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City of Light, part 3

Posted by G.A. Matiasz on October 16, 2013

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FIRST, THE 14TH

We vacation in the 14th Arrondissement, regularly staying at the Hotel Ibis Alésia Montparnasse on rue des Plantes. Anyone familiar with European hotels knows that a reasonably priced hotel room is about the size of a walk-in closet, plus a bathroom. This time, my wife and I decided to rent apartments, two to cover our most recent two and a half week vacation, both in the middle 14th.

The upper 14th was the epicenter for an artistic earthquake between the two World Wars, of which the Lost Generation was only a small part. Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Jean Cocteau, and André Breton populated the Boulevard du Montparnasse and congregated in cafes like La Rotonde, Le Dôme, and La Closerie des Lilas, and nearby nightclubs like the Dingo American Bar and Restaurant. However, the 14th below the Cimetière du Montparnasse was, and is more sedate, a quiet working- to lower middle-class neighborhood straddling rue d’Alésia. Our first apartment was a comfortable ground floor space on rue Furtado-Heine, whereas our second was a swankier fourth floor apartment on rue Gassendi, which meant taking four flights of stairs at least twice a day.

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Rue d’Alésia from the round about to the 15th Arrondissement is a low key commercial street with lots of shopping, the usual eating establishments, and plenty of people watching. There’s a charming park, Jardin de la rue de Châtillon, in the neighborhood, and a nice farmers’ market, Marché Villemain, on Sundays and Wednesdays between Avenue Villemain and rue Raymond Losserand. Everything one might want can be had within a few blocks, from shoes and clothes to Monoprix and Bio organic groceries. And while the Alésia nightlife is subdued, there is still plenty to do. We enjoyed dinner a couple of times at Le 14 Juillet Restaurant at 99 rue Didot, both times savoring the chicken liver salad and one time ending the evening sharing their massive chocolate-drenched profiterole. And we caught a film, Ron Howard’s latest movie “Rush,” playing at the nearby multiplex cinema. The showing was in English, Paris being one of the biggest cities in the world for film.

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Rue Gassendi crosses rue Daguerre, a much more lively street of restaurants, brasseries, bistros, caves, cafes, etc. often teeming with young people. The last block of rue Daguerre before it meets Avenue du Général Leclerc is pedestrian only and swamped with business and people into late into the night. We returned to one of our old favorites, Café D’Enfer at 22 rue Daguerre, but this time we found the place a bit less magical. Much more enticing was La Maison Péret at 6 rue Daguerre, a bistro and brasserie serving up charcuterie, sausages, hot and cold country meats and traditional country dishes. Lest it be thought that all we did was eat on rue Daguerre, the Photoclub Paris Val de Bièvre is located on 28 ter, rue Gassendi, a half block down from the street named after one of the originators of the darkroom photographic process.

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My wife and I are big photography enthusiasts. We saw an exhibit of Michael Kenna at the Galerie Camera Obscura at 268 Boulevard Raspail in the 14th. We walked to the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson a few blocks away at 2 Impasse Lebouis for a stunning show of Sergio Larrain‘s. A Magnum photographer, this exhibition of Sergio Larrain’s included pictures and old videos of street kids shot in Santiago, Chile. The wonder of the 14th Arrondissement, this small slice of the 14th in particular, and almost any Parisian Arrondissement generally is that they’re all jam-packed with things to see, stuff to do, food to eat, etc. Each and every neighborhood is crammed full of life, so much life, that a score more vacations would not exhaust the activities, charm and beauty Paris has to offer.

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Which brings me to death. Dividing the upper 14th from the rest of the Arrondissement is the sprawling Cimetière du Montparnasse. Located at 3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, this tranquil, tree-filled and well maintained cemetery is not nearly as well known as Cimetière du Père Lachaise to Americans. However, many notable individuals are buried here, including Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Eugène Ionesco, Guy de Maupassant, and many others. The famous Catacombs of Paris are also located in the 14th, at 1 Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy. The Catacombs ossuary was created when geological weaknesses resulting from haphazard mining coincided with a perceived need to eliminate the helter-skelter Les Innocents graveyard in the 1780s. My wife and I stumbled upon a kind of boutique devoted to Catacombes de Paris called Comptoir des Catacombes (31 Rue Remy Dumoncel), featuring everything from skeleton jewelry and candy to tour guides and gothic literature. The guy behind the counter was taken by my anatomically accurate Archie McPhee skull key ring attachment. That and the fact I was dressed all in black led him to believe I was a devotee of some sort.

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On the final day of our vacation, we took a tour of the Tour Montparnesse, a modern spire at 33 Avenue du Maine looming over the former artists quarter of Montparnasse proper. Higher than the Eiffel Tower, the 360 degree panoramic view of all of Paris afforded from the top of the Montparnasse Tower is truly breathtaking. It was a fitting conclusion to our overall trip.

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