Follow in the Footsteps of the Literary Greats in Paris
Which literary buff hasn’t stood in front of the Opéra Garnier and been tempted to burst into song à la Gaston Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera? Which child (or parent) hasn’t gazed up at the awe-inspiring façade of the Notre-Dame cathedral, without imagining Quasimodo squinting down at us from the belfry way up high, in eternal quest of his Esmeralda? And who hasn’t pictured Ernest Hemingway, drink in one hand and his novel A Moveable Feast in the other, while taking a peek inside the iconic Shakespeare & Company bookshop in the Latin Quarter?
Countless film-makers have been inspired by Paris over the years, and writers from all over the world have put pen to paper to describe this extraordinary city. It’s virtually impossible to walk along any of the avenues and boulevards in Paris without being aware of the city’s immensely rich history and culture beckoning at every corner.
PARIS LITERATURE TOUR
During your stay in Paris, turn back a few pages in history and follow in the footsteps of some of the world’s most famous literary geniuses by taking a stroll through the streets with a fabulous guided walking Paris Literature Tour (LINK). Whether you are an avid bookworm, or are simply interested in learning some fascinating anecdotes along the way, you will discover why generations of authors have found Paris so inspiring and influential.
One of the most popular routes of this tour, led on my visit by passionate and highly knowledgeable guide Marie, begins by the Palais-Royal and meanders close to the Louvre, over the river Seine and into the heart of the Latin Quarter, concluding appropriately at Shakespeare and Company close to the hunchback’s Notre-Dame.
The first port of call is the Comédie-Française, founded by the Sun King Louis XIV in 1680 and home to its best-known playwright, Molière. Classified as a historic monument, it is still the only state theatre to have its own troupe of actors, and tickets are like gold dust even today.
Walking next to this glorious building past the impressive Le Nemours café (where a pre-promenade drink or café is highly recommended) (LINK to restaurants article), it is all too easy to imagine the atmosphere from previous centuries.
STEPPING BACK IN TIME
Once inside the gardens of the adjoining Palais-Royal, Marie brings alive episodes of the chequered history of this atmospheric spot. A royal residence with a sordid past, it was immortalised by Balzac in the nineteenth century and is now home to one of Paris’s most beautiful and select restaurants, Le Grand Véfour (LINK to restaurants). One of its claims to fame is as preferred hangout of daily visitor Victor Hugo, who apparently chose the same dish of pasta, lamb and beans (vermicelles, poitrine de mouton et haricots blancs) every single day – anyone dining here nowadays will be able to attest that the menu has evolved considerably since then…
“TIME SPENT WITH A CAT IS NEVER WASTED”
The Palais-Royal is renowned for having been the residence of the provocative Colette, who lived with her beloved cats at number 9 for many years until her death in 1954. Nominated for the Nobel Prize of Literature and best known for her novella Gigi, Colette led a very colourful life, which Marie recounts with suitable verve. It’s also entertaining to see the adverts gracing the green billboards all around the city, publicising the newly launched film ‘Colette’ starring Keira Knightley and Dominic West. Highly recommended for all film aficionados, it may not be the literary event of the new year, but it does faithfully reproduce Paris as it was during the ground-breaking writer’s lifetime, to great effect.
Criss-crossing through the courtyards of the Louvre and over the Seine to the Saint-Germain-des-Près and Odéon areas, ghosts of a literary past are in evidence everywhere. Admittedly, stories of poets and writers languishing in rundown attic apartments do seem somewhat incongruous alongside sparkling window displays of Ralph Lauren and Louis Vuitton, but much of the original Existentialist atmosphere can still be felt in the Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, and it is not impossible to imagine Camus or Sartre leaning over your shoulder while you enjoy a café crème.
“THIS WALLPAPER IS DREADFUL, ONE OF US WILL HAVE TO GO”
Those fascinated by Oscar Wilde can also ask to take a detour and peek into L’Hôtel nearby at number 13, rue des Beaux-Arts – ask the hotel concierge if it would be possible to quickly admire the jaw-dropping central staircase, one of the most amazing interiors in Paris. Opulently renovated by Jacques Garcia, the original spirit of the home which became Wilde’s final ‘resting place’ remains to this day, and it’s also a great place for a gourmet Michelin-starred dinner or an indulgent afternoon tea (for assistance with advance reservations email [email protected]).
