Café de Flore: Literary Landmark or Tourist Trap?

Located in the sixth arrondissement on a certain sweeping, ever-glamorous stretch of the Boulevard Saint-Germain—Haussmann’s left-bank tribute to the Grands Boulevards of the right bank in the mid-19th-century—the Café de Flore has seen its share of renowned literary figures pass through its grand glass doors. A haven in years past for the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, Marguerite Duras, Jacques Prévert, Guillaume Apollinaire, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Lev Trotsky, Raymond Queneau, Louis Aragon, André Breton and countless others, today the Flore is viewed by some as a sort of “writerly mecca,” by others as an overly trendy tourist trap. Some gaze around them in wonder, hoping that some of the inspiration woven through the general ambiance of the café will somehow rub off on them. Others glance furtively at the clientele, hoping to spot a celebrity or two. In any case, its marble floors, red banquettes and mirrored walls are steeped in history, while the experience of sitting in one of those famed green-and-white wicker chairs is as much about people-watching and literary ghost-hunting as it is about the overpriced café crème or sinfully decadent chocolat chaud à l’ancienne one might order.

Founded in 1887, at the end of the Third Republic, the Flore quickly became a notorious hub of intellectual thought and a meeting‑place for poets and philosophers alike. At the end of the 19th century, Charles Maurras wrote his first book at the Flore, entitled, ironically enough, Sous le signe de flore. In the midst of the First World War, Apollinaire made the Flore his unofficial office, keeping regular daily hours at the café. Philippe Soupault and André Breton caught on to the allure of the Flore next; eventually the word spread to their friends Louis Aragon and Tristan Tzara, and soon enough, the term “surrealism” had been coined and the foundations for the Dadaist movement had been laid out. Something about the ambiance of the café, perhaps in part its location on the swiftly burgeoning rive gauche, proved conducive to creative, philosophical and academic thought.

We all know the story—especially during the postwar period, the café became a second home to many of France’s prominent literary figures, not to mention a great deal of expatriate writers and intellectuals. Sartre himself described settling down with partner-in-crime de Beauvoir at the Flore for whole days at a time during the German Occupation, writing, “from nine in the morning till noon, we would work there, we would go to lunch, at two we would come back and chat with friends who we would meet again at eight. After dinner, we would receive people with whom we had made appointments. This may seem strange to you, but we were at home at the Flore.”

Today, the expatriate tradition reigns strong in a certain sense, as hordes of American tourists crowd the place, unfolding wrinkled maps across the small circular tables as they search for their next pit stop— the Louvre, the Musée D’Orsay, Ladurée or Père Lachaise. You’re about as likely to hear someone speaking French at the table next to you as you are to see a bear on the métro. Parisian locals tend to avoid the place like the plague nowadays, and it’s becoming increasingly rare to see anyone scribbling away in a Moleskine, save for the odd wannabe-hipster in the corner, dressed oh‑so‑deliberately in a velvet blazer, a fedora and faux tortoiseshell glasses.

Popularized as a “see and be seen” location in the 60’s by celebrities and fashion icons such as Yves Saint Laurent, Jim Morrison and Brigitte Bardot, the Flore has, over time, become a difficult place in which to feel at home—regardless of how long you’re allowed to “install” yourself at French cafés without being bothered—it’s far from conducive to existentialist speculation (unless you’re there to quietly mock the Tevas of the tourists from Arkansas sitting next to you) and much like Shakespeare & Co., it’s become more of a tourist attraction than a legitimate writers’ haunt. Still, its rich literary legacy remains, embedded somewhere in the walls, in the verdant foliage that spills over its pristine awning, in the fluorescent curlicues of its sign. If we try hard enough, we can sense the spirits of the writers who have frequented the café over the years—Prévert scribbling away on napkins, Queneau composing Oulipian verse in a corner booth, Duras writing notes for a screenplay on an old menu. Though it’s hard now to believe that the next great piece of French existentialist literature will be composed in large part at Café de Flore, it’s a great place to enjoy a seven-euro cup of coffee and drink in the ever‑changing atmosphere of modern Paris.

This entry was posted in Aragon, Baudelaire, Breton, Hemingway, Seeing the sights and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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