A Literary Stay in Paris’s Fifth

Paris’s fifth arrondissement has been a meeting place for writers, thinkers and artists for centuries

PARIS — For centuries creatives have flocked to Paris. Its cafe culture, beautiful cobbled streets and joie de vivre have been a magnet for the greatest writers, artists and thinkers of their day.

Among its many neighbourhoods, Paris’s Fifth Arrondissement is its oldest. It is steeped in history, dotted with the remnants of Roman temples and amphitheatres. The city’s oldest and most famous university, the Sorbonne, was founded in the area in the 12th century.

This scholastic heritage also lends the area its name the Latin Quarter. As the predominant language of universities at the time, Latin could be heard spoken by students as they wandered through the streets of the district. The Latin Quarter bleeds into the 6th arrondissement around Saint Michel and Saint Germain, which shares with the 5th some impressive literary credentials.

For many years the Latin Quarter, and its neighbour Montparnasse, was synonymous with the literary and creative ex-pats that frequented the cafes of the area. Amongst them Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Henry James and Picasso rubbed shoulders with Sartre and de Beauvoir at cafes like Les Deux Magots that maintain their allure to visitors today.

The 5th is not only home to many a colourful character and literary mind but has provided the back drop to contemporary French literature. Michel Houellebecq’s most recent novel Submission follows the vicissitudes of a professor at the University of Paris III through a period of political change. Though a controversial novel, the plot draws inspiration from the close proximity of the university with Paris’s beautiful Grand Mosque — only a 5 minute walk away.


One of France’s most famous writers is Alexandre Dumas, author of high adventure novels like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s hard to underestimate the impact Dumas has had — his novels have been translated into 100 languages and been made into over 200 films. School children around the world are familiar with the characters he has crafted.

Dumas himself could have been a character from one of his novels. His family connections enabled to him to work at the Palais Royal, after which he became a successful young play write. He moved to Belgium after falling out of favour with Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte and later lived in Russia and Italy. In Italy, he founded the newspaper L’Indipendente and supported Italian unification.

He is known to have lived an excessively lavish lifestyle, having as many as forty mistresses and hosting opulent parties. Despite the earnings from his plays and books, he was often broke.

Thus it is fitting that there is a hotel inspired by this extravagant character in the 5th. The Hotel Monte Cristo is designed to look like what Dumas’s home might have looked like had he been working today. As you enter, you are greeted by a cabinet of exotic taxidermy. Sumptuous fabrics cover all surfaces. And the rooms are inspired by travel and adventure.

The hotel itself, on the Rue Pascal, is covered in greenery, providing an injection of colour on the otherwise Haussmanian street.

The hotel also boasts Paris’s first and only rum bar — Le Bar 1802. Named after the year of Dumas’s birth, it pays homage to the author’s father’s birthplace, the then French colony Saint-Domingue, present day Haiti. His great-granfather was a French nobleman who owned a sugar planation on the island. The bar stocks 500 rums, and provides new twists on old classics as well as tasting flights of rum.

Rum and Paris aren’t two things usually associated with each other. But there is something very literary and romantic about rum. Books like the Rum Diaries speak of indolent, decadent days in the Caribbean, and authors like Hemingway are intimately associated with the drink. It invokes a certain hedonism, of adventure on the high-seas. Pirates discovering remote Caribbean islands.

Le Bar 1802 is inspired by the parties Dumas threw — quite possibly in his very own Chateau de Monte Cristo outside of Paris, which he sold in 1848 due to financial difficulties, but which is now open to the public as a museum.


Dumas is buried in the Pantheon — also located in the 5th. The building itself is a fitting tribute to the neighbourhood’s long history and literary credentials. Roman pillars adorn its façade, and it holds the remains of many of France’s most notable sons, and, as of 1995, daughters — including other literary figures such as Victor Hugo, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, and Emile Zola.

Dumas was interred here in 2002, during which then President Jacques Chirac acknowledged his literary achievements and the challenges he faced as a person of mixed heritage in France.

France’s love of arts and culture ensure that it will continue to produce the characters, movements and works of art that so characterise its contribution to history. The 5th’s continued popularity owes to its mix of heritage, establishment and its young energy. It will continue to be a great starting point for visitors and stalwarts of Paris alike.


Recommendations:

During my weekend in the Fifth we stayed in the Hotel Monte Cristo. Some of the places we visited included:

⏣ Bar Le 1802 — Paris’s first and only bar dedicated to run — a homage to Dumas’ family roots in the Caribbean. I tried the Zombie, though I wish I’d had more time to try their take on a Negroni and the Old Fashioned. You can also snacks including tasty hams and cheeses.

Kitchen Ter(re) — The latest in chef William Ledeuil’s trilogy of restaurants on the left bank. Here the concept is fresh pasta dishes with citrus and asian flavours. The menu is seasonal, but when we went for lunch we had some delicious fresh fish and risotto bathed in a curry spiced veloute.

Les Deux Magot — A favourite of Hemingway’s, this popular spot is located in the Place Sartre-Beauvoir, right on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. It is one of the oldest cafes in Paris and famous for its croquet monsieur and steak tartare. You may have to queue for a table but it’s a delightful experience to sit outside and people watch.

Le Petit Journal Saint-Michel — Keen to catch some jazz, we went for an early show at Le Petit Journal. Cover is included in your first drink and you can catch a real range of musical styles at this underground establishment. For us it was Europe’s only New Orleans-inspired jazz band.

Le Café Saint-Medard — Art deco inspired brasserie in a cute neighbourhood. It overlooks Saint Medard church and the Fountaine Guy Lartigue. On Sundays the square hosts a vintage market and live local music.

Other literary cafes in the area:

In the 6th:

⏣ Café de Flore has become a popular hang-out among creatives of all industries. It is another of Hemingway and his contemporary’s favourites. The cafe hosts its own annual literary prize — the Prix de Flore — to promising young French language authors. The winner gets a free glass of Pouilly-Fume every day for a year.

In Montparnasse:

⏣ Just south of the 6th, Boulevard Montparnasse is home to Cafe Le Rotonde, Le Dome, and La Coupole all regular haunts of Hemingway, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre in their day. They remain popular and iconic institutions.