Join me as I return to my “home” in Paris: the delightfully bohemian and historic rue Mouffetard in the 5th arrondissement right near where Ernest Hemingway lived and wrote during his first Paris days on rue Cardinal Lemoine and rue Descartes (Mouffetard’s northern continuation); where Poet Paul Verlaine died on rue Descartes; and where George Orwell lived in a grungy hotel in Down and Out in Paris and London – just around the corner from Mouffetard on rue Pot de Fer.
Join me as I wander down Mouffetard’s narrow cobblestoned way where Roman soldiers once trod, past the small shops and restaurants and markets, the historic buildings, street musicians and Sunday morning dancing.
What is Mouffetard and why do I adore this street? Why at the end of August was I drawn to return yet again- after two years of COVID prohibition – to an Airbnb apartment on or near rue Mouffetard and nowhere else?
I have found that there is often a magic to place, and the most magical of places for me is Paris. I am human enough to think that the external will seep in if I permit it, to enlighten, heighten, open what is closed, soften what is hard, erase the horrific, the embarrassing, or the mundane, and to open possibilities and brighten the soul. Some sun, a blue sky with a puff of cloud, another language, ancient stones, a glass of Bordeaux in a 12th-century building where Hemingway once might have sat or near where a Roman soldier once walked…
Paris does indeed accomplish such sorcery for me – and the Paris I adore is the Paris that remains untouched by the 19th-century Baron Haussmann. Granted, he cleaned up the sanitation issues and created lovely, straight, wide streets and buildings of even height at the behest of Napoleon III, but in the process, I think some of Paris’ soul was lost.
I much prefer the pre-Haussmann narrow meandering streets of the 5th arrondissement, lined with churches and old buildings that feature fascinating sculptural details, rather than Haussmann’s wide boulevards lined with street lights and shops. Something about Boulevard St. Germain and the Champs-Élysées makes it seem all too appropriate to find a McDonalds or a Ralph Lauren nearby- a Gallic version of my own nearby Michigan Avenue in Chicago, the “Magnificent Mile.”
And rue Mouffetard is the perfect place to experience what I most love about the old Paris: the food, the ambiance, the feeling of antiquity and history, the quiet churches, the wine and chocolate and tiny shops with personal service, the local residents, the music, and the charm unchanged by modernity.
Rue Mouffetard is a street surrounded by a funky, bohemian neighborhood that feels as if unchanged for years; it is said to have a kind of “medieval” feel to it. It is filled with tourists but also populated by many full-time residents. It’s a neighborhood where the shopkeepers and restaurant servers are welcoming and friendly, rather than a bit haughty as in upper-scale neighborhoods; and where food, coffee, theater, wine, shopping, relaxation, reading, fun and everything else can be had within a compact space that has the general feeling of a place that is a comfortable home to many, despite its visitors.
When I spent my 70th birthday month seven years ago on rue Pot de Fer, just off Mouffetard, (see my article here), I noted that in the morning, on what was a loud and raucous and crowded street the night before, all of the tables and chairs from the restaurants and bars lining that skinny side-street were hidden away, and the street was empty except for the occasional student heading towards school or adult heading towards work.
I could hear the click of a woman’s heels on the empty street, and I was greeted by Gina, a neighbor who lived across the way and came down daily to sweep the area in front of her building, which was once that disreputable hotel written of by Orwell in Down and Out in Paris and London. (Gina sadly died three years ago but last I heard her sister Bianca still lives there.)
I savor the experiences and memories of this narrow cobblestone street that was built long ago as part of a Roman road, one of the oldest streets in Paris; the fun of its outdoor market; the sound of street corner musicians; the scents of sidewalk shop displays tempting me with fruits and vegetables, cheeses, wines, and broiled chickens; the welcoming presence of French and ethnic restaurants serving seemingly as many locals as outsiders; the rich hot chocolate served at the restaurants and the wonderful handmade chocolate at two different boutiques; the joy of sitting on a fountain edge and watching the dancing and singing on Sunday mornings in front of St Médard Church where music sheets are passed out to passers-by and looking up at the gorgeously painted frescoes on nearby buildings; and the warmth of the holiday spirit of overhead colored lights strung down the center of the street in the winter months.
