A walk through literary Paris
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range
Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, Jack Kerouac and F Scott Fitzgerald were among the writers who lived in Paris. Their spirit lives on in the bookshops, cafés and streets of the Left Bank
The fifth, sixth, seventh, 13th, 14th and 15th arrond-issements of Paris are perhaps the most fabled in this most famous city. La Rive Gauche – The Left Bank – has for more than a century been the artistic and cultural home of Paris; a place where painters, poets and progressives meet to expand their minds and share ideas with similar people.
While no district of Paris – including this – is untouched by the mega-corporations and the malbouffe, you can still find indelible links to the grand history of this evocative area and follow in the footsteps of the likes of F Scott Fitzgerald. Begin in the Latin Quarter, at the focal point of the literati in Paris: Shakespeare & Co. This quaint old bookshop was the haunt of Gertrude Stein, who nurtured Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and others as they passed through Paris. The interior looks like an Aladdin's cave of classic literature. Within spitting distance of the Seine, on the rue de la Bûcherie, it's an unassuming place tucked behind trees, distinguishable only by the bright yellow façade heralding its famous name and the great tables of second-hand books outside its door.
Staffed mainly by American and British students looking to become the next great novelist, it has become somewhat commercial – but the shelves, teeming with books by a host of writers, wrench you back into the heyday of the 1920s expat community in the city. Modernism is at the forefront in this shop: walking in, you will find the oeuvres of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Jack Kerouac within arm's length, all at the recommended retail price (there is no overcharging for the privilege of buying a book here).
You will find that whatever book you buy will be stamped with the insignia of Shakespeare & Co, captioned "Kilometre Zero, Paris" underneath. The shop is actually a more modern incarnation of the original Shakespeare & Co, which was located on the rue de l'Odéon. It moved to its present location in 1951, in time to see Ginsberg, Kerouac and Corso step through its threshold.
Wander west, with the Ile de la Cité disappearing behind you to your right, past the street sellers hawking posters, tattered books and old vinyl records, and you will come to St-Germain – the home of Les Deux Magots, the café at the centre of the Modernist movement. On the Place St-Germain-des-Pres, next to the similarly popular Café de Flore, you can sip coffee and munch a croissant at the table that may have hosted discussions between Jean-Paul Sartre and Hemingway. You are steeped in history, and the prices will reflect that: no longer can anyone afford to come here daily on a novelist's income. As a one-off treat, however, it is more than worth the price to soak up the atmosphere and try to glean some inspiration from these well-worn tables.
Les Deux Magots is also open until late, in the tradition of Parisian coffee shops, so you can pop in for a quick crèpe at 2am when a heady mixture of sleep deprivation, dehydration and drunkness have got the creative juices flowing in your brain and the words flowing quicker from your pen.
In terms of accommodation, the Hotel de l'Ocean stands out above the crowd. A standard three-star hotel becomes something far better thanks to Alim, the Vietnamese concierge who will help you with anything from baggage to bus routes. It's worth remembering that Paris is often famed for its snooty service and poor hotels, so to find a diamond in the rough is quite something.
The 67-room Rive Gauche hotel is neither too big, nor too small. Within viewing distance of the Louvre, luxuries are sacrificed for location here; but for those on a budget, it's an eminently visitable hotel with a picturesque red frontage and large windows resembling a Victorian shopfront.
Wherever you walk south of the Seine, you are steeped in literary history whether you realise it or not. These are the streets where some of the world's finest writers and thinkers have walked morning, noon and night. They have drunk here, eaten here, thought their big thoughts here and written here – producing some of their best works in the cool, alluring Paris night. Whether you aspire to being a best-selling novelist or a critically-acclaimed thinker, or simply enjoy reading books by your favourite writer, the Left Bank is an intoxicating place to do it.