Montparnasse is a quarter in the southwest of Paris on the Left Bank of the Seine River. The heart of Montparnasse is at the Boulevard Raspail and the Boulevard de Montparnasse. The quarter is known for being at the heart of artistic and intellectual life in Paris, having bred such artists and novelists like Zola, Manet, Degas, Picasso, Samuel Beckett, Juan Gris, Matisse, Chagall, and Fauré. Many destitute creative types, from painters and sculptors to writers and poets, have come from or flocked to Montparnasse in past days to rent a cheap studio and perfect their craft for a chance at international success.
The artistic community in Montparnasse hit its peak in the 1920s, when the cafés and bars were teeming with people and ideas. Starving artists would rent tables at cafés like La Rotonde, Le Dôme, Le Select, La Coupole, and La Closerie des Lilas, all of which are still open for business today, to debate, argue, and brainstorm. And when they couldn’t pay the bill, they would pay with their artwork. Owners of cafés would often have walls packed with artwork, used as collateral for bill tabs. Even political exiles like Lenin and Trotsky found shelter in Montparnasse.
Today, Montparnasse has lost much of its once-thriving artistic splendor – a decline that has been steady since WWII. Besides visiting the old hangout spots of the Hemingways, Dadaists, Chagalls, and the Picassos at the old cafés, there are a few other historic attractions to Montparnasse’s name. The Bobino is one of them. Opened in 1800 as a dance hall, it was transformed into a theatre in 1873 and then converted into a music hall in 1926. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Bobino was the most popular entertainment venue in France and over its history has witnessed performances from the likes of Josephine Baker, Dalida, Georgius, Édith Piaf, Kiki, and Lucien Boyer among others.
The Musée du Montparnasse is another cultural-historic attraction of Montparnasse. It was opened in 1998 and is housed in the former studio of Russian painter, Marie Vassilieff. The painter at the turn of the century operated a private club at this studio, serving cheap food and drink to struggling artists like Picasso and Modigliani. The museum today provides the history of the artists who have lived and worked in Montparnasse including exhibitions of these artists’ various works. Another museum in the quarter is the Musée Pasteur, which is housed in the former apartment of the famous French scientist. You’ll find Pasteur’s instruments, memorabilia, and his mausoleum there.
The Catacombs of Paris are perhaps Montparnasse’s most impressive; they are a network of labyrinthine tunnels dug up during the Gallo-Roman era. Today, it stores millions of burials of late 18th and early 19th century graves. The network is quite extensive, running through various parts of the city. However, only the portion in Montparnasse is actually open to the public. The catacombs are quite scary, piled with skulls and bones and partially flooded in some sections – the scene is very much like one you’d see in an eerie Hollywood movie. Also notable is the cemetery of Montparnasse if only because it is the burial site of Jean-Paul Sartre, Samuel Beckett, and Simone de Beauvoir.
Peculiarly, the Tour Montparnasse dominates the horizon of the Montparnasse district. It is the only skyscraper in Montparnasse and Paris’ tallest at 689 feet. There is also a park in Montparnasse on boulevard Jourdan called Parc Montsouris, which is worth visiting for its large man-made lake and waterfalls which are surrounded by thousands of trees and exotic plant species like the ginkgo and giant sequoia.
La Closerie des Lilas
Catacombs of Paris
Musée du Montparnasse
Porte de Versailles