A little further up the road, a charming covered passageway by the rue Saint-André-des-Arts leads you to the back entrance of Le Procope. This is the city’s oldest café, and it boasts the Marquis de Sade, Rousseau and Beaumarchais amongst its former guests. It’s now one of the city’s staples for seafood platters, and if you partake of a meal here you can also ask to see Voltaire’s marble desk and read a letter penned by the imprisoned Marie-Antoinette, both of which are upstairs on the first floor.
Moving into the heart of the Latin Quarter and the Sorbonne university area, Marie points out the universe populated by writers and artists who have made this area their stomping ground in the past, including expatriate Lost Generation authors in the Gertrude Stein circle such as Scott F. Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. We learn about the famous feud Gertrude had with James Joyce, and pass by the Polidor restaurant where Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac used to dine long before Woody Allen set a scene from Midnight in Paris here, thereby ensuring a constant flow of visitors wanting a taste of 1920s Paris.
Those who have a superstitious leaning can also get to pat Montaigne’s bronze statue for a stroke of good luck on their travels: rumour has it that students of the Sorbonne started the ritual of caressing the philosopher’s golden right foot back in the 1930s. Make a wish while saying “Salut Montaigne” on the Square Paul Painlevé, and your dreams should come true – if the writer’s benign expression is anything to go by…
The final pitstop of this enlightening walking tour is on the rue de la Bûcherie, the street where Simone de Beauvoir penned Les Mandarins, for which she won the illustrious Prix Goncourt. A Left Bank institution, the Shakespeare & Company bookshop was founded by George Whitman in honour of Sylvia Beach’s original bookstore at 12 rue de l’Odéon, and first opened its doors in 1951. His daughter Sylvia picked up the gauntlet in 2003 and continues the impressive literary tradition in the same spirit, allowing young writers to stay and work upstairs. An estimated 30,000 ‘Tumbleweeds’ have been welcomed to date and as the store confidently reports, “we have no intention of closing our doors.”
SWING TIME IN PARIS
A biennial festival of literature has been introduced, inviting authors such as Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer to Paris, and the store hosts writer events throughout the year, so check the Shakespeare and Company website and keep an eye out for any special evenings during your stay. Autographed copies from past guest authors can also be found in store – and even if you don’t succumb to a literary tome, you may be tempted by conclude your visit by purchasing a tote bag spreading the words of Whitman’s paraphrased and celebrated quote : “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” …
Top Tip : Restaurant Recommendation
For seriously tasty French fare to recharge your batteries after your tour, try the Brasserie Balzac on the rue des Écoles. As traditional today as it will have been back when it first opened its doors in 1894, don’t expect any frills or overtly cheery service, but do look out for a discreet photo of Giscard-d’Estaing next to the loaded bookshelves, and listen out for the local chitchat with the waiters about the evening match while perusing the daily newspapers. I love journalist Vincent Noce’s comment that the staff’s relationship with their regular clients is a mix of “nonchalence, ironie et gentillesse” – what more would you wish for? The gratin dauphinois meanwhile is to die for, and whatever you choose is guaranteed to be no-messing delicious.
Brasserie Balzar, 49 rue des Écoles, open every day from 8:30 to 23:00 (22:30 on Sundays, advance reservation possible but not always necessary).
For dates and details of the Paris Literature Tour (LINK), please contact NJH email; we would be delighted to help you – and if you are interested in dining at any of the restaurants mentioned above, we would be happy to make reservations on your behalf.
PRIVATE TOUR ASSISTANCE
The beauty of considering a semi-private or private walking tour is that we can personalise your visit to suit your specific requirements. If you are a family traveling together, for example, we can adapt the tour to include authors your children are studying. If you prefer an even more individual approach, just let us know the details and we can help plan the route accordingly. One of our guests was intrigued to follow in her favourite author Proust’s steps; another visitor from the acting profession had a particular passion for the Latin Quarter and exploring areas which were once the predilection of those writing in the 1920s.
We can go wherever your literary steps take us!
Please note that some parts of this article were first published in October 2016 for Paris Perfect, with thanks. All photos by Nicola Collarile unless otherwise indicated. “Hunger Was Good Discipline” pages 62 & 63 from the Jonathan Cape publication of “A Moveable Feast” by Ernest Hemingway, printed in 1964.