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The Montparnasse District

The Montparnasse area covers parts of the 5th, 6th, 14th and 15th arondissements and is bordered by the Luxembourg Quarter to its north.  Its north-western limit is rue d’Assas, boulevard du Montparnasse and  boulevard de Port Royal, its western border is rue de la Sante and avenue René Coty.  Its southern limit is made up of boulevard Pasteur, rue du Château, rue Mouton Duvernet, rue Sophie Germain, rue Halle and rue Cabanis.  Its north-eastern border is rue de Vougirard. 

Students, who would gather in the area, named it ‘Montparnasse’, which is derived from the ancient Greek ‘Mount Parnassus’, the home of Apollo, the god of poetry, music and beauty.  Ever since, the district has been a Mecca for Parisian artists and intellectuals. 

The area’s interesting structures are the Gare TGV, the Observatoire de Paris and the Tour Montparnasse [only because it is Paris’ tallest building].  Interesting streets are rue Campagne-Première and the boulevard du Montparnasse where the night Culture of Paris France is found at the cafés La Closerie des Lilas, La Coupole, Le Dôme, La Rotonde and Le Sélect are located.  Its museums are the Musée Antoine Bourdelle, the Musée de la Poste and the Musée Zadkine.   

The Observatoire de Paris, at 61 avenue de l’Observatoire, was founded by Louis XIV in 1667.  The building was designed by Claude Perrault and was completed in 1672 after 5 years of construction.  In 1672, its astronomers were able to calculate the ‘exact’ dimensions of the solar system.  Its scientist were also responsible for the exact calculation of the meridians of longitude, the speed of light, the first mapping of the moon [1679], the deductive discovery of the planet Neptune, in 1846, and the classification of the stars by their sizes.  The Observatoire has been, since 1919, the center for the International Time Bureau that sets universal time based upon their chronometers which are buried 92 feet below the observatory. 

Just north of the Observatoire, at the intersection of boulevard du Montparnasse and boulevard St-Michel, stands François Rude’s 1853 bronze statue of Napoléons favorite general, Marshal Ney.  Rodin believed this statue to be the most beautiful in Paris. 

Between the Observatoire and the Tour Montparnasse, hidden in a clump of trees in the median of boulevard Raspail, is Rodin’s powerful bronze of Balzac

The Tour Montparnasse rises a hideous 656 feet.  When it was built, it was the tallest office building in Europe.  Its 56th floor houses a bar and restaurant and offers the sightseer an unobstructed panoramic view of Paris. 

Between the wars, the rue Campagne-Première was the habitat of such artists as Pablo Picasso, Modigliani, Joan Miró, and Kandinsky.  The ceramic façade, at No. 31, was designed by Paul Bigot. 

The Montparnasse cafés were the rallying sites for the so-called ‘Lost Generation’ and for the Surrealists and the Existentialists of Paris.  These cafés, La Closerie des Lilas, La Coupole, Le Dôme, La Rotonde and Le Sélect, attracted the likes of Lenin, Trotsky, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Matisse, and Toklas.  Toklas, Hemingway and Fitzgerald seemed to favor La Closerie des Lilas.  Jean-Paul Sartre, Josephine Baker, Roman Polanski attracted their ‘family’ at La Couple and at the Deux Magots on St-Germain des Prés.  Gertrude Stein held her court at 27 rue de Fleurus, near the Alliance Française.  

Le Musée Antoine Bourdelle is at 18 rue Antoine Bourdelle.  It consists of his house, studio and garden where he worked from 1884 to 1929.  They have been converted into a museum to display his works.  The best of the bunch are his portraits of Beethoven. 

Le Musée de la Poste is located at No. 34 boulevard de Vaugirard in the National Postal and Philatelic Center.  The Postal Museum has a well laid out account of the French postal system and its methods for insuring mail delivery since the beginning of the French postal system.  

Le Musée Zadkine, 100 bis rue d’Assas, displays works of this Russian artist that were created in this house where he lived from 1928 to 1967. 

