||Montparnasse and the 14th District
Port Royal, Vavin, Montparnasse Tower, Cemetery, Denfert Rocherau, Parc Montsouris
(About 5 km)
This area of Paris is one of the more recent additions to the riches of the city. And although there are few touristic photo opportunitiesmost of the attractions are half hidden 'villas' or completely private houses, named after famous artists or for artist communitiesit is nonetheless full of historical significance.
Unlike Montmartre, there is no hill to speak of in Montparnasse. The name was coined in the 19th centurysomewhat tongue in cheekapparently because the pile of rubble from the excavation of the nearby catacombs inspired poets to attribute a noble title after Parnassus, the sacred mount of ancient Greece. It's hard to believe that as recently as the 18th century the area where the debris was dumpedwhere the Vavin Metro station is now located on Boulevard Raspailwas waste ground, and still semi-rural until the railroad station of Montparnasse was built in 1840. This linked the capital with Brittany and attracted many an impoverished 'Breton' to the numerous bars and pancake restaurants that still have names that ring of Brittany as well as other Celtic areas like Ireland and Wales.
The heyday or 'great adventure' of Montparnasse lasted from about 1912 to 1932, but it was from 1900 onwards that impoverished artists, poets, writers and political outcasts started to converge on this unspoiled village, finding studios and cheap lodgings in charming mews. And the First World War turned the trickle into a flood, with many artists from France (Jean Cocteau influenced large numbers of Right-Bank artists and intellectuals to change banks) or abroad fleeing something or other. Amongst the better known were Max Jacob, Apollinaire, Modigliani, Utrillo, Lenin and Trotsky, and later Braque, Chagall, Foujita, Klee, Picasso, Rouault, Soutine and Zadkine. Moreover, after the war, with prohibition encouraging expats from the USA., artists and writers such as Man Ray, Nigel Calder, Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller were added to the list, especially since the French Franc had fallen so low (not as far as the Deutsche Mark, but still considerably depreciated) and the dollar would buy so much more in this 'the navel of the world'. By the 1920's, even established artists like Scott Fitzgerald (the self-proclaimed "chronicler of the jazz age") came to join 'the lost generation' of Americans in Paris, but this was also due to growing international prestige of the 'school of Paris' and its reputation as the intellectual capital of the world. However, the depression of the 1930's, followed by the Spanish Civil War and the second World War put an end to this international love affair with Montparnasse, since footloose artists were more drawn to the security and affluence of the USA.
A good place to start a stroll in the 14th district is at the Port Royal, on the intersection of Boulevard Saint-Michel, Avenue de l'Observatoire and Boulevard du Montparnasse. What attracts the eye most on this square is the fountain of the 'Observatoire', sculpted by Carpeaux (1867-74), which is in fact in the 6th district, but is perhaps the most successful sculptural group of the Second Empire. On this same square, at the start of the Boulevard du Montparnasse, you'll find the bar/restaurant 'La Closerie des Lilas' celebrated for so many famous former patrons (e.g. Giorgio de Chirico who had his studio nearby at 115 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, or Fernand Leger, who met his wife on the terrace) many of whom have their names engraved on the tables (Modigliani, Max Jacob, Lenin etc.) or on the bar (e.g. Ernest Hemingway, who spent more time drinking than eating here, partly because he too used to live at 113 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs after moving from rue du Cardinal Lemoine). More recently, Woody Allen demonstrated his driving skills to the unfortunate crowd seated outside this café in 'What's New Pussycat'.
On the other side of the Port Royal crossroads is the Observatoire, in fact located due south of the Luxembourg palace and gardens, defining the line of the meridian of Paris. Colbert commissioned Claude Perrault to build the Observatoire, which was started at the Summer solstice (21st June) in 1667, in an unbuilt area far from the city as it was then, and finished with the help of the Italian astronomer Cassini in 1683. It has the distinction of being the oldest astronomical building still in use.
Walking along the Boulevard du Montparnasse, the second street on the left is rue Campagne Première, and at No. 31 you'll find an interesting 'Art Nouveau' building. This was built in 1911 to house artists, one of whom was Ezra Pound. Another was Man Ray who, during the 1920's and 30's shared a photographic studio with Lee Miller, making some of his unforgettable Dadaist and Surrealist work as well as portraits of the 'in crowd' people like James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Cocteauas well as of his unforgettable model and lover 'Kiki' (Alice Prin). Continuing along the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the intersection with Boulevard Raspail, where the Vavin Metro station is located, you'll see no trace of the 'mount' from which the area took its name. This crossroads has in fact recently been renamed Place Pablo Picasso, which gives a clue to its importance in the art scene after the 'Great War'. The bust of Balzac by Rodin is a recent addition, but there are four key bars and eating houses still going strong almost beside each other that are staunch reminders of its heyday: the Dôme, the Coupole, the Rotonde and the Select. Of course they have changed a bit since then, but there are still nostalgic photos of famous patrons on the walls (during the first World War Picasso, Modigliani and Cocteau often took a coffee on the terrace of La Rotonde). The Dôme in particular has become far more up-market, specializing in seafood that arrives daily from Brittany at the nearby railroad station. In stark contrast, the eating and drinking houses frequented by the artists and intellectuals in the 1920's catered to impoverished customers who sometimes even had their slate wiped clean in return for a sketch or painting.
