by John Boland

Although the great Irish short story writer Maeve Brennan lived for most of her adult life in Manhattan, only a small section of it seemed like home to her. Writing of her alter ego, The Long-Winded Lady, she confessed that large areas of the city were “a blank to her. She knows next to nothing about the Lower East Side, less about the Upper East Side, nothing at all about the Upper West Side.” Midtown was her area and she was intimately acquainted with its denizens, streets, cafes and bars.

I’m a bit like that about Paris. Yes, I’m familiar with Montmartre and the Marais and have wandered the back streets of St Lazare and Republique, but the Paris I first came to know and love runs from Gaiete down to the river on the Left Bank and it’s to there that I always return. Indeed, when some years ago I tried to break the habit of a lifetime by staying up near Opera on the Right Bank, I found the experience so alien and disorientating that after one night I fled back to the spartan comforts of a little hotel I knew on a back street off Boulevard Montparnasse.

Perhaps I’m simply unadventurous, or maybe I’m trying to recapture an irrecoverable past, but I find it liberating to have visited a city so often that there’s no need anymore to take in the obvious landmarks. I really couldn’t care less if I never saw the Champs-Elysees again and I’ve no inclination to gawp one more time at the Eiffel Tower or Place de la Concorde, and so I’m more than content to stay put in the three arrondissements – the fifth, the sixth and the fourteenth – which I’ve come to regard as my home from home and simply to wander their streets, reacquainting myself with their shops, cafes and squares.

It helps that a couple of years ago I discovered the pleasures of staying at the Irish College – now grandly reconstituted as the Centre Culturel Irlandais – which resides on a side street just at the back of Pantheon and which offers accommodation at very reasonable prices, not just to students, writers and artists but to casual weekenders, too. Twice during 2005 I stayed there for extended periods to do some research and writing, and while I normally run a mile from Irish establishments in foreign cities (I mean, what’s the point?), this is a very special place and the solace of its lovely garden after a long day tramping around the city is worth the price of admission alone.

From this haven, my first walk is always along by the Pantheon, on whose vast front steps I sit and look down the charming and spacious Rue Soufflot (there’s the Eiffel in the distance) before strolling through the corner gate of the Luxembourg Garden, the loveliest and liveliest of all such urban green spaces, with children swarming around its large playground and with men engrossed nearby in the serious sport of boules.

Diagonally through the park it’s a shortish walk up through the bustle of shoppers in Rue Vavin and Rue Brea to Boulevard Montparnasse, where I always have a coffee at Le Select, still one of the most stylish cafes in Paris and less infested by coach parties than La Coupole across the road or La Closerie des Lilas at the end of the avenue, from which the ghost of Ernest Hemingway has long vanished.

Indeed, you’re more likely to find intimations of his presence if you go in another direction from the Irish College (old names die hard), dropping down behind it to Place de La Contrescarpe, immediately off which you’ll find the apartment on Cardinal Lemoine in which Hemingway and his first wife Hadley stayed when they arrived in Paris in January 1922. In his wonderful if self-serving memoir, A Moveable Feast, he  wrote of the odorous “cesspool” that was nearby Rue Mouffetard, while ten years later George Orwell, who lived just off it on Rue du Pot de Fer, encountered a “representative Paris slum” notable for the violent feuds among its largely immigrant population. Now the area is a tourist trap, crammed with restaurants vying for your attention and with little to suggest its raucously smelly past.

That’s called progress, but so, too, is the alarming proliferation of fast-food outlets – on the corner of Rue Soufflot is a McDonald’s and directly across the road from it is its French equivalent, Quick, while on the Boulevard Saint-Germain at Odeon there’s an enormous Starbucks, all of them attracting as many young Parisians as Americans: even post-Iraq, distaste for Bush’s foreign policy obviously doesn’t extend to other manifestations of US imperialism. I hasten instead to the Bouillon Racine off Boulevard Saint-Michel, an extraordinarily beautiful Art Nouveau cafe/restaurant which was once a soup kitchen and which offers an oasis in the afternoon as you sip your tea or coffee, read your newspaper and feel that all is right with the world.

Paris in the evening, though, can be a lonely place if you’re without a companion, spouse or lover. So, of course, can all cities but if you enter a bar in Dublin or London or New York there’s a fair chance that within five minutes you’ll be chatting to complete strangers. That doesn’t happen in Paris, or at least not often – even in the neighborhoods I love there’s an inherent reserve among their inhabitants and while it’s considered rude not to acknowledge the greeting of the woman behind the counter in the newsagents, boulangerie or charcuterie, that’s as far as cordiality goes, even if your French is more fluent than mine. Certainly you’re unlikely to be invited to join the locals at their table.

Which is probably why I came to love a little restaurant at the back of Pantheon called L’Ecurie, which has a claustrophobic basement, a farcically cramped ground-floor interior and a series of ramshackle tables on the steep street outside. It also has, at prices that won’t break anyone’s bank, food of simple honesty, really good wines and a staff which, under the relaxed but alert gaze of beret-clad proprietor Mme Miny, are the epitome of friendliness – not always a Parisian quality. It’s the first restauarant I go to when I arrive in Paris and it’s the last one I visit before I leave, too, and I think it’s the city’s best-kept secret – well, until now, anyway.

On each trip to this corner of Paris I make a few ritualistic pilgrimages – window-shopping along the art galleries on Rue de Seine, gazing at the house on Rue de L’Odeon where Sylvia Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses, sitting outside Les Deux Magots on Boulevard Saint-Germain as the world saunters by, lighting a candle for my daughter in one of the side chapels at Saint-Sulpice.

I also walk along the Boulevard  Edgar Quinet to the Montparnasse cemetery, where I stop for a moment, if not with much feeling, at the grave that jointly houses Sartre and de Beauvoir (existentialists, bah!) before making my way to the simple slab which announces the presence of Samuel Beckett and his wife Suzanne. On my way back to the cemetery gate I pause at the grave of  actress Jean Seberg, whose decomposing body was found in a car on a Parisian side street in 1979 but who will always live on in the minds of movie lovers as the  lethally attractive young American in Paris in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1959 masterpiece A Bout de Souffle.

And I reflect that while youth, beauty and a sense of life’s possibilities don’t always survive in this city, there’s nowhere else I know in which the dream so potently lingers on. Which is why I keep coming back and why, whenever I can’t make the journey, it’s never far from my thoughts. Yes, Hemingway was right: a moveable feast.


Aer Lingus flies several times each day into Charles de Gaulle airport, from which the RER train takes you into Luxembourg. Ryanair flies into Beauvais, with a connecting bus to Porte Maillot.

Double rooms with an en-suite bathroom at the Centre Culturel Irlandais cost 96 euro a night, availability permitting. Longer stays for research or other cultural purposes are also considered at favourable rates. The Centre, under the directorship of Sheila Pratschke, runs a cultural programme of events, with exhibitions, lectures, readings and recitals. More information is available at

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