6th & 14th Arrondissements
M° Montparnasse, Denfert-Rochereau, Edgar-Quinet, Vavin
Begin at Place Pablo Picasso (M° Vavin), at the noisy intersection of Boulevard Montparnasse and Boulevard Raspail. During the period between wars known as Les Années Folles, the artists of Montmartre moved into the dirt cheap ateliers of Montparnasse, and it quickly became the new center of Paris artistic and intellectual life. James Joyce, Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Modigliani, Max Ernst, Jean Cocteau and Picasso were among the starving writers, poets, sculptors and painters who frequented the cafés along Boulevard Montparnasse, such as the Clôserie des Lilas, Le Dôme, La Rontonde, Le Select and La Coupôle.
Did you know?
Montparnasse was also home to political exiles such as Trotsky and Lenin.
The neighborhood still shows signs of artistic life, with young students from around the world toting the tell tale weathered portfolios of the serious artist, particularly around the art supplies shops and arts academy of the Rue de la Grande Chaumière. Walk down Boulevard Raspail, where many old ateliers have been converted into upscale housing (#240, for example). Man Ray and his muse Kiki lived behind the beautiful ceramic façade at 31 Rue Campagne Première, and newcomers to the city such as Picabia and Marcel Duchamp stayed next door at the Hôtel Istria (#29). Continue down the Boulevard Raspail to the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain (261 Boulevard Raspail, 14th M° Raspail Tel 01 42 18 56 50 ), a contemporary art and culture exhibition center opened in 1994 in a unique glass and steel building by the architect Jean Nouvel. The glassed-in gardens outside are designed to look wild (although sometimes they just look unkempt), with a “fallen tree branch” water fountain and a cedar planted in 1823 by the land’s former owner, Chateaubriand. The venue also presents regular Nomadic Nights, devoted to the contemporary performing arts such as dance, music and video, Thursday evenings from 8:30pm (reservations necessary). Open Tuesday-Sunday noon-6pm, entry €5, €3.50 for visitors 10-25, free for kids under 10. The colorful building across the street is the Ecole Spéciale d’Architecture, whose architecture was inspired by the Pompidou Center (closed to the general public).
Time Saver: Those who don’t want to walk down Boulevard Raspail can take the Bus 68 from Métro Vavin to Place Denfert Rochereau.
Boulevard Raspail ends at the busy Place Denfert Rochereau, with traffic swirling around the bronze Lion of Belfort statue by Bertholdi, commemorating one of the few victorious battles of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Just behind the statue is a square with one of the old Ledoux city gates. The discreet green cabin around the southern side of the square is the entrance to the Catacombes (look for the lines of people), built in the old quarries in the 19th century to accommodate the exhumed remains of over six million Parisians crowding the inner city’s cemeteries. See The Outdoors link for more information on visiting the Empire de la Mort.
Take the pedestrian-only Rue de Grancey (from the southwest corner of the Place Denfert Rochereau) to the Rue Daguerre. This authentic Parisian market street has a small neighborhood feel to it, where everyone seems to know each other and prices haven’t been driven up by tacky souvenir shops…yet. Don’t miss the wooden toy shop, Les Cousins at #36, the Chapellerie Divine hat boutique at #39, and Paris Accordéon at #80, a shop and museum dedicated to the humble accordion (they give lessons, too).
Unique Religious Architecture
Take a detour to the Eglise Notre-Dame-du-Travail de Plaisance (36 Rue Guilleminot, 14th M° Pernety), a church built in 1900 for the working classes. From the outside it looks like any Paris church, but the inside is constructed of vaulted steel arches in the style perfected by Gustave Eiffel. The priest who commissioned the church wanted it to resemble the modern factories where many of his congregation worked.
Turn right on the Avenue de Maine to enter the Cimetière du Montparnasse from the corner of Rue Froidevaux (the main entrance is at 3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 14th M° Edgar Quinet Tel 01 44 10 86 50). Opened in 1824, this cemetery can’t match Père-Lachaise in size or fame, but it certainly has its fair share of prestigious inhabitants, including Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Charles Garnier, Eugene Ionesco, Man Ray, Serge Gainsbourg, George Sand and Jean Seberg. Some of the more interesting sculptures include a polychrome cat by Nikki de Saint-Phalle and a birdman by Tinguely.
Exit the cemetery from the Allée Principale, turning left onto the Boulevard Edgar Quinet. There’s an open produce market in the central alley of the boulevard every Wednesday and Saturday morning (7am-2:30pm) and an arts fair every Sunday (10am until sunset). There are still a few surviving vestiges of Montparnasse’s cabaret glory days down the narrow Rue de la Gaîté, although many of the old theatres have evolved into the neon peep shows like those found in Pigalle. Streets such as the Rue d’Odessa, Rue du Montparnasse, Rue Delambre and Rue du Maine are lined with authentic Breton crêperies left over from the days when the Gare Montparnasse was the main station for passengers arriving in Paris from the Brittany coast.
Poetry on the Mont
There used to be a small hill in Montparnasse, created by the debris from centuries of quarrying the Left Bank. Back when it was outside the city walls, it was a favorite place for students to recite poetry. They nicknamed the hill Mont Parnassus, from the mountain of the mythological poet Apollo. In the 18th century Haussmann leveled the hill to make room for the Boulevard de Montparnasse, but the name lived on.
Ready to tackle the beast? The 688ft-tall Tour Montparnasse ( 33 Avenue du Maine, 15th Tel 01 45 38 52 56) opened in 1973 to so much criticism that Parisians voted to never allow another skyscraper to tarnish their historic skyline. An elevator can take you to the 56th floor terrace (glassed in) in just 38 seconds. For an open view proceed all the way to the 59th floor, the only place in Paris with a Montparnasse-free panoramic view of the city! Open daily to the public 9:30am-11:30pm (winter until 10:30pm) Entrance on the Rue de l’Arrivée. Entry €8, €6.80 for students, €5.50 for kids under 14. Free for kids under 5.
If you prefer to stay closer to earth, climb the stairs on the corner of Rue du Départ and Boulevard du Montparnasse to the terrace on top of the Maine-Montparnasse Commercial Center. From here you get free views over the billboard-covered buildings and cinemas of the Place du 18 Juin 1940 — the Parisian version of Times Square! For a more peaceful stroll, visit the elevated Jardin Atlantique (enter from the Rue du Cdt-Réné-Mouchotte or from within the train station), with over eight acres of gardens built in 1994 over the tracks of the Gare Montparnasse.
Most moving walkways in the Paris Métro only reach the speed of 1.8mph, but a new super-duper-fast moving walkway in the Métro Montparnasse-Bienvenüe goes three times as fast, at 5.6mph. Great fun if you don’t fall down, so pay attention (because the only signs are in French): when you get on, grab the handrail, step onto the rollers, and then stop moving your feet – the beads move you automatically onto the conveyor belt (then it’s okay to walk). When you get to the end, the blinking shoe sign means to stop walking again – the belt slides you onto the rollers, where you’ll slow down enough to step off onto solid ground. Still in its experimental phase, the new walkway only goes from one direction for passengers changing from lines 6 or 13 to lines 4 or 12.
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