If you take the rue Delambre beside the Dôme restaurant and after the more affordable Dôme bistro, you'll find at No. 5 the place where Fujita had his first studio. And at No. 10 you can see the small Dingo bar, which was another of the popular hangouts of the 'lost generation'; in fact it is reputed to be where the struggling Ernest Hemingway met and drank with Scott Fitzgerald during the 1920's. On the other side of the road at No.15 (now the charming and very cozy Lenox-Montparnasse hotel) you'll find the address where Man Ray had his first photographic studio (in his hotel room) in 1921.
After reaching Boulevard Edgar Quinet, turn right down rue du Montparnasse, a street lined with pancake restaurants to remind you that this is a 'suburb' of Brittany, where you'll find the Falstaff bar-restaurant (No. 42) that the expats of the 1920's moved to after the Dingo bar, following their favorite barman, Jimmy.
At the corner, again on Boulevard du Montparnasse, turn left and you'll be at a very busy road junction, Montparnasse-Bienvenüe, dominated by the steel-and-glass 'Tour Maine-Montparnasse', the tallest building in France (210 meters) since 1973. Find the entrance in the rue de l'Arrivée (on the west side of the tower) if you want to take the special high-speed elevator to the 56th floor of this skyscraper (or the 59th floor terrace, weather permitting), where you can get a breathtaking panoramic view of the whole of Parisand beyond.
Opposite this same entrance you'll find the Avenue du Maine leading northwards, and at the level of No. 21 on the right there is a delightful cobbled street called 'Chemin du Montparnasse' where dozens of artists' studios go by the name of 'Cité d'Artistes'. This is where the artists from the neighborhood came for a good meal at friendly prices from about 1915, including patrons such as Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Juan Gris, Fernand Leger, Modigliani, Max Jacob, Zadkine, Apollinaire, Soutine, Chagall, etc. In the middle of this street you'll find the 'Musée du Montparnasse' where there are often interesting exhibitions of contemporary artists.
Doubling back to the Place Bienvenüe, to the right of the tower you'll see the new railroad station, rebuilt in the 1960's on the site of the original station (dating from 1840 and famous mainly for the train, immortalized by a contemporary photo, that overran the buffers and landed in the street). The name Bienvenüe was given to the square and this station to commemorate the builder of the Paris underground ('Metro') system, Fulgence Bienvenüe. If you feel like a rest before going on, there is a garden, known as the 'Jardin Atlantique' built on a concrete slab over the railroad lines on the south-western side of the station. Here you will find a memorial to General Leclerc (pseudonym for the French military commander, Philippe de Hautecloque, posthumously promoted to Field Marshal) who, as commander of the 2nd Armored Division or 'Division Leclerc', was one of the first to enter Paris on August 25, 1944. He handled the capitulation of General von Choltitz and the signing of the German garrison's surrender here (fortunately in disregard of Hitler's order to destroy Paris first). Another commemoration of WWII is a museum of Jean Moulin (the most famous of French Resistance leaders).
Continuing along the Avenue du Maine towards the south, just after the Gaîté metro station you'll meet Rue Froidevaux on the left and an entrance to the Montparnasse cemetery (Froidevaux being a play on the words 'froids dévots', or cold devotees). If you don't find cemeteries too morbid, this one, dating from 1824, is second only to Père Lachaise in Paris for famous denizens, who include: Baudelaire, Beckett, César, Citroën, Dreyfus, Gainsbourg, Hachette, Larousse, Maupassant, Proudhon, Saint-Saëns, Sartre, Soutine, and many more. It also has many interesting sculptures, most notably Brancusi's 1910 work 'the Kiss'.
Continuing along Rue Froidevaux, just before the intersection with Boulevard Raspail you'll find rue Schoelcher on the left, where Picasso had his studio from around 1916. At the end of Rue Froidevaux you reach the Place Denfert-Rochereau (named after Colonel Pierre Philippe Denfert-Rochereau, who so successfully defended the city of Belfort during the siege of 1870-71). Another symbol of the same siege can be seen in the middle of this square: the copper copy of the famous statue of the Lion of Belfort, back in place after a recent facelift. Bartholdi made this copy in 1880, a year after he assembled the original red-sandstone lion in the cliff face overlooking the castle of Belfort, and five years before he made the bronze reduction of the statue of Liberty that adorns the Allée des Cygnes under the Grenelle bridge. If you know Montreal, you may find this lion familiar; an 1897 copy of it, known as the Sun Life Assurance Company fountain, was sculpted by George Hill.
