I recently spent three days in Paris. With nowhere near enough time to pay due homage to that well-fed grand dame of of a city, I confined myself more or less to the city limits of the Middle Ages: the Latin Quarter and St-Germain, and the islands of the River Seine.
I brought along my diary from the year I worked in Paris as an au pair, intending to retrace my steps while communing with my eighteen-year-old self. But my eighteen year old self proved to a pious bore and I could muster little enthusiasm for going over old ground. I ended up reading Hemingway instead, retracing his steps on a tour offered by Paris Walks.
The publicity for Hemingway’s Paris capitalises on the popularity of the Woody Allen movie Midnight in Paris, while taking its inspiration from Hemingway’s posthumously published memoirs, A Moveable Feast. Hemingway is one of several authors who feature on the walking tour of an area within the Latin Quarter known as the Mouffetard.
The Rue Mouffetard, today home to cafés, restaurants and an open air market, has been a major thoroughfare since Neolithic times, the name “Mouffetard” derived from “Mont Cetardus”, the ancient Roman name of the hill the street runs along (nowadays Mont St-Geneviève). Hemingway described it as “that wonderful narrow crowded market street.”
First stop on the tour is a private courtyard that backs on to the remains of a stone wall, which our British guide Chris says with a wry smile was built by King Philippe Auguste to keep the Normans out of Paris while he was off fighting the Third Crusade. Odd shaped stones in the brickwork suggest the use of recycled materials, possibly from ancient Roman ruins.
A second private courtyard shows us the view James Joyce enjoyed while writing in one of the surrounding apartments loaned to him expressly so he could finish Ulysses.
Ulysses was first published as a novel by Sylvia Beach, owner of legendary Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Company (originally in the Rue Odéon, now 37 Rue de la Bûcherie) that Chris describes as ‘the pivotal point for literary Paris’. He tells us Beach had to get Ulysses printed in Lyon where English was not well understood, rather than risk having it destroyed by someone taking offence at the language. Though Beach went into debt for him, Joyce later ripped her off, signing Ulysses over to another publisher, a betrayal Beach apparently brushed off with, ‘What do you expect — he’s a genius.’
Chris leads us next to “the ancient church of St-Étienne-Du-Mont”, to quote Hemingway again, points out the stairs in the Place de l’Abbé-Basset where Owen Wilson was sitting when his character in Midnight in Paris gets summoned to a mysterious vintage Peugeot, and tells us apocryphal stories of St Geneviève, made patron saint of Paris after protecting the city from invasion by Attila and his Huns.
I am still thinking about Attila’s soldiers placing meat between their saddles and the backs of their horses to tenderise it with a long day’s ride when Chris stops us in front of a restaurant, formerly the hotel where Hemingway wrote, and also where French poet Paul Verlaine died. Hemingway’s former Paris residence around the corner at 74 Rue Cardinal Lemoine is described in A Moveable Feast:
…our two-room flat…had no hot water and no inside toilet facilities except an antiseptic portable container that was not uncomfortable to anyone who was used to a Michigan outhouse, but…[it] was a cheerful gay flat with a fine view and a good mattress and springs for a comfortable bed on the floor, well and tastefully covered, and pictures that we liked on the walls…
Hemingway also says the address “could not have been a poorer one”, though Chris — ironically for someone who leads a Hemingway walking tour, not a great Hemingway fan himself — suggests the family was not as poor as the writer liked to make out.
Chris prefers Quartet by Jean Rhys and Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell to Hemingway’s account of Paris in the 1920s. He takes us to a street off the Rue Mouffetard called Rue Du Pot De Feu — Iron Pot Street — where Orwell lived in 1929, referring to it as Golden Cockerel Street in his memoir, and tells us of how arguments in the street became vignettes in Orwell’s memoir Down and Out in Paris and London.
It’s at this point, standing at the unassuming entrance to what was once Orwell’s apartment, I realise these guided walks are not about sightseeing so much as story telling. Ordinary features of the urban landscape – streets, steps, courtyards, shops, apartment buildings – are accorded the status of monuments by association with the lives of the literary greats.
And through stories, we travel further than our feet can ever take us.