Stroll the streets of these cities where Wilde, Sartre, Flaubert and Zola honed their craft
BY JANE MUNDY, SPECIAL TO THE SUN DECEMBER 31, 2012
Paris is for lovers, goes without saying, but it’s also for book lovers. So this time, mainly because I only had two days in the City of Lights, I signed up for a literary tour.
Sure, I could research famous authors’ haunts and homes and self-guide; walk about the city aimlessly and get lost (OK, that can be fun too) and just try to find a taxi. But within minutes of meeting the charming “literary detective” David Burke at the Church of Saint Germain-des-Prés, I knew I’d made the right decision to spend the day on his tour of Literary Lives.
St-Germain-des-Prés, in the swanky 6th arrondissement, is legendary as a historical author hangout. The area went literary in the 17th Century and continued through World War Two, when the likes of Sartre, Beauvoir and Camus called it home.
“Simone de Beauvoir worked here during the war because it was warm,” says Burke, “and Jean-Paul Sartre joined her upstairs (the German officers preferred the ground floor) when he returned from a PoW camp. And upstairs also became a sanctuary for gay men such as James Baldwin.”
Burke’s repertoire is peppered with ribald anecdotes — “This is where George Sand stayed during her roller coaster affair with Alfred de Musset.” — as we poke around the narrow streets. We turn onto Rue Saint-Benoit.“Marguerite Duras had her wild love affairs at No. 5 and at the same time it was a meeting place for the French Resistance,” he adds. Meanwhile, the Fernandezes were entertaining Nazi officials upstairs.
“Balzac lived with her and this is where Colette stayed when she first came to Paris,” Burke gestures as we meander past art galleries and the Hotel du Vieux Paris, a.k.a. the Beat Hotel, where Allen Ginsberg lived. “Let’s ask if we can see Oscar Wilde’s room,” and we dart into the lobby of the L’Hôtel. This once shabby hotel (it is now quite opulent) was where Wilde lay “dying beyond my means.” Unfortunately the room is occupied — but of course it is wildly (excuse the pun) popular, people booking months in advance to say they slept in the room where Wilde died. I’m sure the decor has been changed since Wilde’s last words: “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.”
We lunch at Brasserie Lipp, and the roast chicken with warm leeks au vinaigrette washed down with a wondrous house red provide fuel for another two hours. Burke tells me that Lipp was the scene of a (verbal) showdown between Richard Wright and James Baldwin in 1949, and it has long attracted France’s political elite. We walk down Rue de Fleurus and here is Gertrude Stein’s salon where she hosted literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I later wonder if Woody Allen toured these same streets with Burke for his film Midnight in Paris.
No literary tour could be complete without poking into the renowned Shakespeare & Company. We cross over the Seine to the book store which Henry Miller used to call “a wonderland of books.,” and here on the shelf is Burke’s book, Writers In Paris. He signs it for me.
In keeping with the literary theme, I check into Le Pavillon des Lettres, a classic Haussmann townhouse in the 8th arrondissement. There are 26 rooms (one for each letter of the alphabet). I’m in the Hans Christian Andersen garret, tastefully furnished with a bohemian flair and a breathtaking view of the EiffelTower. Literary quotations are artfully stencilled on the walls and every room comes with an iPad downloaded with the classics. It doesn’t have a restaurant, but the ground floor salon provides a decent continental breakfast and has an honesty bar and library.
I think about Gustave Flaubert and his famous line: “Pleasure is found first in anticipation, later in memory” on the train to Rouen from Paris (the 9:15 a.m. train from the Gare St. lazare arrives in Rouen by 10.30 a.m. when the shops open — even Parisians come here specifically to shop).
I had no idea that Rouen, where the English in 1431 burned Joan of Arc at the stake — “They shouldn’t have done it, but they did,” wrote Jane Austen — would look pretty much the same as it did in Madame Bovary’s day, minus the horse-drawn cabs. And the old town’s cobblestone streets flanked with restored half-timbered houses are pretty much pedestrian only.
I meet my relatives, who happen to live in Normandy, at the no-frills Hotel Mercure, conveniently located and reasonably priced, and plan our itinerary — a lot to see in two days. We visit the Gothic cathedral, just a stone’s throw away, and browse the Rue du Gros Horloge — “street of the big clock”and lined with trendy shops, cafes and side streets devoted to curios and antiques. (Thankfully I have a small suitcase.)
A must-see is the Musée des Beaux-Arts, which holds one of the largest art collections; visit it for the Impressionist collection alone. The Impressionists, many of whom lived in Rouen, were supported by novelists such as Émile Zola.Flaubert, who wrote Madame Bovary and is regarded as the greatest French novelist, was born here.
We walk along Rue Eau de Robec, where a canal runs under the street. Flaubert called this area “a dirty little Venice,” an unfair description nowadays. The quirky Museum of Flaubert and Medical History contains Flaubert’s famous stuffed parrot and rather gruesome 17th to 19th Century medical equipment.(Young Gustave watched his surgeon father amputate limbs and he listened to the screams of the patients — details which later filled his novels.)
Time for dinner. We decide on La Couronne, the oldest auberge in France (founded in 1345). The service is, shall I say, charming.
Menus are presented to the ladies sans prix. Does that mean cousin Charles has to pay? The walls are studded with signed photographs: here is Salvador Dali and Jean-Paul Sartre again (those existentialists are everywhere — or maybe not).
And here is Julia Child.In My Life in France, Child describes her dining experience here in 1948 as “the most exciting meal of my life.’’
So I must have the Child menu, starting with six oysters from Saint-Vaast followed by Dover sole with butter sauce, green salad, fromage blanc avec fruits rouge and coffee with petits fours. And a bottle of Pouilly fume. And happily for book lovers, many other French hangouts like Café de Flore and Brasserie Lipp inspired literary careers. Bon appétit!
If You Go
For more info about literary tours, visit SWT tours www.poshnosh.com
I took the Eurostar from London’s St Pancras international to Paris Gare du Nord. www.eurostar.com and booked through Rail Europe for the train to Rouen from Paris: visit www.raileurope.com
David Burke is an American documentary filmmaker and former writer and producer for 60 Minutes. Book a tour and check out his book at www.writersinparis.com
Le Pavillon des Lettres: www.pavillondeslettres.com
Mercure Hotel, Rouen: www.hotel-rouen-centre.com
The biggest Impressionist Festival takes place from April to September 2013. For information on Rouen, visit www.rouvalleedeseine.com
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