Art is a core theme in my book Masquerade. The heroine, Luz, is writing the biography of the great Spanish Surrealist artist Eduardo Raphael Ruiz de Salazar. Being a consummate professional, she knows a lot about the subject matter, and in the course of her interviews with her employer – the artist’s nephew – she makes reference to the Café de Flore, a favourite haunt of de Salazar and so many other creative minds.
We writers often weave in references that have a great deal of meaning to us, but we are prevented from exploring them as we’d like because we must honour the story first and foremost. The Café de Flore is one such reference to me: it is a café in Paris, France (the country in which I live for half of the year), and is a wonderful and deeply inspirational place to visit.
The café, at the corner of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Rue Saint-Benoît, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, is one the most well-known and frequented cafés in Paris. It dates back to the 1880s, when it was established and named for the sculpture of the Roman goddess Flora that stands opposite. Perhaps it was this classical reference that inspired the first great minds to take a coffee there while pondering; from that point forth, the café earned an unshakable reputation as being a hub for creative and enquiring minds.
Included in the clientele over the years were all manner of influential and inspiring people, from intellectuals Georges Bataille and Simone de Beauvoir, to poets Robert Desnos, Léon-Paul Fargue and Raymond Queneau, artist Pablo Picasso, writers Ernest Hemingway and Trumane Capote, actress Brigitte Bardot and director Roman Polonski, and fashionista Yves Saint Laurent. During the Second World War, the café was an especially valuable sanctuary – the German troops avoiding it during their occupation of the city – and many intellectuals met there. Jean-Paul Sartre said of the café:
We got completely settled here: from 9 a.m. till noon we worked here, then we went for a lunch and at 2 p.m. were coming back and talked with friends till 8 in the evening. After the dinner we arranged meetings with friends here. It can seem strange but we are at home at Café de Flore.
Since 1994, in recognition of its literary heritage and influence, the café has awarded its own literary prize, the Prix de Flore, to a young author of a French-language book. The winner receives several thousand euros and (far more excitingly to my mind) may have a free glass of white wine in the café every single day for a year.
Today, the café is a draw for tourists, but that does not diminish its soul in the slightest. It is well worth a visit; I like to go and sit with a coffee and a notebook, admiring the Art Deco décor, people-watching and thinking of who exactly may have sat in my spot in years gone by!
But when I am finished my coffee, I do not linger. I walk just a little way down the street to another café, Les Deux Magots.
This café is the contemporary of the Café de Flore. Patrons have included Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, James Joyce, Oscar Wilde and Bertolt Brecht. It was a focal point for both the Surrealists, under André Breton, and the Existentialists, under Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre.
Back in the nineteenth century, the business Les Deux Magots was so-named for a play entitled Les Deux Magots de la Chine (two figurines from China), and it was a fabric and novelty store. Then it transferred to the current premises, and in 1884 it became a café, but retained its original, quirky name.
This café also awards a literary prize, the Prix Deux Magots, which dates back all the way to 1933, and is very well respected. The award usually goes to an unconventional work. The café has also founded prizes for a literary work dedicated to music, and for artists in varied fields like architecture and film.
Two cafés with long and prominent histories, and of course two competing businesses. There are some in the city who will always favour one café over the other; indeed, an article in the Independent entitled ‘A Tale of Two Cafes’ outlines how the cafés pass in and out of fashion against the other. But to my mind, they stand as equals: inspirational, fascinating and a chance to brush shoulders with the ghosts of the greats. Certainly worth an hour of your time if you are visiting Paris someday. If nothing else, the coffee will be divine!