A Parisian Cafe Crawl, by James Potter

Posted on October 9, 2012

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A Parisian Cafe Crawl

by James Potter

It was ten o’clock on a glorious spring Paris morning and I was sitting in Cafe de Flore, one of the city’s famous left bank cafes. I had taken the table next to the one preferred by Pablo Picasso. It did not seem right to take his table – he might, after all, come in at any time.

Cafe de Flore

A 1930s American writer in Paris, William Faulkner, had written ‘the past is never dead – it’s not even past’, and it was certainly not difficult to imagine the continuing presence today of all those writers, painters, actors  and musicians that used the Cafe de Flore as their ‘home’ or ‘office’ during the first half of the 20thcentury.

Cafe de Flore

Cafes in Paris have always been so much more than just cafes. They have been places to write, recite, sketch, compose, meet, talk, discuss, plot (the French revolution for example) and, of course, to just watch.

A perfectly attired, efficient, but unsmiling waiter (smiling is not part of their job) delivered to me a cafe crème. It was pure class. Coffee was in one little jug, milk in another, both beautifully designed and adorned with the cafe’s name. And it was delicious coffee. At €5.50 for two cups it was also surprisingly good value.

I relaxed into my surroundings and took in the art deco lighting, the art nouveau arrangements of real flowers and the vast array of mirrors – reflections of reflections – that enabled me to watch myself drink in both left and right profiles at the same time. I was admiring the graceful floor mosaics when part of the floor opened up in front of me. Arising from the depths was a bin full of kitchen waste that was  wheeled away and replaced by an empty bin. This was then lowered out of sight. Well, even Cafe de Flore has to have rubbish!

Cafe de la Marie

A short walk down Rue Bonaparte leads to Place St Sulpice and the Cafe de la Marie. This is a well known rendezvous for writers and students, but unexpectedly  the cafe’s many outdoor wicker chairs were all lined up in neat rows facing the square – hardly the arrangement for an intense group discussion.

Mind you, there was plenty to see and admire in the square – the chestnut trees just coming into their pink bloom, the gurgling fountain of the Four Bishops and the centrepiece, St Sulpice, often known as the Cathedral of the Left Bank. It has stood there for over 250 years, but never so popular as recently when devotees of Dan Brown’s “Da Vinci Code’ flocked to see the haunt of the albino monk-assassin.

Cafe de la Marie

A regular visitor to the Cafe de la Marie is apparently the French film actress Catherine Deneuve who lives nearby. I suspect that the neat rows of chairs become disorganised when she appears as the coffee drinkers reorientate themselves in her direction. Speaking of coffee, at €4 a cup I found it overpriced and understrength.

Picasso ‘In la Rotonde’

Sitting outside at du Dome provides a great view of the cafe opposite. This was Cafe de la Rotonde, my next destination. In 1910 Picasso painted a scene inside la Rotonde and presumably, because of this, the intersection became known as Place Pablo Picasso. There is a decided emphasis on seafood at this intersection with both cafes famous for their fish restaurants and a fresh fish market on a third corner.

Cafe de la Rotonde was also a haven for poor artists. The proprietor allowed them to keep warm for hours over a single cheap coffee and turned a blind eye when they broke off and ate the ends of baguettes that stood in a basket at the bar.

I headed south east along Montparnasse, a seemingly lone pedestrian amidst its ridiculously wide footpaths (10 metres in places). This street had been very popular with the Germans in World War II (the French tended to prefer boulevard St. Germain). I remembered those grainy photos showing a line of German soldiers enjoying the pleasures of a conquered city and realised how these broad pavements suited the needs of occupying troops showing a united front.

Fifteen minutes away was La Closerie des Lilas, a cafe that today seems strangely hidden behind pot-bound hedges (which presumably were once beds of lilacs). In the nineteenth century this was the place to be seen both before and after the Bullier ball – the most famous and outrageous of the dancehalls of Paris. In later years it became the meeting place of Emile Zola, Cezanne, Oscar Wilde, Scott Fitzgerald, and, of course, Hemingway and Picasso.

