Montparnasse, the Catocombs, and French Cemeteries
Today we are going to talk about the area of Paris called Montparnasse. Montparnasse is “younger” than most of Paris, a nice place to stay not too far from the city center on a smaller budget, and a major transportation hub. As we are releasing this episode close to Halloween, we also talk about two places in the Montparnasse area that are creepy: the Montparnasse Cemetery and the Catacombs. Both are well-worth a visit, and we explain why in this episode. Enjoy!
Today we are going to talk about the area of Paris called Montparnasse. Unlike the other two “m”s”, the Marais and Montmartre, the neighborhood now called Montparnasse does not go back to the middle ages. It is located in the southwestern part of the city of Paris, and, until the later 17th century, was simply open fields and mines or quarries.
In fact, the name of the area comes from the ironic name given to this space that had heaps of gravel and excavation debris on top of very slightly sloping hills. The university students, (even in those days they were disrespectful and mocking at times) were “invited” to find a place for their oratory out of the Latin Quarter (which is literally right next door to the Montparnasse area)
They decided to use these heaps of debris to exclaim their ideas (we are in the end of the 1600’s and new ideas are circulating a lot). Considering themselves to be the top of the top, they named their little hillock the Mount of Parnasse after the site in Greece where wisdom was given down by the gods to men.
Amazingly, the name stuck, and even years afterwards, when the area was being developed in the 1700’s and monasteries, then later artists and writers took up residence there, this was the name by which it was known.
Montparnasse is a large area bounded on the east by the Observatory and the beginning of the Latin Quarter, on the west by the outlying 15th arrondissement and the rest of the time it is part of the 14th arrondissement. Developed largely at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th centuries, it is filled with large, tree lined boulevards and wide spaces. A small part of Montparnasse still has the small houses and narrow streets of the old quarter and that part is close to the Montparnasse cemetery, one of the interesting places to visit.
In the 1820’s Paris decided to empty out its old cemeteries because they were overcrowded, but also because, in a secular spirit, it was decided to make pubic cemeteries where anyone could be buried, as opposed to the church graveyards of the past. The first of these new large cemeteries was Père Lachaise in the northeastern part of the city, and Montparnasse was the second one, and is still the second largest cemetery in Paris.What is interesting and different from American cemeteries is that it was created to be like a park, with trees and benches and a certain arrangement so that people can visit and stroll through, even those with no family buried there. These spaces are open till nightfall and are free to enter. In fact, since the cemetery is filled with the tombs of famous people, there is a map you can get at the entrance that tells you where certain crypts or mausoleums are so that you can go and pay your respects. We have a long list of people buried in the Montparnasse cemetery (hear the podcast) but just to give you an idea; Sartre, Apollinaire, Alexander Dumas the younger, Marguerite Dumas, Baudelaire the French poet, Emile Zola the great writer, and many many more.
The cemetery is in the northern part of the Montparnasse area very close to the Luxembourg park and the older part of Paris, so it is filled with some lovely little streets and buildings that go back to the pre Revolution or just after it.
On boulevard Raspail, a major artery of the area, there is now the Cartier Foundation dedicated to new contemporary art. It is an interesting building that used to be the American Center of Paris which has now moved to a different location.
The old hill where the students used to exclaim their ideas was at the corner of what is now the boulevard Montparnasse and the boulevard Raspail. Near to this spot you have one of the other really interesting things to see in Montparnasse; the famous cafés from the golden Art Nouveau era. There are 4 still functioning – The Rotunda, which is the oldest, built in 1903 in Art Nouveau style. The Dome, built in 1906 is also built in a flamboyant decoration from this time. The Coupole; built in 1920 is in Art Deco and a little still of Art Nouveau and is very wonderful to see, and the Select, built in 1925 in Art Deco style. All four of these brasseries still are open till late at night, and serve wonderful food and also just coffee or drinks all day long. These places were the hangouts of the group of artists who lived there and who made the neighborhood famous; Hemingway lived and wrote there, Picasso lived there, Modigliani, Soutine, even Matisse had a studio there. Faulkner and Edith Wharton both hang out in the cafés with the likes of Hemingway and Peggy Guggenheim and Gertrude Stein, the great art collector. From the end of WWI till the beginning of the 1940’s, Montparnasse was the place to be!
These cafés were also the places where political exiles from all over, many from eastern Europe, would debate and write – Trotsky and earlier Lenin, spent time there as did the composers, Prokofiev and Stravinsky, all Russian exiles.
Whereas before, Toulouse Lautrec, Renoir, Utrillo and all the famous artists of the end of the 19th century were hanging out, living and painting in Montmartre, up at the northern end of the city, as soon as the rents got too high, and the rich wannabe’s pushed the artists out, they started to look for an inexpensive and open area to create workspaces; Montparnasse was it!
Because it was the new bohemia, many cabarets and nightclubs opened there, as did many small theaters as well. A street, rue de la Gaiety, which still has a large cluster of cabarets and theaters, was the heart of the nightlife for Montparnasse.
When you go to Montparnasse now, you will no longer see the neighborhood of small, medieval houses and little streets that were the center of life for the thousands of poor people from Brittany who came to the capital to try to have a better life. The whole area was razed to create the huge and only skyscraper in the inner part of Paris, the Tower of Montparnasse. Built to be modern and house offices and commerce as well as apartments,, it is 196 m or 60 stories high and its design and intrusion into the urban landscape created such an uproar that a new city rule made it impossible to build any more buildings higher than 20 floors in the city, and that ordonannce is still used. But, if you want a great view of the city looking north, and getting in a view of the Eiffel Tower as well, you can go up to the top of the tower of Montparnasse and take those pictures.
All around the Tower, are cinemas, shopping areas, hotels, cafés and restaurants ; it is one of the livliest noisest and active parts of Paris and on a Friday or Saturday night you have the streets filled with people.
And, at the other end of the boulevard Montparnasse, where it joins up with the avenue of Denfert Rochereau, at the intersection of what used to be, in the 1700’s the Port Royal, a very important domaine, there is the entrance to the famous Catacombes of Paris.
Created in the end of the 1700’s and at the beginning of the 1800’s the Catacombes, which is really an ossuary, a depository for bones, was created to empty out the old cemeteries that were being dug up to renovate the city under the new ideas of “modernity”. Millions of bones were taken and put in the underground tunnels that create a huge patchwork all across Paris, a huge swisscheese of tunnels and openings dug out by the Romans to have the stone that was used to make all the buildings in the city.
Today this is a historical site to visit, kilometers of tunnel, over 130 steps down under the streets, filled with millions of bones, neatly and nicely arranged by neighborhood and in sometimes beautiful patterns, to remind everyone that we are only here for a while.
In 1944 the leader of the Resistance in Paris, Henri Rol Tanguy used a part of the catacombes to set up his operation and headquarters, and now one of the streets leading up to the entrance is named after him.
Montparnasse is a large, not too crowded but very interesting part of Paris to visit. It is great for doing a lot of walking and it is filled with small discoveries, a series of artists’ studios, a small Postal Museum, a fascinating cemetery, places haunted by the famous people of the past who lived there, and it is nice to be in an area that is not too crowded but that offers another look at what Paris is.