The meeting point for this guided walking tour (in French) was the Métro station Notre-Dame des Champs. This is a small station with only one entrance, so there was no danger of waiting at the wrong one. When I arrived, people asked me if I was the guide, which of course I wasn’t. All of us had read about the tour in the now-defunct weekly magazine Pariscope, but none of us knew who the guide was. Later some more people arrived who knew him and had been on his tours before.
Soon the guide appeared and introduced himself as Pierre-Yves Jaslet. I later found out from his website that he is an historian with a diploma from the Sorbonne. He proceeded to collect the fee (twelve Euros) from each of us, and then we set off across the street and started walking up the Rue du Montparnasse.
It was a large group of around twenty people, no doubt because the day was Ascension Day, which is a public holiday in France. But the size of the group was never a problem because M. Jaslet spoke clearly and had no trouble projecting his voice.
I was surprised when at the first stop on Rue du Montparnasse he started talking about Victor Hugo, who as far as I knew had lived nearby for several years in Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, but never in Rue du Montparnasse. But the reason was that the literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve used to live here.
Saint-Beuve and Hugo were close friends until it became apparent that Saint-Beuve was in love with Hugo’s wife. This may have been only a platonic relationship (unlike Hugo’s own affairs with his several mistresses), but it was enough to end the friendship between the two men. Ironically, Hugo later had the duty of giving a laudatory speech when Sainte-Beuve was made a member of the French Academy in 1845.
Near the beginning of the novel The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, there is a scene that takes place in this café, Le Sélect, at 99 Boulevard du Montparnasse.
This is where Hemingway often had breakfast in the 1920s, before starting to write.
Other regular customers in those days were the poets Max Jacob, Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire, the sculptor Ossip Zadkine, the then-unknown American writer Henry Miller and the painters Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani, Joan Miró and Chaim Soutine, among many others.
On our guided walking tour of the Montparnasse district we did not go inside Le Sélect, but while we were hearing about it on the sidewalk the headwaiter came out and greeted our guide, Pierre-Yves Jaslet, and shook his hand. Evidently M. Jaslet is well known in this district (and all over Paris), since he has been leading these tours for many years.
La Coupole is the youngest of the traditional Big Four brasseries on the Boulevard du Montparnasse. It wasn’t opened until 1927, but it immediately made a big hit with the artists, intellectuals and hangers-on of the district and has been going strong ever since. Le Select, across the street, is two years older. Le Dôme has been in business since 1906 and La Rotonde since 1903.
All four of these are at or near Place Pablo Picasso, formerly known as Carrefour Vavin. (The Métro station of line 4 is still called Vavin.)
Since we arrived at La Coupole in the middle of the afternoon, when not much was going on, nobody seemed to mind when our guide Pierre-Yves Jaslet took all twenty of us inside and showed us all around, pointing out some of the many paintings by famous or then-famous artists who used to frequent La Coupole in bygone decades.
I forget all the names he told us, but La Coupole’s website says that painters such as Derain, Léger, Soutine, Man Ray, Brassai, Kisling and Picasso used to be regular customers.
(Speaking of Derain, there is now an impressive collection of his paintings in the basement of the recently renovated Orangerie.)
La Coupole was where “Camus celebrated his Nobel Prize and Jean-Paul Sartre left hefty tips at his regular table, no. 149.”
Also according to La Coupole’s website: “In 1984, Chagall celebrated his birthday at table 73; a few years later François Mitterrand sat at table 82 and ordered his last meal, a lamb curry.”
The website now has a page for online bookings. You choose the date and time (by the half hour) and specify how many people, from one to 220. If there are more than 220 people in your group, I suppose you would have to make a second booking. The restaurant seats 450 people, but groups are limited to 350.
Location and aerial view of La Couple on monumentum.fr.
In rue Huyghens (pronunciation here), just around the corner from La Coupole and the other famous cafés, we were able to visit one of the hidden inner courtyards that are usually kept locked up.
Fortunately our guide had the combination to unlock the front gate (he seems to have collected these over the years), so we were able to go inside and see some of the old artists’ ateliers that are not visible from the street.
This was also the home of a group of musicians and composers known as the Group of Six: Germaine Tailleferre, Georges Auric, Louis Durey, Arthur Honegger, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc. At the time of our tour I had only heard music by one of these, Francis Poulenc, but four years later the Frankfurt Opera staged Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher (Joan of Arc at the stake) by Arthur Honegger (1892-1955).
Under the glass roof of the atelier at the end of the courtyard, controversial performances were given by the poet Jean Cocteau (1889-1963) and members of the Dada movement.