It was the venue of one of the great one-liners of all time. A certain Frenchman, famous for his female conquests, was finding unusually strong resistance from a particular lady. His response was to hurl a bottle against one of the wall mirrors. All conversation in the cafe ceased as the shattered glass crashed to the floor. In the silence that followed the amorous gentleman caught the young lady’s attention and uttered “Now that the ice is broken, we can talk”.

A reflective Hemingway, in a more literary sense, once wrote ‘If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast’. This made me realise it was time to move on – five cafes done, seven still to go, but more than half the day over.

A longer walk now through the Luxembourg Gardens took me into the student quarter and the rather special Rue Mouffetard. Hemingway described it as ‘that wonderful crowded market street’ and, indeed, it still is. It meanders downhill past many small shops – some dating from the sixteenth century – that provide a peaceful village feel. Halfway down is Cafe Mouffetard, an establishment quite different from all the other cafes I would visit this day.

Cafe Mouffetard

Brasserie Balzar

This cafe is a very much a family affair – the owners bake their own croissants and brioche – and it has the relaxed atmosphere of a meeting place for locals. Its warm and cosy feel has attracted film-makers and it has provided a set for scenes in ‘Amelie’ and ‘Three Colours Blue’. After a necessarily rushed cafe crème I ventured further into student territory to the very popular Brasserie Balzar. It opened in the heart of the Sorbonne (a university founded in the twelfth century) to cater for students and their professors – a place to eat, drink, debate and philosophise.

Brasserie Balzar

In the 1990s it was bought by a food chain known for their fast-food restaurants. This resulted in revolution! The cafe was occupied day after day by protestors who deliberately employed slow-eating strategies. The catchcry was ‘is this merely a place to eat or is it something more?’. The revolutionaries won the day. Indeed Balzar certainly is something more than a cafe. In awe of the artistic surroundings – immensely beautiful ceramic vases, for example –  the tilted wall mirrors that enable one to see what is happening in all corners of the room, and the need for more food to counteract the caffeine flow, I decided to remain, relax and enjoy a famous French snack – a croque monsieur (eaten very slowly!).

It has to be said that the next four cafes passed by in something of a haze. More accurately described as bistros or brasseries they would probably have been better left for another day. However, I needed to complete my self- imposed task. First came the Polidor in Rue Monsieur le Prince. It was, to my immense relief, closed until later in the evening. I took in its facade with the sign ‘Cremerie’ still distinguishable, showing that in a previous life it sold dairy products. English writer T.S. Eliot, a regular in the 1930s had impressively remarked ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons’.

Next came Cafe Procope which dates from 1686 – the oldest cafe in Paris in continuous operation. It was a meeting place for those plotting the French Revolution and became associated with the nearby Comedie Francaise theatre company. The playwright Voltaire is said to have consumed daily up to 40 cups of coffee in these premises.

Then on to La Palette, another old fashioned cafe, in the rue de Seine. Nearby was Petit St. Benoit in the street of the same name. It was closed, but I waited in a nearby park for it to open at 7 o’clock. I wanted to see the old wooden drawers behind the counter where, in more genteel times, personalised cloth napkins were kept for the exclusive use of regular customers.

Les Deux Magots

Finally I returned to boulevard St. Germain and Les Deux Magots. Like its next door neighbour where I had been eleven hours before, this was the working cafe for writers, philosophers and painters. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir took to their regular tables at 10 o’clock very morning, Hemingway read his poetry in the evening to anyone who would listen, and Picasso and Oscar Wilde were amongst other famous regulars. Around the central pillar, inside the cafe, are two large figurines  (or magots – from which the cafe takes its name) of Chinese merchants. Over the years they have looked down upon the famous and not so famous, just as they were surveying  the current scene where I was drinking my last coffee for the day.

Les Deux Magots

The cool night air swept over me as I exited and I was able to rationally decide which had been my favourite coffee. It was the first! But was that simply because it was the first? Should I, one day, repeat my visits in the reverse order?

I sat in the warm Metro as it rumbled hopefully in the direction of my hotel. Picasso’s voice came back one more time. ‘I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else’. Well, yes, my idea had become something else. A test of endurance perhaps, but something much more – an exhilarating day wrapped comfortably in the past and present of the eternal Paris.

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Posted in: James Potter, Travel