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The roaring Twenties were roaring indeed, and there is no place where they roared louder and laughed longer than in the historic Montparnasse cafes of Paris. Located in the 14th arrondissement near the 6th, and radiating out from the crossroads of Boulevard du Montparnasse and the Rue de Rennes, Montparnasse was the epicentre of les Années Folles, the Mad Years, and the cafés were a hotbed of decadence. Today, they’re still well worth a visit. Here’s a guide to the best of them.
Historic Montparnasse cafés
Oh, sure, I could flash my breasts for three francs like Kiki de Montparnasse did in the 20s, or venture into a few historic Montparnasse cafes of Paris intending to, as the poet Max Jacob put it, “sin disgracefully,” but it wouldn’t bring back the Lost Generation.
That’s why, when I found myself in the 6th arrondissement and saw how close it was to the Boulevard du Montparnasse where the bohemian artists used to gather, I wasn’t hearing an oh-Paris-is-so-wonderful-in-the-sunshine song in my heart, but more of a do-I-bother-revisiting-Montparnasse refrain.
Why visit Montparnasse, Paris?
The question is: Is there any point in hanging out at historic Monparnasse cafes when no one is going to eat glass (like Joseph Kessel at La Coupole), argue over a trial of Italian anarchists (like Isadora Duncan at Le Select) or dance naked in a lit-up basin (like Kiki de Montparnasse)? Or is it just going to be depressing because you missed all the fun?
What is the Lost Generation?
Gertrude Stein coined the term ‘Lost Generation,’ Ernest Hemingway used it in The Sun Also Rises and if you don’t know what it means, substitute ‘lost’ for ‘we-are-dead-inside-because-of-the-war-and-there-is-another-war-coming-so-let’s-party.’
The Lost Generation (to use a sweeping generalization) refers to that manic interwar period, particularly the 1920s, when Paris was swollen with expat writers, artists, poverty-stricken intellectuals, wealthy heiresses and political exiles. They were drawn by a low exchange rate and the spirit of daring and freedom that existed in the City of Lights. Their love for the cafe life is one of the reasons there are so many fascinating historic Paris cafes.
It all happened in Montparnasse
The heart of this tragically-tinged fun was the Left Bank neighbourhood of Montparnasse by Vavin metro station where rents were cheap and because Montmarte, that big hill to the north where the previous generation of absinthe-swilling artists such as Degas used to live, was so done.
La Rotonde, Paris – 105 Boulevard du Montparnasse
I perked up at the thought of eating at La Rotonde. Opened in 1911, La Rotonde brasserie was the haunt of bolsheviks and Picasso and Modigliani and almost any would-one-day-become-famous expat you can think of.
Hemingway hated La Rotonde (though he went there often enough), saying that “on entering you get the same feeling as when entering the bird house of a zoo.”
And I say, “Whoohoo! Bring on the birds!” Isn’t that the point of going to historic Paris cafes?
Kiki – the Queen of Montparnasse
Of all the birds fluttering through the Rotonde, the most colourful was Kiki de Montparnasse, a voluptuous French model and cabaret singer with a cropped black bob, porcelain skin, catlike eyes and a wickedly debauched approach to life.
The lover of the Surrealist photographer, Man Ray, Kiki was a woman after the darkest part of my rebellious heart. Her eyelashes were shaved and re-drawn on according to her moods. Her eyeshadow might be copper or bright blue. She scorned underwear. She was disowned by her mother at the age of 14, had lived on the streets before becoming an artist’s model, got into fights and was prone to flashing her garters or more (see note about underwear above).
The Roaring Twenties aren’t roaring here
No one was flashing any body parts as I cut into my filet de boeuf au poivre at La Rotonde, but the evening was clear and the glowing signs of the brasseries and historic Paris cafes lit up the boulevard, bringing it to life.
I tried to imagine Kiki at the next table or dancing in the street with a drink in her hand, but I couldn’t. I could only see La Rotonde in the present: the red banquettes, the bottle of Prestige Chateau Puech-Haut at my table, the Modigliani prints on the walls and waiters rushing around with plates of steak tartare and frites.
The Aviatic Hotel, Saint-Germain-des-Pres
The next morning at the Aviatic Hotel, which has just changed its name to the Hôtel Louison, I went downstairs in search of breakfast. The lobby of the hotel was small, but the petit salon with crimson walls that faced the street was charming, like the living room of a retired antique dealer or the retreat of a Parisian interior decorator who wanted a calm space to read – and you can’t fault a hotel that serves pastel-coloured macaroons at the breakfast buffet.
It wasn’t the Ritz but was a world away from the starving artists’ garrets of the 20s or Hemingway’s old Montparnasse flat above a sawmill at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs.
I want to be lazy in Montparnasse, Paris
I’d intended to spend the day lolling around in various historic Montparnasse cafes, eating croissants and/or oysters while trying to conjure up some Lost Generation ghosts, but the manager of the hotel, Phillipe, convinced me I couldn’t miss seeing shops such as Pierre Hermé ( the Picasso of Pastry), or the department store Le Bon Marché.
“Le Bon Marché is very French. Very Left Bank, like Yves St Laurent and Sonyia Rykiel,” he said.
Exploring the Left Bank
So, armed with the map Phillipe had drawn me, I set out to find Le Bon Marché, the Harrod’s of Paris.
The streets were quiet and sunlight filtered down through a thin spread of clouds as I stopped on a side street to take photos of a flower shop, then a butcher shop, trying to get unposed shots of locals when they weren’t looking. The butcher caught me.