I have a library card that I renew each visit so I can borrow books at the neighborhood Bibliothèque Mohammed Arkoun right on the Mouff just a bit past rue Pot de Fer. I sometimes purchase a book at the small local bookstore on the corner of Mouffetard just across from where rue Pot de Fer begins – or see a movie at the tiny theater on the Mouff.
At the corner of Pot de Fer and Mouffetard, by the way, is a water well from year 1624.
I have awakened often to leave whatever small apartment is mine at the time, to walk to the coffee shop on Mouffetard called Dose, where morning papers are laid out for the customers, and the tables are often occupied by students with laptops plugged in. There, I bring my notebook and pen or computer and order a beautifully designed cappuccino, a glass of fresh squeezed juice and perhaps a pastry or croissant, and sometimes remain for hours writing and breathing in the atmosphere.
I have eaten often at Le Verre à Pied, a tiny restaurant towards the south end of the street that has been owned and run by Claude and Hendrika since 1983. They bought it from Madame Paulette who bought it in 1947 from her father who bought it in 1919 – it became a café about 1870. On a blackboard is a list of that day’s offerings (just a few dishes and desserts – all lovingly prepared by Hendrika in the kitchen and usually served by Claude, though sometimes she too waits at the tables). The restaurant was featured years ago in the movie Amelie. Last year, I found they had a grown son who was sometimes behind the bar. He served me when I stopped there between the meal hours to sit and watch the street’s pedestrian traffic as I nursed a glass of red wine.
My son and I enjoyed a lovely dinner there of entrecôte steak when I first arrived in Paris, and yesterday I stopped to look at the day’s blackboard menu. I love it when things don’t change. Yesterday’s offerings: two entrées at 6 euros each (oeuf mimosa and rillettes d’oie), three plats at 16 euros (including a vegetarian option), and a “formule” for 18 euros of entrecôte, pommes de terre, crème, and ciboulette.
At dinnertime or even late at night I can stop at Tournbride, a restaurant where I am recognized now by the waiters, and I can find a reasonably priced meal (my favorites are steak and frites or steak with aligot, a cheesy potato mixture from the Aveyron, the part of France from which one of the waiters hails – a dish I discovered when I spent my 65th birthday in a stone cottage in that part of France), or just a glass of wine.
No one cares how little you purchase at any of these places, and you can sit until closing if you like.
That is one of the nice things about Paris and about being just a few steps from your temporary home even late at night. I once stayed at an Airbnb on the second level just next door to Tournbride from which I could lean out the window to see if they were still open.
I obtained Paris Airbnb reservations and Montreux, Switzerland hotel reservations many months ago (since they were cancellable) but it wasn’t until July that I felt a sufficient level of confidence in the reported change in COVID-based travel prohibitions to go online and purchase a round-trip plane ticket. Then, I took a deep cleansing breath, slowed my pounding heart, and reserved three nights in a tiny hotel in Antibes for mid September and then went all-in and renewed my Carte Senior train discount ticket, printed it and put it into the pages of my passport, and used it to purchase discount TGV tickets for round-trips from Paris to Antibes and Montreux.
(Yes – I often take a couple “allez-retours” or round-trips from Paris to explore other parts of France. I pack a backpack and leave everything else in the apartment as if it really were my home, not just a temporary Airbnb rental).
My Airbnb had to be cancelled because the proprietress had open heart surgery, but I found the one I’m sitting in now – one floor up, just down from rue Pot de Fer. Yesterday, I turned left at my doorway for the two short blocks to the Place de la Contrescarpe.
