais when I had finished work or when I was trying to think something out. It was easier to think if I was walking and doing something or seeing people doing something that they understood.”
He adds, “With the
fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with the smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”
You won’t feel lonely in any of the many famous cafes along Boulevard du Montparnasse, either. Okay, they’re pricey and popular with tourists, but worth it if you want to sample jazz age cafe life. The Closerie des Lilas, for example, at 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse is a lovely cafe where Hemingway wrote and Scott Fitzgerald read him The Great Gatsby. La Coupole, at number 102, is a vast art deco brasserie, brightly painted by Brancusi and Chagall.
Finally, to really get the swing of the Paris of Hemingway’s era, wander the medieval lanes of the Latin Quarter where you’ll find the great jazz club Le Caveau de la Huchette at 5 rue de la Huchette. Though it wasn’t around during Hemingway’s time, it surely has much of the era’s joie de vivre. In Le Caveau’s ancient vaulted cellar you’ll find a dance floor, a swing band, and people dancing like Mexican jumping beans on a hot skillet. Sit back and watch Parisians enjoy la belle vie or join in the dancing. It’s your own moveable feast. As Hemingway concluded, “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other.”