Paris is arguably the most literarily immortalised place on earth. You could visit almost every corner and cranny of this much-loved city without even leaving your couch. But if you want to be more than merely an armchair traveller, here are some of my favourite real-time ways in which you can experience the literary City of Light
Madame de Sévigné’s Marais
Marais means swamp, or marsh, in Old French, which must not have been such an auspicious name for an up-and-coming district. But the area morphed into the social centre of the civilised universe back in the 17th century, when the rest of the world looked to Paris for the latest in what to wear, eat, drink and read. One of the arrondissement’s most glamorous dwellers, Madame de Sévigné, became a posthumous literary star with the release of the letters she wrote to her daughter, who had moved to the south of France, describing in delightful detail the social whirl of Paris. The aristocratic Madame de Sévigné was born on Place des Vosges, a square of almost impossible loveliness with its park of pruned, lined-up linden trees and lush manicured lawns, surrounded by brick-and-stone townhouses that sit pretty above colonnaded arcades and beneath sloping slate roofs. Take a seat at Carette to admire the scenery, and pen a postcard or two in homage to Madame de S while you nibble on some macarons. Then work them off while strolling around the Marais, looking beyond the bobo-chic shopfronts and felafel counters to spot the grand old coach doors that are the gateways to splendid former hôtels particuliers (private mansions). One of the most magnificent is Musée Carnavalet, once Madame de Sévigné’s rather impressive address in later life, and now a museum devoted to the history of Paris. Such mansions set in stone the classic style of architecture that influenced following generations of architects, and represent an era when French culture was refining itself, too. It was a time when the French came into their literary own, the time of Charles Perrault, the J.K. Rowling of his day who inspired legions of newly literate citizens to fall in love with books. Literary salons were held throughout the Marais, and the French language in turn became one of eloquence and elegance that many other nations admired; this is perhaps why the English language is said to be at least 30% inspired by French; words like glorious and sumptuous and luxurious, which the English reworked as their own, and which perfectly describe the spirit of Old Marais.
In Search of Proust
The Musée Carnavalet, an overwhelmingly expansive collection of knick-knacks from Paris past (Roman remnants, medieval shop signs, toy guillotine), all sprawled over two Renaissance mansions, also showcases the private lives of Parisians over the centuries, with interiors from long-gone buildings. One is Marcel Proust’s famous cork-lined bedroom, in which the Belle Époque wordsmith feverishly scribbled his spidery thoughts into notebooks well into the wee hours. The museum is closed for renovation until late 2019, so in the meantime follow the dapper footsteps of Proust and make your way to the Hôtel Ritz for afternoon tea (bookings are advised) in Salon Proust, where the author used to while away many hours, observing the social butterflies whom he went on to catch in his thinly veiled novel In Search of Lost Time. The feast served up is inspired by the madeleine, the cake that Proust made famous for the way that it, when dipped in lime-blossom tisane, sent him whirling back into a world of childhood memories. Make sure to add in a flute of champagne, Proust’s preferred tipple.
A Moveable Hemingway
If you’re still at the Ritz come 6pm, wander down the famous vitrine-lined shopping corridor for the opening of Bar Hemingway at the Rue Cambon end. Ernest Hemingway actually drank across the way, in what was the old Cambon Bar, but the cosy Bar Hemingway, with its wooden walls, amber lighting and various Papa paraphernalia, best retains his spirit. With spirit being the operative word, order a martini and justify the eye-watering price by the generous serves of free snacks that are dished up. Hemingway, it must be noted, could often be found in many a watering hole around town, so you could also find a worthy excuse for a trek to Boulevard du Montparnasse, the cultural crossroads of the avant-garde 1920s, where both struggling and acclaimed artists could be found at any of the strip’s fabled drinking spots, such as Café La Rotonde, which stars in Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and La Closerie des Lilas, where the author met with another rising star named F. Scott Fitzgerald. This was back in the days when Hemingway was ‘very poor and very happy,’ when he used to while away ‘belly-empty, hollow-hungry’ hours by walking around the nearby Luxembourg Garden. This just happens to be an enjoyable place in which to work off your own libations before you once again work up an appetite; now, walk towards the intellectual heart of Paris, Saint-Germain, and salute Ernest’s ghost at Les Deux Magots, sipping sherry while sitting en terrasse.
Just up the road from Les Deux Magots is Café de Flore, aka the café that incubated existentialism. Basically, existentialism states that we are all free to choose our own path in life. In the seminal essay Being and Nothingness, written at this very café in 1943, Jean-Paul Sartre came up with the catchcry that would define his new philosophy: ‘existence precedes essence.’ His life-long partner, Simone de Beauvoir, was often by his side, writing away on such celebrated works as The Second Sex, which ushered in modern feminism. The world of the existential power couple might be long passed, and the heyday of literary Saint-Germain long gone too, but all literature lovers will get a kick out of paying homage to the Flore. Take your Moleskine notebook and find yourself a Moleskin banquette, order a cheese plate and a glass of rosé, and get all philosophical about the meaning of a good life.
Young Romantic and Brooding Bad Boy, the poet Charles Baudelaire made many a 19th-century woman swoon (in the days before syphilis and booze ravaged his features, that is). His most famous poem is arguably L’Invitation au Voyage, in which he begs his mistress to join him where all is ‘luxury, calm and voluptuousness.’ It was published in the notorious Les Fleurs du Mal (Flowers of Evil), much of which he wrote in the years when he lived on the Île Saint-Louis, the exquisite little island that seems still ensconced in the shimmering 1600s. I always imagine Baudelaire looking out over his waterfront views, fantasising about other lands, but also eras. He was one of the dreamers of French Romanticism, led by Victor Hugo, whose The Hunchback of Notre-Dame of 1831 effectively saved the cathedral from the death knell, leading to its restoration, as much as reimagining. Walk over to the Île de la Cité, focussing on the Gothic details of Notre-Dame; the dramatic buttresses, the frightening gargoyles, the brooding chimera … much of the drama was added in the neo Gothic era, to play to the new nostalgia-loving crowd. Work originally began on Notre-Dame in the 12th century, which gave us one of the world’s most tumultuous love stories, that of Abélard and Héloïse. Much of the island, once the bustling centre of Roman and then medieval Paris, was razed in the 19th century, but if you wind around Rue Chanoinesse and Rue de la Colombe, you can get a sense of the Paris of Abélard and Héloïse, who once lived in a house by Quai aux Fleurs, where a plaque commemorates their story. If you really want to ramp up the Gothic drama in your Parisian jaunt, take a half-day trip to Père Lachaise cemetery, and pay your respects at the tomb of the Middle Ages’ most famous pair of lovers, together now for eternity after all their corporeal years apart. While there, tip your beret at the graves of Marcel Proust, as well as many other French and Francophile literary greats, like Oscar Wilde, Molière and Colette.