Hemingway, who hung out there when he was young and poor, lived around the corner in a fifth-floor walkup at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine (this apartment is where he and his wife slept on a mattress, and had no water or a toilet). He shopped at a local market when he felt flush and wrote about it in A Moveable Feast, his posthumous book of personal recollections, and also in short stories (the dying lead character in The Snows of Kilimanjaro recall it as being the place “where the flower sellers dyed their flowers in the street and the dye ran over the paving where the autobus started and the old men and the women, always drunk on wine and bad marc; and the …………….smell of dirty sweat and poverty and drunkenness at the Café des ‘amateurs and the whores at the Bal Musette they lived above”). He also wrote in A Moveable Feast about the apartment just down rue Descartes where he wrote when he needed to get away from apartment and spouse.
“Up in that room I decided that I would write one story about each thing I knew about.”
That apartment, situated at 39 rue Descartes, just a few blocks further south past the Place de la Contrescarpe, is now the restaurant Maison Verlaine, which has a photo of Hemingway outside and a note that he once lived there. Nope – but close. This building, once a hotel where poet Paul Verlaine died in poverty in a room upstairs, is where Hemingway rented the top floor as a place to write.
When you come here, I recommend that you walk from the northwest (from somewhere near the River Seine, Boulevard St Michel and Notre Dame) in a slow, leisurely manner so that you can savor walking through the lovely older parts of the 5th arrondissement en route.
This area exudes history – and magic – at every step.
If your bags are too heavy, then don’t get off at St Michel but take a train all of the way to Mouffetard (the stop is Place Monge on Metro Number 7).
But the next day, when/if you visit Notre Dame and environs, I do recommend that you first say bonjour to the great lady Notre Dame, still recovering from her injuries but looking better, and then walk back to Mouffetard by walking southeast through the Quartier Latin, and ending up by entering rue Descartes via rue Clovis, just east of the Pantheon and the church St-Étienne-du-Mont. (See my related article on Paris church concerts here.)
You will be entering Descartes where you can see the Verlaine at Number 39 just to your left.
Much of Mouffetard is pedestrian, so you can walk in safety on the cobblestones, but for the parts permitting cars remember that they can only drive one direction (southward) so as you head down rue Descartes and until you get to the exclusively pedestrian section further down Mouffetard, remember that you may need to look over your shoulder and jump to one of the narrow sidewalks.
Shortly after entering rue Descartes, where the feeling of magic starts for me, look up at the first building on your right, where you will see a wonderful large mural painted on its bare side wall, facing you as you head down the street. It’s a painting of a giant blue tree and there is a poem near it written on the wall by poet Yves Bonnefoy. The tree is by artist Pierre Alechinsky (which I recently discovered, though I have been marveling at it for years, by finding a blog entry by artist Miti Aiello that beautifully describes the meaning of this year 2000 mural and translates the poem – here is the link.)
And here is the poem and a translation I took from Miti’s site. THANK YOU Miti. I’ve been wanting to know more about that tree for years!
regarde ce grand arbre
et à travers lui,
il peut suffire. Car même déchiré, souillé,
l’arbre des rues,
c’est toute la nature,
tout le ciel,
l’oiseau s’y pose,
le vent y bouge, le soleil
y dit le même espoir
malgré la mort.
as-tu chance d’avoir arbre
dans ta rue,
tes pensées seront moins ardues,
tes yeux plus libres,
tes mains plus désireuses
de moins de nuit.
look at this great tree
and through it,
that could be enough. For even torn up, sullied,
the tree of the street is
all of nature,
all the heavens,
the bird alights there,
the wind moves there, the sun there expresses
the same hope
in spite of death.
if you are lucky enough to
have trees in your street,
your thoughts will be less arduous,
your eyes more free,
your hands more desirous,
at least at night.
Now – that’s the kind of Paris I keep returning to. A Paris full of art and music and magic and historic places – and surprises – where you are smacked between the eyes on an ancient street by a gigantic blue tree and accompanying poetry and philosophy.
A Paris where you can feel the souls and footfalls of antiquity and know where Hemingway wrote when he first arrived.
That’s where I feel at home.
Lead photo credit : Rue Mouffetard. Photo credit: Peter Chovanec/ Flickr