If you follow the lion's gaze, it falls between an unusual pair of white-stone buildings with sculpted friezes that are among the few surviving customs barriers (this one is known as the Barrière d'Enfer) built by Ledoux as the gates in the city wall of 1785 to control the entry of goods entering the city and to levy dues. Although many of them were burnt just before the storming of the Bastille in July 1789 as symbols for the injustice of endless, crushing tolls, levies and tariffs that the monarchy and privileged orders imposed on trade, a few other 'barrières' in the 'Mur d'Octroi des Fermiers Généraux', are still to be found at the 'Rotonde de la Villette', the avenue du Trône near Place de la Nation, and the 'Rotonde de Chartres' at the entrance to the Parc Monceau. This is also where one enters the 18th century 'catacombs' (not early Christian as the name would suggest), which is an ossuary for the bones collected when the Cemetery 'Des Innocents' (in the 1st district) was closed in 1780. But it would be wiser to make a separate outing for that visit (if you're not put off by piles of human bones and skulls) even if it only lasts about 45 minutes, since you have to be dressed for the occasion; it requires cheap non-slip shoes, warm clothing and a flashlight.
Continuing southwards along avenue du Général Leclerc, the first street on the right is rue Daguerre, named after the inventor of the Daguerrotype, the first photographic technique. This street is rich in authentic local color, especially on Saturday and Sunday mornings when everyone does their fine-food shopping. Among the famous former residents of this street were Nigel Calder, who had his studio at No. 22, and Trotsky who lived here for a while. Crossing to the left side of avenue du Général Leclerc, keep your eye open for number 19 and a wrought iron gate leading to 'Villa Adrienne', another garden oasis. The next street on the left leads to the bucolic rue Hallé and villa Hallé. At the end of this street turn right along Avenue Rene Coty and right again on rue de la Tombe-Issoire, and at No. 83 you'll see another artist community half hidden by greenery. After crossing the busy rue d'Alésia, at the level of No. 101 rue de la Tombe-Issoire you'll find a dead-end street bordered with 1920's houses called Villa Seurat. A certain Henry Miller lived for four years at No. 18 and wrote 'Tropic of Cancer'. Among his illustrious neighbors at this address were Lawrence Durrell and Soutine.
A little further along rue de la Tombe-Issoir you'll reach the junction with rue Saint-Yves, and if you're interested in seeing where Vladimir Ilitch Oulianov lived (better known as Lenin) turn right and you'll find the house at No. 4 rue Marie-Rose.
Continuing another block further along rue de la Tombe-Issoir you'll see the Montparnasse reservoir on your left (this being the highest point on the left bank), then at the Place Jules Hénaffe turn left onto Avenue Reille. The first cobbled street on the right is Square de Montsouris, and on the corner is a 1922/23 Le Corbusier buildingin fact his first work as a practising architect originally the studio of the painter Ozenfant (the talents of Le Corbusier / Jeanneret and Amédée Ozenfant were linked in 1918 when they published their manifesto 'After Cubism', and also between 1920 and 1925 via their review 'L'Esprit Nouveau'). Along with the La Roche House and the Villa Savoy in Poissy, this is one of Le Corbusier's most interesting early works, using bands of window in screen-walls, and it remains a small masterpiece despite having been changed with modernization (its regulating lines are illustrated in his 1923 book 'Vers une Architecture' or 'Towards a New Architecture' and the original roof with two factory style serrations has been replaced by a terrace). Continue along this narrow street, one of the most attractive in Paris, lined with private houses and artist studios half hidden behind luxurious vegetation, and at the end of the street turn right on rue Nansouty. Resisting the temptation to cross to the park, you'll see almost immediately rue Georges Braque on the right. This rather run-down street is, of course, named after one of its most illustrious former residents, whose home and studio were at No. 6 (but you'd never guess it from the outside since it is almost completely overgrown). You may now cross rue Nansouty to gain a well-earned feast for the eyes and rest for the limbs in the Parc Montsouris.
Baron Haussmann's horticultural engineer, Jean-Charles Adoplphe Alphand, who made the enormous parks to the east and west of Paris (Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes) as well as the other parks and public gardens in Paris, made this park between 1868 and 1878 on a site that was so full of holes it was unfit for building (it was even likened to a 'Gruyère' cheese). And this might explain why the artificial lake, that now attracts numerous visitors on warm days, suddenly emptied on inauguration day. There used to be a scaled-down copy of the summer residence of the Bey of Tunis, given to France during the Universal Exhibition of 1867, but this burned down in 1991. The superb landscaping is hardly at all marred by the railroad line that cuts through the middle of the park, nor by the destruction and replacement of several centuries-old trees after a freak storm in 1999. On the rue Gazan side of the park is a very good restaurant, Le Pavillon Montsouris. It is easy to see why so many celebrated customers, from Mata Hari to Sartre, enjoyed eating on the terrace of this restaurant, which not only enjoys a superb view but is an integral part of the park.