It’s hands up time. We didn’t research Paris at all before we visited.
There is a reason for this; we were only passing through on the way to Bordeaux. Still, there is a lesson to be learned.
A train from Beauvais had dropped us off at Gare du Nord, from there we were to take the Metro to Gare Montparnasse where we’d catch another train to Bordeaux. We had no idea how long this would take and subsequently didn’t allow for any time for exploring Montparnasse.
In reality, the journey across Paris took no time at all and we found ourselves with three hours to spare.
Stepping, like naïve Paris virgins, out of Montparnasse train station to be faced with wide, café-lined avenues heading in all directions was overwhelming. I imagined a large clock beginning to clunk down the seconds.
2 hours, 53 minutes and 0 seconds left.
Where to start?
A small tourist information kiosk seemed like the sensible option.
A request for information was met with a handful of mini-guides to shopping and sightseeing in Paris. A second request for specifically information about Montparnasse was met with a resounding ‘NON!’.
2 Hours 45 minutes and 10 seconds remaining.
So we struck out on our own, turning up the first side street we came to on the grounds that… well, you never know.
Narrow, cobbled, Rue du Maine instantly felt less frantic. It was packed with intriguing little restaurants whose menus elicited a ‘sacre bleu’ thanks to their prices. The rue was home to the curious Maison du Kilt. Even with the ‘Auld Alliance’, a kilt shop was the last thing I expected to find on a Paris street.
We passed a small park to link up with a network of other small streets and alleys, more cafés and a tiny theatre or two. Over the length of one street, we’d left a bustling urban scene for the sort of Paris I’d hoped we’d get a slight glimpse of.
The area was named Montparnasse in the 18th century (a reference to the Greek Mountain favoured by Apollo and the Muses) due the fact that students gathered in the area to recite poetry beside a hill made of old rubble; the Parisian Mount Parnassus.
Lying outside of Paris’ city limits, Montparnasse was exempt from alcohol tax and subsequently bars, restaurants, cabaret halls and theatres sprang up. A Bohemian element was drawn to the area; it was the quarter to hang out in if you were a struggling writer, poet, artist or anarchist.
Wilde, Hemingway, Chagall, Man Ray, Picasso, Lenin and Trotsky all had their creative and political juices inspired in Montparnasse, whilst singers like the little sparrow, Edith Piaf, warbled in the district’s dance halls.
Montparnasse still gently hums a Bohemian rhapsody.
As it was lunchtime, we made a beeline for a restaurant that had a theatrically kitsch vibe going on, Le Tournesol on Rue de la Gaité.
Online reviews of Le Tournesol are mixed. Some people really don’t like it; others love its retro, arty atmosphere. There’s a sparkly little stage where who-knows-what goes on which fits the area perfectly. We liked it a lot and immediately felt chilled. The staff were friendly, particularly a waitress who laughed and joked with us and corrected our bad French in a friendly way – she winked a lot.
We wanted something Parisian, so ordered a croque-monsieur and a croque-madam (same as the monsieur except with a fried egg on top) with a brace of Amstel beers. The French ham and cheese toasties were around €7 each, whereas the beers (half pints) were €4 a glass. Expensive, yes – mais c’est Paris.
Lunching in Le Tournesol ate up the hours and once the croques were devoured, there was barely enough time to complete an artistic triangle by strolling along Boulevard Edgar Quinet, another favourite haunt for the artistically minded set.
We detoured into Monoprix to grab a couple of bottles of vin rouge for a friend who was picking us up two trains further down the track.
How do you choose wine when you’ve only got a few minutes and you’re faced with an army of the stuff? Answer – pick the ones with little recommended labels around the neck (both lived up to the promise).
After that it was a brisk pace back to the station and onto the Bordeaux train.
As the train pulled away from the station, there it was in the distance; the biggie of Parisian icons – the Eiffel Tower.
I guess I sort of told a white lie when I said we didn’t see any Paris sights.
Had we Researched Montparnasse
Right opposite Montparnasse train station is the Montparnasse Tower whose panoramic floor and roof terrace is said to have the best 360 degree views of Paris. Entrance €13.50.
Montparnasse Cemetery is just off Boulevard Edgar Quinet; it’s the last resting place of Jean-Paul Sartre, Jean Seberg, Man Ray and Susan Sontag.
Montparnasse is famous for its Breton creperies.
Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+