Other points of interest are the Catacombs, the Cimetière du Montparnasse and the square Place du 18 Juin 1940. 

The Catacombs is the final disposition of the remains of millions that were removed from the city cemetery, in les Halles in 1786, to an old quarry at the base of Montparnasse.  Its entrance is at 1 Place Denfert-Rochereau.  

The Montparnasse Cemetery is located almost in the shadow of the Tour Montparnasse, the tallest building in Paris. Although not as large as the popular Père-Lachaise cemetery, on Paris' east side, it is the final resting place of many celebrated foreigners, industrialists and intellectuals.

The Cimetière is the final resting place for well known luminaries.  It was designed by Napoléon I and was opened in 1824.  It contains many interesting tombs, statues and head stones.  The cemetery is located between the rue de la Gaité and boulevard Raspail and can be entered from boulevard Edgar Quinet.   

Some would consider a walk through a cemetery to be macabre; but, not so in Paris. Here, the cemeteries are filed with beautiful statues, monuments and landscaping. Sometimes, you will even come across picnickers.

The cemetery map, that the care taker will give you, identifies the location of the graves of its most famous inhabitants.

Among those buried there are:  The French historien Edgar Quinet, the flutist, Jean-Pierre Rampal, the Mexican president, Porfirio Diaz, the sculpteur Antoine Bourdelle, the Irish writer Samuel Beckett, Capitaine Alfred Dreyfus [whose trial by the French Army, on trumped-up espionage charges, caused the collapse of the French government], the sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi [who designed the Statue of Liberty], the industrialist André Citroën, the Belgian composer César Frank, the singer Serge Gainsbourg, the French Cubist sculptor Henri Laurens, the French novelist Guy de Maupassant, the French mathematician Henri Poincaré , the American photographer Man Ray, the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns, the French Existentialists Jean-Paul Satre and Simone de Beauvoir, the American actress Jean Seberg, and the Romainian Dadaist and Surrealist Tristan Tzara.  Jean Sablon, the great French crooner and chanteur is also buried there.

The cemetery, formerly three separate farms, takes up an area of about 45 acres; it is divided between two sections known as the old and the new. The graves are found among tree lined alleys and a wide assortment of monuments and sculptures that have been placed there since the cemetery's opening in 1824.

La Séparation du couple, which was originally destined for Luxembourg Gardens, can be found in the cemetery's 4th division. Perhaps the saddest of all the monuments there, the separation of the couple was moved to the cemetery in 1965 because it was considered too obscene for Luxembourg. It depicts a woman straining to rise from her grave to console her mourning paramour, face in hands, standing above her. Nearby, at the circle, in the center of the cemetery, is Le Génie du sommeil éternel by Horace Daillion, who gave it to the city in 1902.

In the 22nd division, you will recognize Le Baiser, the stone sculpture by Brancusi; his grave can be found in the 18th division. A short distance away is a humorous monument designed for an inventor and his wife. It is in the form of a huge bronze bed with a sleeping woman upon it. Her husband is shown standing over her. There is an angle standing upon the headboard as though guarding them both.

The old SCNF Gare Montparnasse was the place where, on August 25, 1944, the German military governor of Paris surrendered his garrison after disobeying Hitler’s direct order to destroy Paris.  At the Place du 18 Juin 1940 [the date of General de Gaulle’s radio broadcast urging the French to resist the Germans], at the corner of boulevard Montparnasse and rue de Rennes is a plaque commerating the liberation of Paris and the German surrender to General Leclerc. 

The old station was the terminus for the line to Brittany where untold thousands of Bretons arrived to start a new life in Paris.  Because of this immigration you will find numerous crêperies in the surrounding streets selling the famous Breton contribution to the culinary arts. 

The new station is on the same site.  Now, one can take a high-speed TGV [Train de Grand Vitesse] that will speed you to Brittany at 200 mph [320 kph].

 

 

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