Montparnasse is often overlooked as the ideal base for Paris visits but any visitors will soon find there’s much to enjoy here. If you’re thinking Montmartre or Montparnasse, here’s why the latter is definitely worth considering. Iconic restaurants, a legacy of art, historic streets and gourmet delights galore.
The Magic of Montparnasse
The Cemetery of Montparnasse contains big name burials and uniquely is home to a 17th century windmill from when the area was arable land. The writers Baudelaire and Maupassant are here, as are the philosophers Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. Serge Gainsbourg, the enfant terrible of French popular music, is a more recent arrival, with a grave that is usually adorned with cigarette packets.
Of particular interest is the memorial marking the grave of French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville. In 1820, whilst serving in the French navy, Dumont joined a survey ship in the Mediterranean. It was there during a visit to the Greek island of Milos that he saw and sketched a newly-excavated Classical statue. Realising it was something very special, Dumont urged his captain to purchase the statue. When the idea was rejected, Dumont instead showed his sketches to the French ambassador in Constantinople, from where a vessel was immediately dispatched and the statue secured. For his part in acquiring what became known as the Venus de Milo, Dumont was awarded the Légion d’Honneur and promoted to Lieutenant. The statue is today one of the most popular exhibits in the Louvre and its likeness is carved on Dumont’s grave.
So it is elsewhere in Montparnasse. For all the well-known wonders of Montmartre, there are equally interesting ones in Montparnasse – and usually without the tourist throng. A walk along the nearby Boulevard du Montparnasse is a case in point. Many of the artists attracted by the easy-going village life of Montmartre in the 1860s relocated to Montparnasse after the First World War, drawn by the area’s cafés, cabarets and art schools. Modigliani, for example, once hawked his paintings from table to table at the venerable café Le Dôme, which overlooks what is now Place Pablo Picasso. Just around the corner at 14 Rue de la Grande Chaumière is a private art school that has scarcely changed in a century, and farther along the Boulevard du Montparnasse is La Coupole, an Art Deco café-cum-restaurant with columns decorated by Chagall.
Farther still on Avenue du Maine is the artists’ colony Cité des Arts, a leafy, cobblestoned cul-de-sac, where 30 artists’ studios were constructed using material salvaged from the Exposition Universelle de Paris de 1900. One of them was rented by the Russian painter Marie Vassilieff, who ran a canteen for impoverished painters here, and the studios are still in use today.
A little to the south is the Gare Montparnasse, where the German military command relinquished Paris in 1944 (celebrated in a superb museum), and which today is home to the rooftop Jardin Atlantique. Further less well-known treasures lie beyond, including what is perhaps the city’s most extraordinary church. The Église Notre-Dame-du-Travail at 59 Rue Vercingétorix appears unexceptional until one enters it. Built in 1901 and clearly influenced by the work of Gustave Eiffel, its nave is supported on a visible iron framework, installed it is said to make factory workers in the congregation feel at home! More likely the success of the Eiffel Tower had set a constructional trend.
This tour of Montparnasse finishes farther along the street with the Moulin de la Vierge at number 105. Surprisingly for such a regular-looking street, this tiny bakery is an astonishing Belle Époque jewel, with mirrored walls and a glorious painted ceiling. The Pain au Raisins are excellent and if you ask nicely, the baker might let you peek at the century-old cast iron oven in the cellar.
Duncan JD Smith is a Vienna-based travel writer, historian and photographer. Since 2003 he has been exploring European cities and publishing his findings in the ground breaking ‘Only In’ Guides. Visit www.onlyinguides.com for more details. The 2nd edition of “Only in Paris” is published by The Urban Explorer (ISBN: 978-3-9503662-9-7) and is available at bookshops and online.