29 July 2011

Paris memories: Le Pierwige

Yesterday Ellen and her husband Paul came to spend the afternoon. She's American and he's French. They live in a close-in Paris suburb — they are virtually in Paris since they have quick and easy subway connections into the city.

We sat out on the terrace and had a cup of coffee as we got acquainted. Then Ellen, Paul, and I took Callie for a walk out to the end of the gravel road through the vineyard and back, about two miles. We inspected the garden and I noticed several big round green summer squash that need to be harvested. There's no sign yet of tomatoes turning red.

The Pierwige hotel occupied these two buildings. Now
HSBC bank occupies the ground floor, and
the upper floors are apartments.

Back when he was a student, I have learned, Paul lived in a residential hotel in the Latin Quarter for several years. I'm talking about ancient history — the late '60s and early '70s. As it turned out, Ellen came to France from the U.S. to be a student in Paris for six months in 1970. She and other students in her group ended up staying in the same hotel. They met and were married a couple of years later. They've lived in Paris ever since.

By coincidence, I stayed in that same hotel — it was called Le Pierwige — in the spring of 1970. A palace it was not. A room couldn't have cost more than three or four dollars a night. It was on the Boulevard St-Germain, just off Place Maubert. I had just turned 21.

Looking up the Rue des Carmes toward the Pantheon,
one of the neighborhood landmarks

I didn't meet Ellen and Paul back then. They might have been on spring vacation from school when I was there; I was on my spring break from a study abroad program in Aix-en-Provence and had decided to spend my two weeks in Paris, alone. Most of the other students in the program took off for England, Scandinavia, Greece, Italy, or Spain.

I just wanted to go to Paris. The weather was lousy. It was late March. It was cold, gray, windy, and rainy. It snowed at least one day. That particular day, I had taken the train out to Versailles to walk around the park and see the palace. Big wet flakes fell fast and furious for most of the day. Coming from North Carolina, seeing snow fall was exciting and memorable.

One of the local cafés is named after a famous Loire Valley poet
of the Renaissance (500 years ago), Pierre Ronsard.

On rainy days when I didn't feel like walking around Paris with wet shoes and clothes, I spent hours in the hotel lobby talking with the woman who ran the place and listening to her conversations with others. I called her Madame Suzanne. I remember her as being heavily made up and having a lot of fake blond hair. She seemed old to me, but she was maybe in her 40s or early 50s. It's hard to remember. She was very talkative, though, and I understood French well enough to follow along with her stories, opinions, and observations of life in Paris and the doings of other people staying in the hotel.

I took a lot of my meals in little restaurants around the Latin Quarter during those two weeks. One in particular that I remember was called Le Restaurant St-Michel, located on the boulevard of the same name. Dinner there cost 5 French francs, which was a little less than a U.S. dollar. For that sum, you got four courses — an appetizer, a main dish, a cheese plate, and dessert — along with two glasses of wine. Even I could afford that.

A Paris bar-brasserie (the R is dark) is what we would call a café.

I can't remember how I first found the Pierwige hotel in Paris. I probably just walked the streets looking for a place to stay when I arrived in the city from Aix by train. I stumbled upon the place, and the price was right. I know that I met other English-speaking young people who were staying there over the two weeks of my residence, but the only one I can remember by name was a girl named Denise who came from Christchurch in New Zealand. She and I spent some days touring around Paris together.

I wish I had met Ellen and Paul back then. It's possible that we crossed paths without noticing each other. But if I had met them then, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of meeting them 41 years later and reminiscing about our days at Le Pierwige and in that Paris neighborhood. Nearly everything about Paris has of course changed. You can't stop progress.

This is the hotel we stay in nowadays, just around
the corner from the site of the old Pierwige.

In fact, much of my life since 1970 has revolved around that and other parts of the Latin Quarter. I worked there as a teacher for several years in the 1970s. Even now, when I go to Paris, 1 often stay in a hotel that is just around the corner from the one I first stayed in back in 1970. That one doesn't exist any more, but we who knew it still do.


  1. The scene up the street to the Pantheon remind us of our first trip to Paris in 2006. We stayed at an Hotel in rue la Gay Lussac from memory.
    You never forget your first trip to Paris, do you Ken?

  2. The name of that defunct hotel is interesting. Sounds Scandinavian to me. Sure doesn't sound French. Maybe it was the last name of the owners?

    I just Googled Pierwige to try and find out what was the origin of that name and found only Ken's and Ellen Lebelle's blogs. An Australian food writer, Stephen Downes, also stayed at this hotel. But no explanation whatsoever as far as I know.

