If I had the power to go back in time for one day, I would undoubtedly choose to set foot in Paris during the 1920s when the likes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein could be found sipping coffee at charming sidewalk cafes and discussing literature on the Left Bank.
As a writer, Paris is a literary goldmine that has nurtured some of history’s most talented artists who roamed the cobblestone streets of La Ville Lumière with little more than ideas of what to create next. Back then, Paris was pulsing with untapped talent as writers flocked there in search of inspiration that could only be derived from the romantic architecture and dream-like aura the city exudes. What resulted was an artistic community where talent was revered and opinions respected as these no-name wordsmiths would go on to shape literature as we know it today.
I fell in love with Paris (as most do) when I visited it years ago but it was not until my latest visit did I feel as though I had stepped into Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, playing the part of the aspiring writer armed with nothing more than a pen, paper and dreams. With a corner of the city I could call my own in the literary and academic Latin Quarter, I shamelessly gave into Parisian cliches and imagined myself retracing the steps of my literary icons around the city and experiencing Paris as an artist would.
Shakespeare & Co.
Nestled on a small street across from the Seine and neighbouring Notre Dame, Shakespeare & Co. is an iconic bookshop that not only celebrates writing but supports local writers. After hours, the couches become a welcome respite for struggling artists who can find a warm place to sleep in exchange for helping around the store a bit.
The original Shakespeare & Co. was opened in 1919 by Sylvia Beach and served as a local haunt for the likes of writers such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and more. Unfortunately, the original bookshop was closed in the 1940s under the German occupation and was eventually honoured by the reopening of a second Shakespeare & Co. in 1951, which still stands today.
When I enter bookshops, I always seem to have a veil of magic drop over my eyes as each novel holds all the promise of a wonderful story yet to be told and in Shakespeare and Co. there was no exception. I pulled out a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast and stood at once entranced and enchanted when I flipped to a chapter that detailed his visit to Shakespeare & Co. back in the 20s. Imagine how humbling it was to be reading about Hemingway’s life in Paris while standing in the bookshop he once wrote about.
True, an American bar in the heart of Paris may seem like an unlikely destination for visitors but for those looking to step into the shoes of their literary icons then Harry’s Bar is a stop worth making.
This nondescript bar was opened in 1911 in Paris and was renamed Harry’s Bar (originally called New York Bar) when Harry MacElhone assumed ownership of the place. The bar was a popular hangout spot for Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway who would talk prose over cocktails on evenings in Paris.
Bookshops Along the Seine
It’s said that Hemingway spent hours perusing the small book stalls that dot the bank of the Seine in Paris. The dusty novels of past authors are still sold alongside colourful postcards and amateur canvas paintings that depict romantic scenes of Paris. It’s a literary dream to stroll down the Seine, take in the ornate bridges spanning the river and languidly flip through the worn pages of leather bound books sold in these dark green painted stalls.
Les Deux Magots
Cafe Les Deux Magots is one of the oldest cafes in Paris and has served artistic icons such as Picasso, Simone de Beauvoir, André Gide, Jean Giraudoux, Jean Paul Sartre and Hemingway.
Today the St. Germain-des-Pres cafe has become a tourist attraction and is likely more expensive than it would have been back when its patrons were struggling writers and painters looking for a warm meal. To retrace the steps of some of Paris’ most notable artists, Les Deux Magot is a stop on the itinerary that gives a nod to its storied past and heritage while also whipping up classic French fare.
Cafe de Flor
The iconic Cafe de Flor has been forever memorialised in film and television as the quintessential Parisian cafe on the corner of Boulevard St. Germain and Rue St. Benoit.
Cafe de Flor is one of the oldest cafes in Paris and has played host to a long list of notable patrons including Hemingway, Sartre and Gopnik. A rival of Les Deux Magots, Cafe de Flor has been opened since before WWII and is a nod to an older time in Paris. Today, the cafe has become a fashionable tourist attraction that has seen the likes of celebrities and film crews; yet to retrace the steps of Paris’ great writers this place is worth a visit.
To rub elbows with the rising talent of Paris (and perhaps share some of your own work!) look no further than the SpokenWord Paris, an English open mic night held Monday evenings.
The open mic night has been running since 06′ and is usually held at the charming Au Chat Noir in the 11th arrondissement.
20 Rue Jacob
Back in the day, many American ex-pats hosted salons that would bring together talented writers and artists who would bond over shared love of their craft.
American writer, Natalie Clifford Barney ran one of the more popular salons that hosted icons for over 60 years. From T.S. Eliot to Ezra Pound, Barney’s salon on 20 Rue Jacob was graced by many of the 20th century’s best authors. Although the building at 20 Rue Jacob has long since been rebuilt, homage can still be paid at the iconic address and in the garden where Barney hosted many of her popular salons.
The Luxembourg Gardens
Ernest Hemingway often wrote of strolling down the gravel pathways of Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens on his way after a visit to Gertrude Stein’s apartment or a morning spent writing prose.
Today, the garden retains much of its historic beauty and is a prime way to experience Paris of the 20s (that is if you block out the fairly recent skyscraper, Tour Montparnasse).
With children sailing toy sailboats, and flowers blooming alongside ornate statues honouring writers and artists past, the Luxembourg Gardens is like the imagination come to life.
As Hemingway 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 moveable feast.” While Paris seems to be beautiful regardless of the day, season or decade; there is something magical about the twenties and finding nostalgia in an era when artists were the rockstars of their time.