"Look here, steward, if this is coffee, I want tea; but if this is tea, then I wish for coffee." - Punch, 1902.

February 03, 2015

France,Paris, Montparnasse: La Rotonde

Paris was in the grip of terror once again in its history. Two days earlier, 8 journalists had been executed in their offices, police had been gunned down in the street and the city was holding its breath to await the outcome of sieges in which hostages were held.

But the cafes and bistrots were busy. These were the refuges of the Parisians during this bloody and bewildering period - the daily visit to the cafe a part of life they were determined to continue. And in the cafes, no-one spoke of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, saving the emotion and anger for demonstrations in the Place de la Republique.


In the 1920s and 30s, Montparnasse was where writers gravitated and around the Vavin metro stop you can visit many of their haunts.

We were staying in the upper Marais, and forewent breakfast at our hotel so we could take it instead at La Coupole - one of Hemingway's chosen brasseries. 

Before he acquired fame with his novel The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway was living a hand-to-mouth existence on the Left Bank with is wife, Hadley, and infant son, Jack, often walking hungry through the Jardin du Luxembourg. But he still did much of his writing in cafes, tolerated and befriended by the proprietors.

As he writes in A Moveable Feast, everything changed when notoriety arrived, and he took up with a rich second wife, Pauline Pfeiffer.

Whatever La Coupole was like during that formative period, today it would be more suited to Hemingway the world-famous author. It was elegant, exclusive and rather intimidating.

Spooky was looking forward to a sumptuous Parisian breakfast. We were shown to a table on the terrace fronting the boulevard Montparnasse, squeezed in beside a Parisian gentleman enjoying a coffee. But things went downhill from then onwards.

Croissants were off and they didn't do omelettes - the one dish Spooky had been relying on. By now his stomach was angry and so was he. We ordered tea, which we drank as quickly as possible. 

Behind the terrace was a huge and empty restaurant. Waiters in bow ties bustled around, perfecting the art of being busy doing nothing, or so it seemed.
La Coupole was indeed striking with art deco mock marble painted columns and acerulean blue dome. But we really did need to eat.

The Perfect Breakfast

A few minutes away on the other side of the boulevard, we found an unpretentious brasserie, La Veronese, offering a four course breakfast for 13 Euros. It comprised freshly squeezed orange juice, coffee, croissant with jam and omelette. The croissants were large and we were able to order a grand creme. This mini feast thankfully served promptly, was consumed with rapture.

I still had several more cafes on the boulevard to call at. Since they are all close, eating at each one was out of the question, so when we arrived at La Rotonde with its vermilion canopies, it was only for another coffee.

This luxurious cafe was where feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir played truant from school with her sister - and what a place to hide.

Low mirrored ceilings, fringed lamps, candles on the tables, crimson velour padded seats - a seductive combination of shiny surfaces and womb-like softness. On the walls, elongated portraits of Parisian men and women in the style of Modigliani.

Our coffee came with a carafe of water and jug of hot milk at the side, served by a waitress in full black and white uniform. But the real surprise came when I visited the Ladies toilets, mounting a wide, curved staircase over which a giant egg-shaped silk lampshade hung like an inverted airship.

Unlike my mother, I do not have a preoccupation with WCs - their location, size of cubicle and comfort - however, those at La Coupole deserve some lineage. Rose marble sinks, gold taps, spherical glass lamp shades, large mirrors and a view through the window to Rodin's statue of Balzac at the rear.

Later in her life, de Beauvoir was joined at La Rotonde by her husband, Sartre, who continued to lunch there even after he suffered strokes. Picasso, Lenin and Trotsky were also customers. And the brasserie was on Hemingway's drinking trail - a stopping point en route to his favourite venue up the road - La Closerie des Lilas.

We really did have to draw the line at this final brasserie. La Closerie has become so upmarket we'll need to write a best-seller ourselves before we visit. Even Hemingway was disgusted when it was transformed into an American bar in1925. The two waiters were forced to wear white jackets, and one of them, Jean, who had been decorated for gallantry during the First World War and whom Hemingway had befriended, was ordered to shave off his distinctive military moustache.

I will return to La Closerie some day - with room for lunch, a pocket full of sous and maybe a book of my own under my belt.

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July 18, 2014

Czech Republic, Prague: Cafe Slavia

Cafe Slavia was built in 1881 at the same time as the grand National Theatre at the river end of Narodni. On the other side of the street and also fronting the river Vlatava, its purpose was to cater for theatre-goers.

Customers included Czech composer Bedrich Smetana, but the Slavia became highly popular with writers - particularly poets and dissidents - and it became known as the writers' cafe in Prague.

On a fiercely hot day of 31oC, when we could do little except drag ourselves from one cafe to another, this was our last port of call - a place to refresh ourselves after crossing the elegant most Legii bridge from Mala Strana.

A cream marble entrance hall with small fountain and gleaming brass Brasilia antique coffee machine offered instant relief from the sun.

Cafe Slavia's 19th century interior was replaced with Art Deco furnishings at the time of the first republic, and those fittings remain today - light marble, mirrors and dark wood, straight lines.

An exhibition of black and white photographs decorated the walls, uniformed waiters and waitresses huddled round an idle baby grand with white linen cloths draped over their arms.

We sat in a window, deliciously cool thanks to powerful air conditioning and broke our usual drinking habits - me ordering a bottled blackcurrant vitamin drink and Spooky, mint tea with honey. And roasted almonds to snack on.

These took almost half an hour to arrive, to the point I thought the waiter had forgotten. But when he brought them, the reason became clear.

Piping hot and oily, nestled in a bread basket, they'd been freshly prepared and lifted straight from the oven. Their heat almost burnt my mouth - but the salt was a welcome antidote to the heat.

Other interesting items on the menu included Ice Cups of lemon ice cream with warm blackberries and mint, a Golem - sponge biscuits, mixed fruits, egg nog, whipped cream and strawberry sauce and Turkish coffee. A counter of home-made choclates and gateaux also greet the customer at the door.

I have to mention here that, as it was our last day in Prague, we'd just enjoyed a three-course lunch on the terrace overlooking the river at the Kampa Park restaurant, hence our ability to resist these temptations.

This also meant we couldn't finish the almonds, so I wrapped the remainder in a serviette and, hoping our waiter would not notice, tucked them in my bag.

Cafe Slavia partly prompted Rilke's Tales of Prague and inspired a poem bearing its name by Nobel-prize-winner, the poet and journalist Jaroslav Seibert. Unfortunately at time of writing this, I haven't managed to lay my hands on a copy of it.

Former Czech president, dissident, playwright and poet Vaclav Havel is also said to have plotted the overthrow of the Soviet regime in Cafe Slavia.

Songs and stories have all been penned - probably helped by the cafe's inspirational location, overlooking the river and its bridges with Prague castle elevated on the opposite bank.

But equally as famous as the scribes, is the cafe's absinthe drinker, a character portrayed in a large painting, with a green, will-o'-the-wisp woman floating before him like the fairy of
Baz Luhrmann's 2001 film Moulin Rouge, played by Kylie Minogue.

Absinthe is still on the menu, at 85 Koruna - around £2.50 a shot. If you order one, midway through the day during a typical Czech summer such as this, you're a braver person than I am.

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