Rue Huyghens was named after the famous mathematician and astronomer Christian Huygens (1629–1695), who played a fundamental role in the development of calculus and also discovered Titan, the largest moon of the planet Saturn, in 1655.
Our guide did not know the entrance code to number 5, rue Delambre, but he asked next door at the Paradise shoe shop and they gave it to him.
The plaque above the doorway reads: “The painter Foujita 1886-1968 lived and worked in this building from 1917 to 1924.”
I must admit that up to then I knew hardly anything about Tsuguharu Foujita and hadn’t (yet) seen any of his paintings or drawings in the original. But he turns out to have been a very famous (at the time) artist and one of the most eccentric artists in Montparnasse in the early 20th century.
He grew up and was educated in Tokyo, where he also got off to a good start as an artist. He moved to Paris in 1913 at age 27 and quickly made friends with local artists, including Picasso and Matisse and the sculptor Ossip Zadkine.
One of the often-repeated stories about Foujita is that after a few years he had earned enough money to install a bathtub with hot and cold running water here at 5, rue Delambre. (Few people in Paris even had a shower in their homes at that time.) With this bathtub he was able to lure some of the most beautiful models to come and visit him and pose for nude pictures, including Kiki, the ‘Queen of Montparnasse’.
Kiki, whose real name was Alice Prin (1901-1953), was well-known as the model for hundreds of images by the photographer Man Ray (1890–1976), including the famous photo of her as Le Violon d’Ingres, with the f-holes of a cello superimposed on her bare back.
Rue Delambre, by the way, was named after the French mathematician and astronomer Jean-Baptiste-Joseph Delambre (1749-1822), who was most famous for preparing the tables that plotted the location of the planet Uranus. In addition to this street, there is also a crater on the moon that was named after Delambre. Also there is a kind of pink rose called the Delambre Rose, which was bred in France in 1863.
Unlike the front of the building, the courtyard of 22, rue Delambre has not changed much (nor been kept in particularly good repair) in the past hundred years. When we were there some renovation work was in progress on the left-hand side of the courtyard.
Traditionally, Montparnasse has been a place for people from Brittany, on the west coast of France, to come and live. Since 1975 the Breton mission in Paris has been using some of the ateliers at the end of this courtyard for cultural activities. Also several ateliers are still being used by artists.
Again, we wouldn’t have been able to get in here if our guide hadn’t known the combination to unlock the front door.
The next-to-last stop on our guided walking tour of Montparnasse was at the Hôtel Delambre, where the painter Paul Gauguin lived in the year 1891.
Gauguin was 43 years old at that time. In 1891 he managed to sell thirty of his paintings. This made it possible for him to sail to Tahiti in hopes of escaping from European civilization and from “everything that is artificial and conventional.”
Today Gauguin’s paintings are on display in museums all over the world, including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris.
The last stop on our guided walking tour of Montparnasse was the historic Odessa Bath House on Rue d’Odessa.
First we went through the courtyard of house number 9, with trees, bushes and flowers. Then we walked through the entrance hall of another building, until we finally reached another courtyard with the bath house itself.
We learned that this bath house had been built in 1895, making it one of the oldest public bath houses in Paris. In the 1890s and especially in the early decades of the twentieth century, similar bath houses were built all over Paris for purposes of public hygiene. Most houses and apartments at that time did not have baths or showers, so until the bath houses were built people could only bathe if they heated water on the stove and washed in the kitchen, with no running water.
These bath houses in all Paris neighborhoods provided people with a place to take showers for a low price (or use a bathtub for a higher price), so they tended to bathe more regularly than before. The bath houses were tiled, like the shower rooms of a swimming pool, and were always kept very clean.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that private showers in people’s apartments became more or less standard equipment. After that fewer people used the bath houses, but some were still kept in operation and still have their regular customers.
The municipal bath houses were never expensive, but now (since the year 2000) they are free of charge for anyone who wants to use them. City statistics indicate that two-thirds of the users are homeless, but the other third are people whose homes do not have individual baths or showers. Since the financial crisis of 2008 there has again been an increase in the use of the city bath houses.
The Odessa Bath House, however, is no longer run by the city. It is now in private ownership and has been renovated for use as a gay sauna, with a Turkish bath, Jacuzzi, massage service, gym, TV room, cubicles and a darkroom. On most days it is open from noon to 10 p.m. and is reserved for men only. The clients, according to internet reviews, are mainly “bears and mature guys” — bears being “large men with body hair”.
On some evenings, announced well in advance, the men used to be excluded and the house was reserved for women, but these evenings appear to have been discontinued in the meantime.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Odessa Bath House on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See more posts on the Montparnasse area of Paris.