    1. the name Pierwige is a contraction of Pierre and Edwige, the owner's children's names. i stayed there in 1973

  3. If only we had digital cameras back then, we could have recorded so much more of our youth.
    I've never found my first hotel in Paris which was called le Grand I think. I was on a high school bus tour in '61. There was no en suite bathroom and we all wore raincoats on our trip to the bathroom.
    I bet the hotel clerk enjoyed the students like you who took the time to chat with her.
    Love seeing and reading your Paris memories.

  4. Ken or Walt, do you think that our Résidence St. Germain on rue du Four is what is now called Hotel de Saint-Germain, at 50 rue du Four?

  5. Judy, the pension St-Germain was at 16 rue du Four. The hotel is at no. 50, on the other side of the rue de Rennes. So it's not the same place. The ground floor of the building the pension was in is now occupied by the clothes shop called Sinéquanone.

    Bonjour CHM, I don't know where the name Pierwige came from. Maybe Ellen or Paul will know and will leave a comment here when they get back to Paris this weekend.

    Evelyn, I hope so, about Mme Suzanne I mean. And yes, I didn't have any kind of camera back then, so no pictures. I once stayed in the Hôtel des Grands Hommes, long before it was done up in the 90s or 00s. It's almost next door to the Hôtel du Panthéon, where you stayed a couple of years ago.

    Leon, yes, true. 1970 was a long time ago but I still have vivid memories.

  6. Your pricing comments are heartily appreciated from the late 60's and early 70's. I have trouble getting friends and acquaintences to believe me when I quote similar prices for my stays in Paris ($1.50/night for a hotel and $1 for a 3 or 4-course meal!). Those were grand times to have our dollar worth so much in Europe, n'est-ce pas?

  7. Oh, my! On one of my most memorable stays in Paris I stayed at the Hotel des Carmes and loved it and the location right by Notre Dame.

    I loved looking out the french window, through the wrought iron grille on the fake balcony at the gorgeous tree across the street.....I had a brief bout with the flu and spent a good part of several days in bed looking out that window and being glad that I had bought a huge bouquet of flowers for my room on the day I arrived.

    Ah, Paris....it is even a lovely place to be ill.

  8. Floodgates are open...here goes.

    MY first time in Paris was in about 1967 and I stayed at the very posh Hotel Lutetsia(now $250+/night) in a fifth-floor room with a gorgeous view of the Eiffel Tower. It was a boondoggle business trip. I had a lot of free time and walked about 1000 miles all over the city that had stolen my heart. In order to appear to be a cool Parisian, I would stop in the bar every day when I got back and order "Un Ricard, s'il vous plait" in my best
    Inspector Clouseau French accent; what a jerk!

    My most recent visit was in September, 2009...stayed at the Hotel des Carmes($100/night;most highly recommended;Marie and Jean-Luc at the front desk will do whatever they can to help you enjoy your visit.

    As I happened to walk by the Lutetsia one day, I thought about having a Ricard for old times sake. So I did.(Except now I've moved up to a Hercule Poirot accent) When I got the VISA bill I saw that it had been a $22.00 trip down memory lane! My sweetheart city can be an expensive date.

  9. Ah, thanks for clearing that up, Ken (about Résidence St. Germain).

    I've always wanted to stay at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes (since it was done up in the 90s or so)... it looks great, and the location... ahhh... it's great.


  10. What a wonderful reminiscence! So glad you got to meet up with Ellen and Paul and share those memories. Same hotel, same time, ships passing in the night.

  11. Hi Ginny, it was because of the blogs that I got to know Ellen and then Paul. Blogs really do bring people together.

    Mary, when I was in college in the Durham/Chapel Hill NC area back in the late 60s, there were quite a few restaurants where we could go have dinner for $1.00 or so. So in Paris it was about the same. Good dinners, too, in both places. I have letters I wrote to my parents when I stayed at the Pierwige, but I haven't found one where I mention the price of the room.

    Bill, thanks. I'm glad you liked the Carmes, because I'm probably the one who recommended it, no? A far cry from the Lutetia, but hey, good value and pleasant accommodations in an interesting neighborhood.

  12. Hi! We're back home and I'm once again in front of the computer. We had a great visit with Ken and Walt. Thank you!
    I'll scan the one picture I had of the view of Notre Dame from the hotel window back in 1970.
    Jean-Pierre + Edwige = Pierwige, according to Paul, and those were the names of the Magne children. The Magnes bought the hotel just a few years before Paul arrived there in Sept. '65. He regrets never having been curious to know what it was called before then.
    In Ken's picture you can see the two parts of the building. The part that look sunken below sidewalk level is the older building. It was built long before the boulevard was raised to its current level and it is the more elegant of the two. I lived on the fourth floor -- and with those high ceilings, it was quite a walk up! In the 70s, the hotel was sold and transformed into apartments.

