Privacy and cookiesSubscribeRegisterLog in

Wednesday 20 June 2012

  1. Home»
  2. Travel»
  3. Destinations»
  4. Europe»
  5. France»
  6. Paris and around

Paris: Bohemia on the boulevards

Anthony Peregrine searches for the spirits of writers and artists in the unchanging cafés of the French capital

IF the most famous bar in London is the Queen Vic, the most famous in Paris is the Café de Flore, whose regulars included Guillaume Apollinaire, Ernest Hemingway, Leon Trotsky and Jean-Paul Sartre. Here, in a nutshell, is the essential difference between our two cultures. Unless I've missed it, London doesn't have much of a historico-literary café society; Paris occasionally appears to have nothing else. You can barely move on the Left Bank for places claiming Lenin and Rousseau, Camus and Fitzgerald, Picasso and Prokofiev, as former customers.

Since the late 17th century, Parisian cafés have been the crossroads of art, literature, philosophy, politics - and world-class debauchery. They created that peculiarly French élite which may place a president, an avant-garde poet, several artists, an anarchist and any number of courtesans on adjoining tables. If the cafés are, as they have been called, "alternative institutions of State", the institutional boundaries nevertheless remain flexible. They take in almost anyone - and anything.

"We discovered drugs, pederasty, travel, Freud, escape and suicide - all the elements of the sweet life," wrote Robert Brasillach of inter-war Montparnasse. Here was a fomentation of artists, French writers and American exiles who lived and occasionally worked in the cafés, not least because they afforded the warmth lacking in their own garrets. The drinking was heroic. "Garcong! Garcong! Where's the bloody garcong?" cried Sinclair Lewis at the Dome, still desperate for booze after a three-day binge.

Later, and especially after the Second World War, the focus moved down the road to St-Germain-des-Prés, where Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir wrote at café tables. The pair generated an unlikely rock-star following. "Easy women, difficult books," was how someone summed it up. Sartre reckoned that "not two in a thousand" of the existentialist groupies had ever read his works, which surprised only him.

The cafés did little to adapt to the various tumults. Hung with great mirrors and chandeliers, they retained (and retain) a formality upon which cultural and political tides ebbed and flowed. The waiters - bow-tied, white-aproned - carried on with the reserved courtesy of undertakers' clerks. In the photographs, the wildest men from the 1920s to the 1950s look like assistant bank managers. Even the 1968 student riots stopped at the terrace of Les Deux Magots.

Today, debauchery has moved on. Writers no longer write in cafés; they have heaters, and computers, at home. But they still show up to meet, eat and drink. So do the politicians, artists and thinkers. And showbiz folk and charlatans. And, of course, ordinary people like you and me. There's nothing exclusive about these places. That's their strength.

Les Deux Magots 6 place St-Germain-des-Prés. Métro: St-Germain.
The terrace overlooking the square - frequented in recent years by Borges, Moravia and Umberto Eco - gives Les Deux Magots an advantage over its neighbours Lipp and the Flore. As do the two big Chinese statues inside, which inspired the name (magot means Chinese figure) and look down on an Art Deco room unchanged for almost eight decades.

Founded in 1875, the café hit its stride in the 1920s, when various surrealist factions sat at different tables to exchange insults and Hemingway passed by. Picasso is said to have dreamt up Cubism here. Post-war, the existentialists held court, then the New Wave. "Sartre was one of the few people my mother recognised," says Jacques Mathivat, whose family has owned the cafe for three generations. The squat philosopher wrote at one table, de Beauvoir tackled The Second Sex at another. Both smoked endlessly.

Like Lipp, Les Deux Magots has an annual book prize - awarded, in 1955, to The Story of O - but is now considered more conservative than the Flore. Coffee is £2.30 - but the atmosphere is light with literary ghosts.

Café de Flore 172 blvd St-Germain. Métro: St-Germain.
There is a tradition of hurling hard-boiled eggs about in the Flore, but I would advise against it now. The surroundings are comfortable and the tone more Parisian and club-like than Les Deux Magots. The places to the left of the door are reserved for regulars, most of whom look a bit past the egg-throwing stage.

Apollinaire used the Flore as his office, the surrealists showed up here, too - as did Trotsky and Zhou Enlai. During the Second World War, it was one of the warmest places in Paris, thanks to a big stove installed where the cake trolley is today. The Germans never set foot in the place. Why not? "Perhaps they were intimidated by the intellectuals," says the Flore's Carole Chretiennot. Perhaps.

Marguerite Duras, Sartre and de Beauvoir (again) were joined in the late 1940s and 1950s by Arthur Koestler, Truman Capote and Lawrence Durrell. "At the Flore, people are a little less ugly," said the chanteuse Juliette Greco at the time. She still visits the cosy, wood-panelled upstairs room. Coffee is £2.30.

Brasserie Lipp 51 blvd St-Germain. Métro: St-Germain.
"People are always asking me: 'Where did Mitterrand sit?' Well, he sat where we put him," says Lipp's boss, Michel-Jacques Perrochon. "We couldn't keep a special table."

For all its legendary status, Lipp remains a pleasingly practical place. A sober festival of wood panelling, mirrors, lights and ceramics, it is a brasserie - not a café - serving meals through the day to 2am. That is why it is so popular with politicians from the nearby French parliament. "Governments are formed at Lipp - and broken at La Coupole," runs the saying.

It is not only politicians who use the place. The writers Paul Verlaine, Marcel Proust and André Gide all passed through, and Hemingway wrote bits of A Farewell To Arms here. "Writers stayed all day for the price of a beer," says Perrochon. "But times change."

Now, you are just as likely to find yourself scrunched up on the bench next to Woody Allen, Lauren Bacall or Jack Nicholson. On cue, an American tourist comes across: "Where does Madonna sit when she visits?" he asks.

