Peer long and hard around the unfortunate 1960s Gare Montparnasse complex and glimmers of the area’s bohemian past occasionally emerge: after WWI, writers, poets and artists of the avant-garde abandoned Montmartre on the Right Bank and crossed the Seine, shifting the centre of Paris’ artistic ferment to the area around bd du Montparnasse.
Known as les Montparnos, artists Chagall, Modigliani, Léger, Soutine, Miró, Matisse, Kandinsky and Picasso, composer Stravinsky, and writers Hemingway, Ezra Pound and Cocteau were among those who hung out here, talking endlessly in the cafes and restaurants for which the quarter became famous. It remained a creative hub until the mid-1930s.
Historic brasseries that recall les Montparnos’ legacy include La Rotonde Montparnasse; Le Select; La Coupole, with muralled columns painted by artists including Chagall; Hemingway's favourite, the hedged La Closerie des Lilas; and Le Dôme, where Gertrude Stein is said to have encouraged Matisse to open his artist academy (only for Matisse to later add his voice to the 1935 'Testimony Against Gertrude Stein' pamphlet, condemning Stein’s interpretation of how cubism emerged in her 1933 Autobiography of Alice B Toklas).
Venture east from Montparnasse along bd Arago, past the eery La Santé Prison (the most infamous prison in French history after La Bastille, dating to 1867 and boasting the city's last-standing, dark-green public urinal from 1834 in front). At 65 bd Arago you come to a romantic cluster of 19th-century artist workshops, known as La Cité Fleurie. These 30-odd half-timbered cottages, laced with quaint cobbled pathways and overgrown gardens, were built in 1878 using materials from a disassembled pavilion from Paris' Universal Exhibition. They open to the public once a year, during the Lézarts de la Bièvre (www.lezarts-bievre.com) arts festival on the 2nd weekend in June.
Paris Rive Gauche
Paris' largest urban redevelopment since Haussmann's 19th-century reformation continues apace in the 13e arrondissement (city district). Centred on a once-nondescript area south of the Latin Quarter spiralling out from big busy traffic hub place d’Italie, the renaissance of the area known as Paris Rive Gauche was heralded in the 1990s by the controversial Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the arrival of the high-speed Météor metro line. They were followed, among other additions, by the MK2 and more recent EP7 entertainment complexes, the Piscine Joséphine Baker swimming pool and Off Paris Seine hotel – both afloat the Seine – and the Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir (2006), providing a cycle and pedestrian link to the Right Bank. And work isn't slated to stop for several more years.
Pivotal to this 130-hectare redevelopment zone is the Paris 7 university campus hosting some 30,000 students. Other institutions to have moved in include the Institut Français de la Mode (the French fashion institute) in the stylised former warehouse Les Docks.
The area’s mainline train station, Gare d’Austerlitz, is enjoying a €600 million makeover by celebrated French architect Jean Nouvel. The station itself will be overhauled (including €200 million alone on the grand hall’s glass roof, beneath which hot air balloons were manufactured during the 1870 siege of Paris), and new shops, cafes and green spaces will open up in the surrounding streets. The renovation is due to wrap up in 2021.
Then there is Station F, the world's largest start-up campus, in business since mid-2017, where 3000 entrepreneurs from all over the globe dream up ground-breaking new projects and businesses, supported by 30 different incubators and accelerators. Guided tours take visitors on a 45-minute waltz through the gargantuan hangar – a railway depot built in 1927–29 to house trains from Gare de Austerlitz. Spaces open to the public include Station F's Anticafé co-working space where hipsters pay €5 per hour to eat, drink and hang out; and enormous Italian restaurant La Felicità, with five different kitchens, three bars and a twinset of original, graffiti-covered train wagons.
Track updates on this innovative area at www.parisrivegauche.com.
Long before the tramway or even the metro, the 35km Petite Ceinture (Little Belt) steam railway encircled the city of Paris. Constructed during the reign of Napoléon III between 1852 and 1869 as a way to move troops and goods around the city's fortifications, it became a thriving passenger service until the metro arrived in 1900. Most passenger services ceased in 1934 and goods services in 1993, and the line became an overgrown wilderness. Until recently, access was forbidden (although that didn't stop maverick urban explorers scrambling along its tracks and tunnels). Of the line's original 29 stations, 17 survive (in various states of disrepair).
Plans for regenerating the Petite Ceinture railway corridor have seen the opening of three sections with walkways alongside the tracks. Other areas remain off limits.
In southern Paris, the Petite Ceinture du 15e (PC 15) stretches for 1.3km, with biodiverse habitats including forest, grassland and prairies supporting 220 species of flora and fauna. In addition to the end points, there are three elevator-enabled access points along its route: 397ter rue de Vaugirard; opposite 82 rue Desnouettes; and place Robert Guillemard.
On the eastern side of Parc Georges Brassens, a promenade plantée (planted walkway) travels atop a stretch of the Petite Ceinture's tracks by Porte de Vanves.
Sections of the track itself in eastern Paris, Petite Ceinture du 12e (PC 12), near the Bois de Vincennes, and western Paris, Petite Ceinture du 16e (PC 16), near the Bois de Boulogne are also open to the public.
Ultimately the goal is to open the entire section of track between Parcs Georges Brassens and André-Citroën, around 3km in all.