A Tour of Paris in the Fictional Footsteps of Nobel Prize Winner Patrick Modiano

It's hard to read the author, who will be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today, without wishing to visit the scenes of his stories.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Monceau Park.
Monceau Park.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

“I always believed that some places are magnets and that we are attracted to them if we walk nearby.” French writer Patrick Modiano, who wrote those lines in his book “In the Café of Lost Youth,” will be receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature on Wednesday. There is probably no other writer like Modiano who invites his readers on a tour. Give me your hand, he says, and I’ll take you to the streets of Paris. He returns to places he knew many years ago, and demonstrates that very little has changed. He gives us a clear, concise, amazingly accurate map with which we can walk around the city.

When you stand in front of an ordinary building that was mentioned in the book, you will ask, Why did we come? There’s nothing special here. It’s not a tourist attraction. And still, when you do so, something of Modiano’s spirit comes to life. True, it’s chasing ghosts, but it’s a source of satisfaction.

I’m holding two of Modiano’s books in my hands – “Missing Person” ("Rue des Boutiques Obscures") and “In the Café of Lost Youth” ("Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue"). In both there is a search for young, attractive and mysterious women with a strong tendency to disappear. I post the Google Map of Paris on the screen before me and place points of interest from both books on it. Eventually they link up to create a clear blue line – a walking route along Modiano’s locales.

I notice that the route passes many sites that I have visited in the past. They invite you to enter them too, to add them to the story, to place another, more personal layer on the route sketched by the Nobel laureate. Mazel tov, Patrick Modiano. Thanks for the tour.

A small Cointreau

Most of the plot of “Missing Person” takes place in the Eighth Arrondissement, on the Right Bank of the Seine. The Boulevard Champs Elysee divides the neighborhood. The Arc de Triomphe is one of the largest and most popular attractions in the city. The obelisk, at the other, eastern end of the boulevard is another attraction. But the streets on which Modiano and his protagonists walk are actually the smaller, dark ones.

The first stop on the route, the site of the author’s first meeting, in the first chapter, is L’Hortensia, a cafe at the end of Avenue Niel, like the name of the nearby Metro station. The square that in the book is called Place Pereire is now called Place du Marechal Juin.

I find it marvelous that Modiano’s book was published in 1978 but nothing has changed, and L’Hortensia is still in business on the same attractive balcony. This geographical stability, in which not only the names of the streets but even the names of the cafes have a long life and survive for decades, under the same name and at the same location, is remarkable. From here the author embarks on a search for his past, to the stations that reveal to him who he is. Like Modiano’s protagonists, we too are now detectives walking in the footsteps of a vague memory. Dreaming about a small cognac at L’Hortensia and continuing on our way.

Until Monceau Park you first walk in a southeasterly direction on Rue de Prony. This large, wonderful park is mentioned in several of Modiano’s books. Although his protagonists only pass through, it’s worthwhile to linger. At the site there are quite a few surprises, including a waterfall, a cave you can enter, and a magnificent colonnade next to quite a large pool. The park was built as an English garden, and is different in character from other parks in the city. Scattered inside it are strange buildings such as an Egyptian pyramid, a Dutch windmill and a Chinese fortress.

There are two fascinating museums next to the park: The Nissim de Camondo Museum is located in the home of a wealthy Turkish Jewish family and displays a collection of 18th-century furniture. (You can read the story of the Camondo family in the book by Pierre Assouline, “Le Dernier des Camondo” – The Last of the Camondos, published in Hebrew by Schocken). The Cernuschi Museum displays a lovely collection of Asian art.

Nearby Rue de Monceau was the home not only of the Camondos but also of Maurice de Rothschild (No. 45), the Catawis – an Egyptian banking family (No. 55), and many other wealthy and aristocratic Parisians. Theodor Herzl lived at 8 Monceau during the Dreyfus trial.

Mondiano’s route first leads along Boulevard Malesherbes and from there turns right to Rue de Penthievre and Rue de Miromesnil to Rue de Cambaceres. Here, at No. 10, lived the author and his lover, model Denise Coudreuse. The street is narrow and across it, right opposite the house, French flags are flying, because the building is used by the Interior Ministry (Metro Miromesnil).