"Right there!" beams Perrochon, indicating a corner seat.

The American leaves us, delighted. "Is it true?" I ask.

"I've no idea," smiles Perrochon. Coffee is £1.80 and main courses less than £10. Political and cultural scandal is included in the price.

Closerie des Lilas 171 blvd Montparnasse. Métro: Port Royal.
Little plaques indicate where the great and sometimes good sat in Closerie's dark wood and button-leather bar. Here was Lenin and there Samuel Beckett, here the inevitable Hemingway and there Camus, here Eugène Ionesco and there Henry Miller.

The Closerie has, however, moved on since it was base to Picasso, Modigliani and a raft of avant-gardistes. It has marched out onto the broad boulevard pavement, then closed itself in with shrubs and hedges - so appearing more private than the others.

Eating at its gastronomic restaurant is also a forbidding £70 a head indulgence - a sum which might have surprised Lenin but suits regulars from the nearby publishing houses. Then again, there is also a brasserie (£20 a head) and you are quite entitled to go in just for a drink at the bar. Coffee is £1.90.

At night a piano plays until everyone has gone home. "Around 4am or later. It doesn't matter," says its director, Thierry Clément. "We have a door, but we don't have a key for it."

Le Procope 13 rue de l'Ancienne Comedie. Métro: Odéon.
"We agree on two or three points, so we have only two or three thousand left to resolve," said Voltaire of an 18th-century debate at Le Procope, the original Paris café. Founded in 1686 as an alternative to the capital's low-life taverns, it boasted crystal chandeliers, mirrors, the works. The beau monde flocked in. Molière and Racine set the place on course for 200 years at the centre of French intellectual life.

Ben Franklin turned up daily during his Paris stint, before the café became a vital cog in the French Revolution. Marat, Danton and Robespierre met, debated and effectively launched the Terror there. The 19th century saw the Procope's invention of the "drive-through" concept. "Ladies couldn't be seen in cafés, even the Procope," says its director, Gilles Grandjean. "So they were served as they sat in their carriages outside."

The Procope is now restored as a wonderful "restaurant-museum" on three floors. All nine rooms speak of the establishment's past (Voltaire's desk, Chopin's sheet music) with something very like the original décor to match. But, says Grandjean, "We remain a restaurant first and foremost." Meals start at about £10, but you may also visit for a drink or - outside mealtimes - a quick look. Don't miss it. Coffee is £2.

La Coupole 102 blvd Montparnasse. Métro: Vavin.
This was where the American contingent bumped into the resident artists and heavily indulged in the sauce (prohibited back in the United States), turning La Coupole into the centre of the universe for intellectual drinkers in the 1930s. The vast establishment was built in 1927 on old quarry workings; hence the 32 pillars - each decorated by a different Montparnasse painter.

La Coupole extended credit and organised dancing downstairs - artists demand no more. Here were Man Ray, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Hemingway and the penniless Henry Miller - happy, as he later wrote, to be tolerated, if not understood.

Wartime saw the Wehrmacht colonising the upper floor as a canteen - Resistance women were slipped in as waitresses. Although the post-war party moved to St-Germain, La Coupole kept its standing. Both General de Gaulle and Andy Warhol were regulars.

It remains a meeting place for politicians and artists. "You may still nurse a coffee all day, if you wish," says maître d'hôtel Georges Viaud. It will cost you £1.20 and is, as Hemingway said, the easy part. The writing comes harder.

Le Dôme 106 blvd Montparnasse. Métro: Vavin.
Despite its Art Deco appearance, the present Dôme has little in common with the jumping joint of the early 1900s. It was made over in 1970 and is now one of the finest fish restaurants in Paris.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century, it was an ordinary bar-tabac which attracted extraordinary talents - Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Modigliani among them. Modigliani used to overspend his monthly allowance on booze and dope and had to knock out portraits of patrons for the price of a drink. Predictably, he was dead (in 1920) before Sinclair Lewis was making himself unpopular about the place.

"The more impoverished would slip out by the Gents, from where they came up in the next building - and got away without paying," says its director, Jacques Drouot.

Today, Le Dôme - all stylish stained glass and wood panels - still entertains politicians, publishers and personalities, although they are no longer cash-strapped. Dinner costs from £40; coffee on the terrace, £2.

Le Sélect 99 blvd Montparnasse. Métro: Vavin.
This was the pre-war hangout of Sartre and de Beauvoir: they frequently found themselves sitting "among crop-haired lesbians who wore ties and even monocles".

I spotted no one, man or woman, sporting a monocle - but otherwise found Le Sélect the least changed of Montparnasse's cafés littéraires. Unlike the equally famous La Rotonde drowning in red plush next door, Le Sélect has a lively bustle and the proper scrape of wooden chairs pushed back from time-honoured tables.

The interior, at least, is authentic. It is easy to imagine the time when, as a contemporary put it, "artists, writers, nobles, American sailors and doubtful women mingled on equal terms," because, with the possible exception of the sailors, they all seem still to be there. They may not yet enjoy the celebrity of Diaghilev, Debussy, Chagall, Gershwin and Kiki de Montparnasse, the belle et scandaleuse artist's model - but these people weren't famous from the word go either. In short, this is a good place to be - despite an odd coffee-pricing policy: £1.40 before 3pm, £1.70 after.

Comments for this page are closed.

Showing 0 comments

Real-time updating is enabled.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Telegraph Cottages France - Find holiday cottages in France with Telegraph Cottages
* fields are required.
  1. Country:
  2. *
  3. Region:
  4. *
  5. Party Size:
  6. *
Advanced Search
Why book with us?

Featured Advertising

Telegraph Video