I love Ernest Hemingway. There is something about his simple, straight-forward style of writing and his larger than life personality that has always intrigued me – I know I am not alone in that regard. I started reading “A Moveable Feast” on the plane ride out to Nice. A collection of stories of his time in Paris in the 1920’s, it provides a glimpse into Hemingway’s earliest days as a professional writer.
This followed Hemingway’s formative years as a newspaperman at the Kansas City Star. His subsequent service as an ambulance driver in France during World War I, where he was injured and fell in love with a comely nurse, was the basis for arguably his greatest novel, “A Farewell to Arms”. By the 1920’s, he had left the world of newspaper journalism and dedicated himself to writing fiction full time. He was a member of the American literary ex-pat community in Paris, which included Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound.
As I sat on the plane reading the first chapter, “A Good Café’ on the Place St Michel”, I was immediately drawn in as he talked of walking in a cold rain to “…a pleasant café’, warm and clean and friendly…”, where he had a café’ au lait and later a rum St. James (and then another), and started to write. He caught the eye of a pretty girl, but was engrossed in his writing – lost in it – until he had worked many hours. After, he looked up and realized with disappointment that the girl had gone, but he was happy with his work, and tired. He ordered oysters “… with their strong taste of the sea…” and cold white wine.
I imagined him there in that good café’, working productively out of the cold and rain and I was drawn into that place. I could see it in my mind, and I could feel the cool humidity of the room and the dampness of his clothes. I could hear the barista’s clinking of cups and saucers in the background and could smell the light fragrance of the girl’s perfume and the roasted almond aroma of the coffee. Reading this, I knew we would have to take some time to wander the city, exploring the Latin Quarter particularly, in search of some of Hemingway’s old haunts. Which particular café’ he referred to in that chapter is lost to the dust bin of history, but he mentions other cafes and residences which would be easy enough to find.
Hemingway had me excited about Paris.
After breakfast at the hotel, which was excellent and free, we wandered out onto Avenue de Wagram – one of the main boulevards that spoke into the great roud-a-bout circling the Arc de Triumphe. We wanted to get a closer look at the Arc and figured we would start there since it was so close. We were a little confused when we did not see a crosswalk and were not about to attempt a crossing of the four lanes of furiously circling traffic. We turned left and crossed over several streets to the famous Avenue des Champs Elysees, where we found a staircase leading to an underground tunnel, which led in turn to the Arc.
We ascended out of the tunnel and found ourselves under the great arc itself. We were again in awe of the sheer size of the structure. Sixteen stories tall and 145 feet wide, it is much larger than I imagined it. The main arch is 98 feet tall and 48 feet wide, while the smaller, side arches are 61 feet high. Inscribed on its massive walls are the names of over 500 French generals and the names of the major French victories of the Napoleonic Wars. Underneath the Arc is a monument to the Unknown Soldiers of the World Wars, including an “eternal flame”. This flame inspired Jaqueline Kennedy to request a similar monument at JFK’s burial site at Arlington National Cemetery and that flame burns to this day.
We considered climbing to the top of the Arc, but the line deterred us. If there was one monument which we were determined to climb, it was the iconic Eiffel Tower, so we made that our next stop.
The Eiffel Tower is quite touristy, but it is absolutely a must do. Designed by Gustave Eiffel and erected for the 1889 World’s Fair, it possibly the most recognizable man-made structure in the world – certainly in France. Approximately 81 stories tall, it surpassed the Washington Monument as the tallest man-made structure in the world and held that title until 1930, with the construction of New York’s Chrysler building.
Most people were in awe of its scope at the time it was built, and it is still awe-inspiring today. There was a line 200 yards long to ride the elevator to the second-level observatory – a line which would take at least two hours – but there was no line whatsoever for those willing to walk.
Not wanting to kill a large part of our day standing in line, and feeling the need for a little exercise after four days of post-race sloth, we opted to take a vertical hike. After a quick security check where a guard had us unzip our backpacks after which he took a casual and non-probing glance inside (there was no groping – these folks would never make it in the TSA), we were on our way up to the first observation deck.
Walking up the Eiffel is not like ascending a typical building stairway for obvious reasons. You are out in the open, exposed to the elements, and very aware of your creeping elevation gain. Only the stair railing and the structural iron latticework separates you from the ground hundreds of feet below. For anyone with a fear of heights (Melissa), it is gut check time. It is 300 steps to the first observation deck. From there, you go another 300 steps to observation deck number two, which stands at 419 feet – some 41 stories off the ground.
