Posts Tagged ‘Montparnasse cemetery’

The tour Montparnasse is the only skyscraper in Paris. Whatever its architectural merit, its viewing terrace gives wonderful views over the capital. From above, you get a different sense of the scale of the cityscape – the green expanse of the parks and cemeteries, the proximity and juxtaposition of landmarks, the great scars of the railway lines.

In the foreground are views of the jardin Atlantique, a late twentieth century park, placed dramatically on top of the Montparnasse railway station.

jardin AtlantiqueAlso adjacent is the 19th century Montparnasse cemetery, which seems surprisingly large viewed from above.

Montparnasse cemeterySlightly more distant, in the 6th arrondissement, is the lush, 17th century jardin du Luxembourg, with the iconic cemetery Père Lachaise (the city’s biggest green space), located in the 20th arrondissement, visible beyond.

jardin du LuxembourgTo the west is the 101 metre high, golden dome of Les Invalides with its grand esplanade leading to the Seine.

InvalidesAnd, of course, arguably the original ‘skyscraper’ in Paris, here’s la tour Eiffel straddling the half-mile long processional space of the Champs de Mars with, as backdrop, the business district at la Défense.

Tour EiffelOften, it’s the little details of the city that catch my eye – a cluster of plants, a sign, the face on a sculpture – so it’s good to be reminded of the large scale and drama of this splendid place.

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Signage. It sounds the most boring of topics. But in public parks and gardens, signs can make such a difference. Good ones make us feel welcome, confident, wanted. Bad ones leave us confused and irritated, sensing that our presence is merely tolerated.

I’ve been noticing some examples in Parisian landscapes.

Tuileries TuileriesFirst, some new signs in the jardin des Tuileries. Located in sensible places and frequently consulted, they are sleek and modern, with a map of the whole garden, and some arrows showing you the direction of the main features. To me they say: We don’t want you to see this as a fusty historic park: it’s a contemporary place. And we want you to stroll around and enjoy it all.

My only complaint about the Tuileries signs would be about this one at an entrance on the rue de Rivoli. Same simple design, but way too much information on some pretty complex opening times. It’s telling me: We don’t care if you feel welcome. We have our own elaborate systems and you just need to fit in with them. That panel along the bottom is also slightly discomfiting: We have already thought of two things you can’t do here, but we have left lots of room to list other forbidden activities when we think of them.


Here’s a terrible example. It’s the entrance to the historic cemetery at Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Those forbidding stone walls have a tiny brass plaque with opening times, and then some random interdictions: no dogs; no parking because the firefighters need access; oh, and no parking anyway. With that forlorn rubbish bin and the glimpse of a barrier beyond the walls, it must be one of the most unwelcoming entrances in Paris. It says: We never give a moment’s thought to our visitors. Except when they do something annoying, and then we tell them to stop.

MontparnasseHere’s another poor one, this time in the newly restored glasshouses at the jardin des Plantes in the 5th. Each glasshouse has lots of these obtrusive, multi-coloured information signs, set on twiddly metal frames. To me they mutter: We don’t really think our plants are interesting enough. We don’t trust them to hold your attention. We hope to distract you with these signs.

Jardin des Plantes

Disneyland ParisOne final example for now, at Disneyland Paris.

Generally the signage there is woeful, but here’s a good one, from the Alice in Wonderful labyrinth. It’s fun, appropriate, and shows you the way to something you may otherwise have missed. It says: We think a lot about your enjoyment. Have some more fun over here!

The next time you see a sign in a public park, think what it tells you – not about opening times or toilet locations – but about the attitude to visitors of that place.

I am going to look out for more examples too.

Post script: If you’re interested in signage, you might like to visit my gallery of other wonderful and woeful examples.

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The title of this post is poet Charles Baudelaire’s description of a graveyard. His own tombstone can be found in the cemetery in Montparnasse

monument and oak tree

cross on metal doorOpened in 1824, Montparnasse was one of three rural burial grounds created for Paris after the closure of the capital’s squalid urban cemeteries, where unmarked, unmourned bodies had lain thirty deep.

Moulin de la CharitéNow part of the busy 14th arrondissement, the site once lay outside the city walls, and for many years had been home to three farms. Its oldest feature is the tower to the west, which was built in the first half of the seventeenth century as a wind-driven flour mill. After the Revolution, the area became known for its popular revelries, and the windmill was converted to a guinguette, a tricky word to translate, but which means a place in the Paris suburbs for eating, dancing and, perhaps above all, drinking local wine on weekends and holidays. Once within the new cemetery, the mill’s blades were removed and it became the home of the warden. Nowadays it is empty.

Today was my first visit to the Montparnasse cemetery, and I found myself comparing it with Père Lachaise, which I know well. Despite its name, Montparnasse does not share the elevated position of its better-known cousin in the 20th. The land is resolutely flat and the cemetery hemmed in by the buildings that surround it, most strikingly the Tour Montparnasse just to its west. It is hidden behind walls and fences, and only reveals itself as a vast burial ground after the visitor has found the main entrance on boulevard Edgar Quinet.

clipped hedge and trees

In style it also shares little with the picturesque layout of Père Lachaise. Montparnasse immediately feels more classically French, with clipped hedges, geometrically arranged graves and long, straight, tree-lined allées. It is also less sumptuous, with simpler monuments and fewer of the elaborate, costly chapels that form much of the character of Père Lachaise.

chrysanthemumsfallen leaves between graves

moss-covered tombMontparnasse today was strikingly flower-filled: everywhere were pots and tubs of fat chrysanthemums, pink cyclamen, heathers, and the last of the summer’s daisies. Combined with the many fallen leaves and patches of green moss grown luscious in the recent rains, they gave the cemetery a perfect sense of autumnal richness, with its promise of cold, barren winter to come. It reminded me of Baudelaire’s Chant d’automne.

Recently I heard a talk by Pascal-Hervé Daniel, who manages all of the Paris cemeteries. He spoke of the problems with theft at Montparnasse and elsewhere. Previously thieves used to take the sculptures and sell them as works of art, but now there is little call for busts of long-dead and oft-forgotten figures. Thieves are instead collecting metal features from the graves and melting them down for sale. It means recovery of the stolen artifacts is now often impossible, and the beautifully worked metal pieces are lost forever.

metal and glass doormetal grill

We learnt from M. Daniel that, from the outset, the graves at Montparnasse were intended to be permanently owned and cared for by the families whose members were interred there: in creating these new rural cemeteries, Napoleon had promised that people would be able to buy large burial plots “ownership of which will be assured, whatever may befall, for time immemorial.” But occasionally families no longer wish to keep up the grave, or there is no representative of the family left, and then the city will begin a long process to reclaim the plot and restore or remove its memorial. I saw one sad example of this today.

abandoned plot?The cemetery is open daily to visitors. As well as Baudelaire, it is home to the tombs of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Duras, May Ray – and 35,000 others.

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