“The Café des Amateurs was the cesspool of the Mouffetard, that wonderful narrow crowded market street which led to the Place Contrescarpe.”– Ernest Hemingway, A Movable Feast
Hard to say exactly which of the cafés flanking the Place
Contrescarpe is the one Hemingway referred to as the “Café des Amateurs” or “Café aux Amateurs” but if his only description of “…just around the corner on the Place Contrescarpe…” is correct, it’s most likely the Café Delmas, which was previously called ‘La Chope’, which was previously (maybe, Hem’s memory could be a little hazy)….the ‘Amateurs’. Hemingway’s first Paris residence was located at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, literally stumbling distance from the Delmas. On sunny days it’s a far cry from the “…sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together…full of sour smells and dirty bodies”, what he referred to as “the cesspool of the Mouffetard”. He also rented a room around the corner on rue Descartes as a writing studio, in the same room Paul Verlaine died in 1896.
The Delmas has been freshly tarted up (many times over the years) this incarnation with hipster-black façade and dark blue awning, expanded to cover the whole blockfront – originally it occupied the northwest building only, so if you want the true ‘cesspool’ experience grab a chair on that side. In Hemingway’s 1920’s he remembers “Many strangely named aperitifs were advertised, but few people could afford them except as a foundation to build their wine drunks on.” At the time, Hem’s preferred drink was a fine à l’eau, a cocktail of one part cognac to three parts water, basically a cheap way to stretch one drink into an afternoon. Less common since WWII, and far more expensive, you can still nurse one longer than a shot.
Today there are three ranks of café tables with rattan chairs facing the fountain like an auditorium. Staffed by young and crisp waiters in white shirts with long black aprons and black ties – it has a distinctly ‘hip’ feel to it these days, with prices to match. A sleek interior of mirrors and glowing backbar, potted palms and hushed elegance. Les toilettes are a marble fantasia – rather sleek compared to the squat toilets that Hemingway describes.
The Place Contrescarpe itself, immortalized in a song by Jacques Brel, has been a crossroads for centuries – the name ‘Contrescarpe’ (‘Against the Steep Hill’) refers to a military encampment established here in 1852, at the time one of the gates in the old city walls. Until recently (2018 or so) as you sit in the Delmas/Chope/Amateurs, off to your right you would have noticed the sign high up on the wall of the building on the west side of the Place for the “Au Nègre Joyeux” (The Joyous Negro), complete with a large framed painting of the namesake, although the picture did depict a black servant wearing striped trousers waiting on an affluent lady, so I can’t say how ‘joyeux’ he truly was. You can still make out the brackets that held it up. A supermarché now, it originally began life in the 1748 as a chocolate factory, and was subsequently mentioned as a jazz bar in ‘The Sun Also Rises”.
“We crossed the bridge and walked up the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine. It was steep walking, and we went all the way up to the Place Contrescarpe. The arc-light shone through the leaves of the trees in the square, and underneath the trees was an S bus ready to start. Music came out of the door of the Negre Joyeux. Through the window of the Café Aux Amateurs I saw the long zinc bar. Outside on the terrace working people were drinking. In the open kitchen of the Amateurs a girl was cooking potato-chips in oil. There was an iron pot of stew. The girl ladled some onto a plate for an old man who stood holding a bottle of red wine in one hand.”
Looking up and to your left, (above the Bistro Italien) is the sign for the one time ‘Maison de la Pomme de Pin’ – this was a cabaret frequented by Rabalais and Ronsard in the 1540’s. Over the years it also was home to a ‘maison de tolerance’, a polite French euphemism for bordello. The corner of the same building, on the rue Lacepede, also houses the Café des Arts, if you felt like drinking with the spirits of Gargantua and Pantagruel.
Just around the corner at #14 Rue Rollin, Descartes resided back in 1647 when he was in Paris. Commemorate the fact with a pint at Le Descartes (not there at the time of Rene’s residence, but the closest café), at the corner of Cardinal Lemoine and Rue Thouin ~ “I drink, therefore I am.”
And to carry the literary pedigree of these crossroads even further, as you sit in the Descartes, gaze about 60 yards down rue Cardinal Lemoine, past the Hotel des Grand Ecoles to number 71, it’s where James Joyce, then a guest of Valery Larbaud, finished up a little ditty called Ulysses. It’s a safe bet that he frequented all these establishments.
Café Delmas ~ c 1890 (Café Des Amateurs)
2 Place de la Contrescarpe
Phone: 01 43 26 51 26
Métro: Cardinal Lemoine (10), Monge (7)
Historical Drinkers: Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Valery Larbaud, George Orwell, Rabelais, Ronsard, Paul Verlaine, (Descartes), Jacques Brel, Francois Villon