Two French cafes, both alike in dignity,
In fair Pah-rhee, where we lay our scene,
From agéd grudge break to new mutiny,
Where philosophical discourse makes coffee cups unclean.
Many apologies for this bastardisation of the bard but I couldn’t help thinking about the prologue of Romeo and Juliet when I was reading about the history of these two great cafes – Café de Flore and Café aux Deux Magots. Only in Paris would you find two cafes, literally across a narrow street from each other, which seem to be rivals for each other’s customers and history.
Both cafes are famous because of their connections with great writers and philosophers, a place to rendezvous for Paris’ intellectual elite but different people tell different tales and the guidebooks and reviews seem to favour one or the other in its historical importance.
I am a fan of Adam Gopnik’s ‘A Tale of Two Cafes’ which he wrote for the New Yorker in 1996, which was reproduced in the Independent (for British readers). He proposes that it is the Deux Magot which can count Oscar Wilde, Joyce, Hemmingway, Camus, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir amongst its illustrious previous clientele.
The theory is that the Flore became identified with the extreme right as it is where the founder of Action Francaise, Charles Maurras, set up his base at the end of the 19th century. Because of this when Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir needed a café to meet people in the 1940s they couldn’t go there, so naturally went across the street. Once Deux Magot got too crowded the Flore’s right wing past seemed less important and it became popular again and for a long time more popular with writers, including Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, than Deux Magot. For me this makes some sense as to why the dueling cafes have dueling history.
Today they are both popular tourist destinations – I had a long late lunch in Deux Magot which was wonderfully simple and delicious, if overpriced. Following this I headed down to Luxembourg Garden and spent the rest of the afternoon on one of the iconic green chairs, sheltering from a storm and reading a book – trying not to worry that I would never be as good a writer as any of my favourite authors.
We ambled back to Café de Flore for aperitifs, which again were expensive but I was hoping that some of the stardust from the café’s talented past clientele would rub off on me. Finally, there was a stroll around the streets of Saint Germain struggling with a variety of existential thoughts. It may not be to everyone’s taste but as day trips go I can highly recommend it!
To accompany my existentialist angst, as well as my less high-brow nostalgic thoughts of Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, whilst writing this I have mainly been listening to Radiohead’s ‘Talk Show Host’.