You find yourself questioning Eiffel’s sanity and the engineering behind it all. It’s high up there, friends, and we were very happy to find that we did not have to take stairs to the third and highest elevation deck at the top of the structure. Though the original spiral staircase remains, the public must take an elevator car from level two to three. Ok by us.
At the top, we paid ten Euros apiece for two plastic flutes of champagne, removing any lingering doubt as to our status as gullible tourists. But hey, we were in Paris, at the top of the Eifel Tower. And we walked halfway there. What the hell, we had earned a champagne toast.
After a lap around the observation deck, which was truly beautiful and awe-inspiring, but also very crowded, we decided to head back down. Eiffel marked off our list, we were anxious to move onto the Hemingway tour.
We made our way across the Seine, to Paris’ Left Bank and then walked along the lively Boulevard St. Germain, to Paris’ Latin Quarter. Here, we had lunch at Café Gustave at Rue de Montessuy. Mel had a wonderful quiche and salad, and I had a 1664 beer and a salmon club. It was 70 degrees and cloudy – very comfortable – and our legs welcomed the rest.
It was on this afternoon that we started a pleasing pattern which continued throughout our time in Paris. We walked and ate, then walked a little more, stopping to rest and eat and have a beer. Then we walked some more and had dessert and coffee, and then we walked again. We walked and we ate, we drank and we walked. This is what we did and how we spent our days. We ate as much as we wanted and never felt guilty. We drank before noon and luxuriated in that rare pleasure. We easily walked ten miles a day, but we fueled ourselves lavishly and without reservation.
After lunch we walked a little while longer and then decided to stop for dessert and coffee at what became our favorite restaurant in Paris – Café De Flores on St. Germain. It was an old hang out of Hemingway’s, and is a classic Paris institution. We sat outside and drank café au lait and shared a lemon tart which was just about the best thing I have ever eaten. We took our time and people watched and enjoyed ourselves immensely. Brasserie Lipp – another Hemingway hangout, was right across the street.
From there, we walked several miles to 74 Rue Cardinal-Lemoine – Hemingway’s first apartment in Paris. I imagined that it must have looked very similar in his day, and it was a cool experience to be there – to see what he saw.
Just around the corner was Café Delmar, where we stopped for a beer and more people watching. It was getting late in the day and our energy was sagging. The beer had a rejuvenating effect though and sitting there with the late afternoon sunlight on our faces, watching the world go by, was exactly what I had in mind. In fact, the thought of it was one of the things that motivated me throughout the Ironman. This was our reward.
A dinner of brains and tongue
After leaving Café’ Delmar, we made the long walk back toward our hotel. About halfway back, on the Rue St. Augereau – just a block off St. Germain – we decided to eat at Café Constant. Owned and run by Maison Constant, one of Paris’ up and coming young chefs. Some years ago, he decided to strike out on his own and opened this trendy, low key restaurant in the Eiffel Tower neighborhood.
There was a 30 minute wait when we showed up, so we shoe-horned ourselves in at the bar and ordered white wine while we waited. We were very hungry from the walking, and the gentleman next to us, dining alone and immersed in a book, was working on something that looked and smelled spectacular. I couldn’t quite make out what it was, so I asked the bartender. He pointed to something on the menu and I nodded, totally unenlightened. It looked so good though, that I decided whatever it was, I would order it.
We were seated by an open window which ran floor to ceiling, affording a comfortable evening breeze – a great pleasantry in that crowded room. We placed our orders – me the mystery dish, which the waiter translated as “Crispy Head” – two words that I had never heard uttered in unison, and Melissa ordered the roasted duck and mashed potatoes.
Within minutes, our dishes arrived and I realized, with a slap of bracing reality, just what I had ordered. The Crispy Head consisted of veal brain, which was a full brain and looked, well, like brain, and veal tongue, accompanied by a side of head cheese.
While Melissa happily dined on her duck and potatoes, I took exploratory nibbles on the veal brain. The taste was good but the texture was soft, like overcooked noodles. Had I not been in Paris, I wouldn’t have eaten it, but it was one of those days in life where you just go with it. The tongue was very good. The taste was about the same as the brain, but the texture was like a pork chop – a vast improvement. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the head cheese however. It was gelatinous, cooked fat from the skull cavity. Fighting a suddenly-vigorous gag reflex, I did by best not to look at it.
To finish, we had coffee and profiterroles – a delicious pastry filled with ice cream and warm, chocolate fudge. This went a long way toward erasing my memory of head cheese, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.
By the time we ambled fully sated and happy out of the restaurant, it was almost 10pm. A lingering summer daylight lit our way back to the hotel. We collapsed, exhausted but already looking forward to the next day.
Next: the Mona Lisa and a bunch of old naked Greek guys – our visit to the Louvre