  13. Merci, Ellen. CHM, tu vois là l'explication du nom de l'hôtel. Moi je ne savais pas. Mais je sais que j'ai eu des chambres dans les deux parties de l'hôtel, en mars, en mai, et encore en juin 1970.

  14. Ellen, thank you for the explanation of the name of that hotel. It makes a lot of sense.

    Edwige is not a very common first name in France. The best known Edwige was the famous French actress Edwige Feuillère (1907-1998). That name came to my mind right away but I didn't make the connection with the last part of that first name.

  15. http://ellenlebelle.blogspot.com/2011/07/walk-and-early-weekend-in-tourraine.html
    For more reminiscing.

  16. Just found this "The “relais” or staging post on that particular day of that particular year was an inn called Le Pierwige, and at the luncheon table were recorded the sires Talleyrand, Brillat-Savarin and de la Pommeraye accompanied by Madame de Stael-Holstein." at http://stephendownes.com/?p=29
    Stephen Downes also stayed at "our" Pierwige: http://tinyurl.com/42b4ml5. A Scandinavian also referred to it, but I don't know what he said.

  17. Ken, Ellen (thank you for the links, by the way, Ellen) beat me to the explanation about the Pierwige name. I do remember the Magne kids at the hotel. I also remember Mme Suzanne, with whom I usually spoke French but also occasionally practiced my rudimentary Yiddish.
    Dick Lodge

  18. Thank you, Ellen and Dick, for the comments and information. Madame Suzanne will remain a great personality in my memory. She was one of those people who helped me get my bearings in French and in France. I remember a morning when the bread was delivered and she was very upset because it was too salty. I tasted it, and she was right.

    I remember her telling me that she lived in the eastern suburbs of Paris.

    And I remember her being very upset with a Swedish woman staying at the Pierwige who was going out with an black man, an African (not an American) I'm sure. It was my first indication that French people could be racist too, like Americans, despite the fact that I saw many biracial couples in Paris at the time — at least many compared to what I had seen in North Carolina.

  19. Ken, if it's the same Swedish woman (I'd have said "girl") I remember from when I was there and the same African, then Mme Suzanne's objection may have been specifically to him. He was Nigerian and very free and easy with the truth. He used to claim that his family was wealthy and that he had attended the upper-crust Swiss boarding school Le Rosey, but another African told me that his dad ran a gas station in Nigeria and the family was dirt-poor. He was the kind of person who, if he walked past you, would have you checking to be sure your wallet was still there...

  20. Was I the only one to call Mme. Suzanne Zaza? She treated me like a daughter, always doting. She looked upon my budding relationship with Paul with favor. Oof. I did see how disagreeable she could be when she didn't approve, not that I understood what she said. I never saw much of the Magne kids because I never ate lunch or dinner at the hotel. I remember very distinctly that Zaza shook her head when I was signing in and asking for the "demi-pension". Then the other people in the lobby (students) all shook their heads, too. So, we ended up with just breakfast. I remember Dick telling a good story about the bug.... Dick, you tell it so much better!

  21. Ellen, ah yes, the bug. One of the features of the dinner provided with the demi-pension was picking a cold first course from a table at the front of the dining room. One day, I picked a cold white bean salad and discovered a cockroach among the beans. Shocked, I went to Mme Magne and showed it to her. Her response was a very matter-of fact, "Oui, c'est un cafard."

    (Note to self at that time: add vocabulary word....)

    One odd thing about the Magne rules for the Pierwige. You could only do breakfast only for a month. That meant that, during all of 1968, I did breakfast only for a month, then demi-pension for a month, then breakfast only for a month, etc. I think, if I recall correctly, that the demi-pension was 500 frs a month and breakfast only was something like 350.

  22. That's funny, Dick. At least Mme Magne was honest about it — no excuses or apologies. I remember finding slugs in salads at the university restaurants in Aix and Paris when I was a student. Actually, in California I found spiders and other bugs in salads in fancy restaurants several times. One waiter I remember just shrugged his shoulders and said the presence of the bug proved the salad was organic.

    I'm sorry I never had the pleasure of taking meals at the Pierwige. I must have had breakfast there but I have no real memory of it.

    Thanks for the story too about the Swedish girl and the Nigerian boyfriend. I never knew them but when they entered or left the hotel Mme Suzanne always had something to say about how stupid the girl must be to keep seeing that guy.

