To many of it’s artist habitues, the Parisian neighborhood of Montparnasse was known simply as ‘The Quarter’. Here the cancan and the polka were introduced to the city, new philosophies were born at shaky sidewalk tables, and crazy poets walked pet lobsters on leashes. In Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, written in part at the café La Closerie des Lilas (see restaurant list below), the character Jake explains that one doesn’t have to live in the neighborhood to belong to it : “Perfectly good Quarterites live outside the actual boundaries of Montparnasse. They can live anywhere, as long as they come to the Quarter to think.”
The mount been an area for wild-haired revelers ever since the Middle Ages when students from the nearby Latin Quarter climbed this hill outside the city walls to escape their professors’ watchful eyes, cut loose on the tax-free pleasures, and party like it was 1599. The students dubbed the hill ‘Mont Parnasse’, after the Greek mountain sacred to the Apollo and the muses, Mount Parnassus, a divine space devoted to art and poetry.
By the end of the 19th century, the growing city of Paris had completely enveloped Montparnasse, and in the next generation the neighborhood became the international center of the bohemian lifestyle and the very heart of the modern art world. Avant garde artists (Picasso, Modigliani, Marc Chagall, Miro, Zadkine, and Braque) writers and poets (Ezra Pound, William Faulkner, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, Apollinaire, Jean Cocteau, and Henry Miller), philosophers (Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Albert Camus), musicians (Stravinsky, Gershwin, and Satie) and Russian exiles (Lenin and Trotsky) flocked to the area, a ‘lost generation’ trying to make sense of life in the post-World War I world.
Many of these disillusioned wanderers came from America, enchanted by the easy living and straight talk; Ernest Hemingway, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein joined the others above and created the so-called ‘Paris School’ of art and thought which spawned such movements as existentialism and expressionism and dominated intellectual life until the 1960’s.
The Spanish Civil War and World War II brought much of this artistic era to an end as writers and artists left Montparnasse and dispersed throughout the world. But for a brief flash in time it was the capital of modern bohemia, a blazing epicenter of artistic expression where the freak flags flew high. Parisians still climb the hill today to pay their respects to the gods of music and poetry at the many theaters, cabarets, dance halls, restaurants, and cafes. Nightlife crackles in Montparnasse, and the same art-deco brasseries and cafés still serve patrons sitting in chairs used by Picasso, next to columns painted by Chagall, on a table with Hemingway’s name carved into it, in a cafe where Lenin served lattes. The spirit of the Lost Generation lingers in Montparnasse, and you should too-bring a saxophone, read some disturbing poetry, or discuss the nuances of existence over a heaping of fresh seafood from a Breton brasserie. The muses are waiting.
GREAT RESTAURANTS AND FAMOUS CAFES in the Montparnasse area :
1) Le Ciel de Paris – located at the top of the Tour Montparnasse, this restaurant is renowned for it’s Franco-European cuisine and unrivaled view of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower. It is best for lunch but also open for breakfast (8 :30-11), teatime (2 :45-5 :45) and dinner. Closed Sunday, call to reserve a window seat. Reach restaurant elevator via main entrance, and afterwards ride to the 59th floor for an open air panorama of the city.
2) Creperie Le Petit Josselin – 59 blvd du Montparnasse, this Breton restaurant was founded like many others by families arriving in Paris from Brittany at the Gare Montparnasse. The pancakes, or galettes, are prepared in front of you and the decor is welcoming- carved wood sculptures and porcelain from Quimper.
3) Le Maxence – 9 bis blvd du Montparnasse, Chef David Van Laer’s new restaurant, opened in 1999, serves French and Belgian specialties daily, including a great pigeon dish.
4) Le Bistro de la Gare – 59 blvd Montparnasse, this national historic monument is open daily until 1 a.m. and was originally part of the famous Chartier chain of bouillons. Sit in the extraordinary art nouveau interior and enjoy a quick meal of simple, hearty, fare : roast chicken with frites, grilled meats and fish dishes.
5) La Coupole – 102 blvd Montparnasse, this is one of Paris’ most famous brasseries, in fact, it practically defines the term! Originally a wood and coal depot, it opened as a basement dance hall in 1927 and has entertained customers like Hemingway, Faulkner, Sartre, and Beauvoir. The art deco interior including a mosaic floor and original furniture has recently been restored and is home to 33 decorated columns, some of which were painted by artists Chagall and Brancusi.
6) La Rotonde – 7 place de 25 aout, opened in 1903 and was a second home to artists and political exiles in the 20’s and 30’s. Lenin was a waiter here, serving espresso to his friends Picasso and Matisse, and the mad French poet Nerval walked his pet lobster on a leash by the corner. Don’t miss Rodin’s sculpture of Balzac nearby, and take notice which famous client’s name is inscribed on your table!
7) Le Select – 99 blvd Montparnasse, an American favorite since it’s opening in 1924, it remains a literary café par excellence, the best food out of all the famous cafés around. It is quiet and intimate, open daily and a favorite of Hemingway’s. La Closerie des Lilas – 171 blvd du Montparnasse, classy with a pianist in the evening, and perhaps the most famous of the cafés, the “home” of Hemingway and a watering hole for many others : Baudelaire, Verlaine, Picasso, Balzac, Ingres, and Sartre. During the French Revolution it was an inn for stagecoach travelers, and today it offers a great seat for sipping coffee and people-watching.
9) Vin et Marée – 108 ave du Maine, this restaurant has a great wine list and specializes in fresh seafood, changing the menu daily depending on the catch at the market.
10) Dominique – 19 rue Bréa, opened in 1928 this warm Russian restaurant serves delicacies like herring, smoked eel, and roast lamb, all in a rich red interior set to Russian music. The outstanding vodka bar is not to be missed, closed Sun and Mon.