From here you continue on Rue de Cambaceres to Faubourg Saint Honore, then you turn right and immediately left to 18 Rue du Cirque, where the beautiful Gay Orlov, one of the protagonists of “Missing Person” lived in the Hotel Chateaubriand. The building still has a sign that says “Hotel,” but it looks abandoned. I have no doubt that Mondiano likes that look.

From Rue du Cirque continue south to the Champs Elysee. Cross the boulevard and there, on the other side, is the Grand Palais – one of the most beautiful museums in the city. At present, until mid-February, there is an exhibition by Niki de Saint Phalle, an artist who always makes me happy. If you continue a little further up the broad boulevard and stand next to the Franklin D. Roosevelt Metro station, on one side you see the Arc de Triomphe and on the other the obelisk on Place de Concorde. It’s a lovely sight, especially in the evening when the street lamps are lit.

From the Champs Elysee you continue on Boulevard Montaigne and turn to 24 Rue Bayard, which according to “Missing Person” was the last address of the hero of the book, Jimmy Pedro Stern, a Greek, apparently a Jew, who has an address in Rome too. The similarity to Modiano is clear. He was also born to a Jewish father and a Christian mother, and wandered quite a lot. The building has not changed at all in recent years but next to it, there is a modern building where the RTL television network now operates, on the left (No. 26) there is a Japanese restaurant and in the building opposite, and next to it, at No. 23, the Chez Savy brasserie declares that it has been here since 1923.

From here you return to the Champs Elysee. You walk east up to the obelisk at Place de la Concorde and turn left to Rue Cambon. The author and his lover Denise lived in the Hotel Castille on this street. A hotel with a similar name is still in business here. It looks nice, has five stars and an interesting design. From here it’s easy to walk to the more illuminated and well known parts of the city – the Louvre is a few steps away, and the Tuileries Gardens always gladden the heart. Before that, in order to digest Modiano’s Paris, you should sit and have a drink, perhaps Cointreau, a drink that is mentioned often in his books, at Le Chambolle at 24 Rue Cambon.

The length of the route I have described – five kilometers. The walk takes about half an hour. You can skip among the Metro stations.

Lost horizons

It’s more difficult to plan a tour in the footsteps of the protagonists of the novella “The Café of Lost Youth,” who are scattered throughout the city. You can choose among several options: Part of the plot takes place in the fifth and sixth arrondissements. We are on the Left Bank of the Seine, in the Latin Quarter. Between the Luxembourg Gardens and the river bank, along Boulevard Saint Michel.

Café Le Conde, the starting point of the book, does not actually exist, as far as I know. Rue de Conde, where the café ostensibly is located, actually does exist. It’s a short street, about 200 meters in length, which connects Boulevard Saint Germain with the Luxembourg Gardens. Place d’Odeon and the theater by that name are also there. The neighborhood is an interesting student enclave with lots of bookstores. The cafes and bars are concentrated somewhat further north, near the river bank.

Luxembourg. A short walk that cuts across the park leads to the RER (rapid transit) station. Opposite it, at 85 Boulevard Saint Michel, lived the author in the first chapter in the book. He is a student at the School of Mines. Right opposite, at No. 60, is the French museum of mineralogy, which has a huge collection, one of the 10 largest in the world, of various types and sizes of stones and minerals (closed on Shabbat and Sunday).

You continue to walk down Saint Michel to the south until the Port Royal station. Turn right at the Boulevard Raspail that descends to Boulevard Montparnasse and take a left on Rue de la Boissonade. Here you can visit the Cartier museum of contemporary art (No. 261). For 30 years the Cartier watch and jewelry firm has been supporting an interesting museum designed by architect Jean Nouvel. The museum is open every day from 11 A.M. to 9 P.M. Continue to circle the Montparnasse Cemetery and turn left to the small Rue de Cels where at No. 8, according to the book, stands the Savoy Hotel, the home of Louki, the mysterious figure whom they’re looking for.

You should take another tour, in the wake of Louki’s childhood, in the Pigalle neighborhood. Louki’s mother worked at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Louki spent her childhood wandering the adjacent streets, between the Blanche, Place de Clichy and Pigalle Metro stations. At 72 Boulevard de Clichy is Paris’ Museum of Eroticism.

From here you should climb up Montmartre hill and overlook the city from the Sacre Coeur Church. Modiano put it precisely. “In this life, which sometimes look like a spacious wilderness without directional signs, among all the bottom lines and the lost horizons, we are trying to find milestones, to map the area somehow, in order not to feel that we are navigating randomly.”



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