  23. Hello Ken
    My husband and I stayed at Le Pierwige in July 1970. We were just married, post college graduation and taking the low budget $5 a day grand tour. I do not remember how we cane to stay at the hotel , but do remember the price of $3.50 per night with fresh bread, peach jam and cafe au lait. On subsequent trips to Paris, I was unable to find the exact location of the hotel, having long forgotten the address , but the photo is just as I remembered. One year I walked my kids for miles trying to find teh freshly made Tunisian donut shops that lined the area during that time period, only to learn that they were no longer there. frying the dough and dipping the donuts in honey while we waited.

  24. Hi Anonymous, thanks for the comment. More Pierwige people — I was there for a week at the beginning of June that year. The hotel closed down a couple of years later, I understand. Next time you'll be able to find the building, I hope.

  25. Bonjour, Ken.
    I really enjoyed seeing the photos of the Hôtel Pierwige that Ellen sent you, especially the one of the students lounging around watching TV. On our summer vacations, my dad used to always take photos of monuments, castles, countryside, etc. whereas my mom always took "people pictures". She always said that photos with people in them were the ones that given the choice, people would want to look at. The photos included in your March 13 post prove to me that she was right.
    I see that Ellen made reference to Stephen Downes. Did you happen to come across his book, "Paris on a Plate", in which he describes his stay at the hotel in 1971? The woman he describes on p.16 sounds like the Madame Suzanne you remember.
    Bon weekend!

  26. On my first trip to Europe in 1971, my roommate and I stayed at Hôtel Pierwige - and wrote in my diary that we paid $2.50 each for a cool room with antique furniture, a bathroom down the hall and yes, the best bread, peach jam and cafe au lait every morning. We also ate doughnuts at Patisserie du Sud Tunisien and often enjoyed dinner at Restaurant St-Michel or the Vietnamese restaurant in the neighborhood. Mme. Suzanne was very patient with my French.

  27. Bonjour Ellen Bonjour Paul ! JE tombe sur vos commentaires et sur l'hôtel Pierwige 51 Boulevard Saint Germain.Je réside aujourd'hui dans cet ex-hôtel au second étage,juste au-dessus de la banque . Je peux vous fournir des informations sur la famille Magne. Madame Magne est sur la Cote d'Azur . Elle tient un hôtel "La Bastide de l'Oliveraie" Son mari est décédé . Suzanne(Zaza) egalement . Je peux vous recevoir si vous voulez venir un jour à Paris . Best regards Jean-Pierre

  28. Vraimant incroyable. While doing some research on Paris, I remembered Le Pierwige out of the blue, et voilà.
    I too stayed there in the summer of 1970. It was my first trip to Europe. I've been back to Paris several times, but could not quite remember where it was on St. Germain. I never forgot the name. It was funky and full of interesting people.
    Si vous voyez cette poste, merci!

  29. Vraimant incroyable. While doing some research on Paris, I remembered Le Pierwige out of the blue, et voilà.
    I too stayed there in the summer of 1970. It was my first trip to Europe. I've been back to Paris several times, but could not quite remember where it was on St. Germain. I never forgot the name. It was funky and full of interesting people.
    Si vous voyez cette poste, merci!

  30. Thanks for your comment, Ron B. I was at the Pierwige for a few days in late May-early June 1970, just before flying back to the U.S. after my semester abroad program in Aix-en-Provence. I'm not sure I ever stayed there again.

  31. By the way, the Pierwige was at the corner of the rue Jean-de-Beauvais and the Boulevard Saint-Germain. The building(s) is now a branch office of the HSBC Bank.

  32. Greetings....I just decided to look up the old Pierwige Hot­el and found your bl­og....I stayed there for five weeks the summer of 1972 and I really enjoyed it..­..It was pretty much a dump, I suppose, but it felt very free and not restricted, and it was what I could afford as a yo­ung teacher in my 20­'s. The concierge at the desk was very severe and a sourpuss, and I knew she did­n't appreciate my ve­ry faulty French....­And I was an American to make it even wo­rse!....In years sin­ce I've been back to Paris more than a dozen times and have walked by the Pierwi­ge corner at Jean-de­-Beauvais several ti­mes just to reminisc­e....I'm very happy now that I stumbled on to what you and others had to say....­Thank you....Tom Wet­more

  33. I lived at the Pierwige for about 6 months, from September 1973 until maybe February 1974, when i heard that it was going to close and be renovated for apartments. About $75/month at the current exchange rates. The room i had on the 4th floor was huge, and had great heat and light. It was also cheap because it had been in a fire. The wallpaper was water-stained and the wood panel on one wall was both somewhat charred and had paint that had melted and run down so that it looked like Jackson Pollock painting. The maid used to lament that I had to live in such a run-down, damaged room, but i loved it! and as others have written, the breakfast was extensive and yummy. I met a lot of people who lived there or who were passing through. A wonderful place to live in Paris!


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