A run-in with a butcher
“Non!” he said, taking a step towards me. I stopped in fright, wondering if I was going to be beaten up by a butcher (I would have far preferred the less meaty flower shop owner) but instead of attacking me he wanted to show me the interior of his shop, of which he was very proud.
It’s not often you meet a friendly French butcher, and I was tempted to buy a big sack of pork chops to show my appreciation but without a kitchen I couldn’t think of a single use for a bag of raw meat other than sewing them together and making a fashion statement.
Eye candy in Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche
It didn’t take long to get to Le Bon Marché, which is even older than the Lost Generation, having opened in 1852. After wandering through its vast food hall, La Grande Épicerie de Paris, I browsed through a rainbow-coloured display of ballet flats then lingered over a coral-coloured biker jacket by Iro, the leather so soft it was like stroking rose petals.
I did get in trouble for photographing a fur vest (the designers don’t like it, the salesgirl told me sternly), but I tried not to be embarrassed, telling myself that Kiki de Montparnasse would have been proud of me for flaunting the rules (except I hadn’t known they existed).
Eventually I made my way back (without a coral Iro jacket) to the Boulevard du Montparnasse, where the 14th and 6th arrondissements slice the street lengthwise and where the best concentration of historic Paris cafes sit clustered together.
The best Montparnasse cafes
Trying to pick your favourite Montparnasse cafe is like being asked to name your favourite book (except that’s easy because mine is The Sun Also Rises) or the child you love most (except I don’t have children). The point is, visitors in search of historic Montparnasse cafes are spoiled for choice, especially around the intersection of Boulevard du Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail, where the most famous are situated.
Historic Paris cafes #1: Le Dome Café – 108 Boulevard du Montparnasse
One of the first of the great expat cafes and one of the most famous historic cafes in Paris is Le Dome Café, also called the Café du Dome. Time marches on, however, and now it’s a seafood restaurant with a Michelin star. It was hugely popular back in the day, patronized by writers such as Henry Miller and Jean Paul Sartre, though Hemingway said that the Americans who frequented it “are nearly all loafers,” (which is probably why it would suit me very well).
Historic Paris cafes #2: La Closerie des Lilas – 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse
Yet I had other choices. Hidden behind greenery and more secluded than the other Montparnasse cafes, La Closerie des Lilas was Hemingway’s “home cafe,” a place to write in rather than pose. Steps away from his apartment on rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, it’s where he worked on The Sun Also Rises and where F Scott Fitzgerald read him an early draft of The Great Gatsby.
“The only decent café in our neighborhood was “La Closerie des Lilas,” Hemingway wrote, “and it was one of the best cafés in Paris.”
It’s hard to argue with that but as I had no intention of writing or doing anything productive, I thought I’d head for La Coupole.
Historic Paris cafes #3: La Coupole, Paris – 102 Boulevard du Montparnasse
Opened in 1927 and known for its mosaics and pillars painted by “minor masters of the Roaring Twenties” (the website’s words, not mine), La Coupole is an art deco landmark in Paris. Josephine Baker came here with her pet leopard, Kiki de Montparnasse splashed naked in La Coupole’s centrepiece luminous basin (which has since made way for a sculpture), James Joyce drank whiskeys by the fistful and the author Joseph Kessel caused a sensation by eating the glasses his drinks were served in.
I was almost inside when I saw the outdoor terrace of Le Sélect across the street and knew I’d found my spot.
Historic Paris cafes #4: Cafe Le Select – 99 Boulevard du Montparnasse
When Cafe Le Select opened in 1925 it was an instant success, in part because you could drink there 24 hours a day.
The terrace, with its green and white woven chairs looked lively but not too crowded, and since there were plenty of women sitting solo there I didn’t feel like a pariah for being on my own. Not that I needed to feel self conscious. Did Kiki de Montparnasse need an escort when kicking up her skirts? Or Isadora Duncan when she threw a saucer across Le Select during a political argument? Or the writer, Hart Crane, when he got thrown into jail for fighting with the waiters over a bill?
Even Hemingway was known to show up at Le Select for breakfast, though he claimed to avoid the “vice and collective instincts of the collection of inmates’ here.
Bring on the vice and the inmates
I could use some collective decadence, I thought, digging into my duck liver on toast. Bring on the ghosts. And just like that I could picture it, Le Select in its heyday: the unshaven expats sitting nose to nose with socialites and prostitutes, the stained notebooks and sketchbooks falling open on tables and the smell of smoke and spilled wine.
I could even hear it, or at least I imagined I could, the brawls and the shouting and back slapping and laughter, as if it were all floating under my nose like a thread in the wind.
Then I thought of the dark side of being a free spirit, how Kiki collapsed at 52, her body worn out from alcohol and cocaine, how her funeral was paid for by the cafe owners of the 6th arrondissement and how Le Select and its cronies have managed to live on, so long after the Bohemians had stopped dancing.
“Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be,” Simone Signoret, a Cafe Le Select regular, famously titled her autobiography, and maybe she was right.
The death of Montparnasse
So I let the ghosts of Montparnasse go. It was enough to feel the silky crunch of duck liver and toast on my tongue, to remember the petal-like softness of that coral leather jacket and the butcher’s broad grin, and then I thought how wonderful Paris was in the sunshine, especially in Montparnasse.
Travel tips for exploring Montparnasse and the Left Bank in Paris
Shopping: Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche is at 24 Rue de Sèvres.
Where to stay in Paris: The Hôtel Louison Saint-Germain-des-Pres is at 105 rue de Vaugirard, Paris. Prices range depending on availability and time of year.
Other historic Paris cafes of the We are the Lost Generation variety:
- Café de Flore – 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain
- Les Deux Magots – 6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés
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