Astérix and the lost streets of Montparnasse

I am a latecomer to the adventures of Astérix, the hero of more than 30 bandes dessinés – comics, or perhaps “comix” à la René Goscinny, the creator of Astérix and all those other “x” characters.

There’s Obélix, the pigtailed menhir* delivery man. And Getafix (Panoramix in the French original), the bearded druid. Cacofonix (Assurancetourix in French), the mustachioed bard with his bagpipes. Vitalstatistix (Abraracourcix), the chief of the tribe. And, of course, Dogmatix (Idéfix), the dog. All brought to life in the colourful drawings of Albert Uderzo.

I got all the French puns except Abraracourcix. I had to look that one up. It comes from “à bras raccourcis,” which literally means “with shortened arms” to indicate someone assuming the stance of a boxer, with arms up and bent, ready to attack.

Meanwhile, the Roman encampments are called Aquarium, Laudanum, Compendium (Petibonum), and Totorum (Babaorum).

When I read an article about the Astérix books by Martin Sorrell in Slightly Foxed, I decided it was high time I took a look, and got a couple of the books from the library. One in English, one in French. I enjoyed the bits of random Latin sprinkled here and there (Sic! Ipso facto! Alea jactus est!) or fake Latin (Ave Crismus bonus!) and the general silliness.

But what I found myself thinking about was not so much ancient Gaul as a part of Paris in which Norman and I once stayed. Here is the bit from Sorrell’s article that got my attention:

Goscinny’s inspiration for Asterix was Vercingetorix, chief of the Arverni tribe, who, towards the end of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, united what remained of Gaul’s tribes in an uprising against the Roman occupiers. In 52 BC, under Vercingetorix’s leadership, the Gauls won a famous victory at Gergovia…but shortly after they were defeated at the battle of Alesia.

Oh, those familiar names. I was reminded of the times we stayed in a friend’s place on the rue de Gergovie in the 14th arrondissement, not far from the rue d’Alésia. I have written about the villa d’Alésia in a previous blog. As for the nearby rue Vercingétorix, it parallels the railway lines coming from the Gare de Montparnasse, and our favourite Paris church, Notre Dame du Travail, faces it.

Much of the original rue Vercingétorix was destroyed with the redevelopment of Montparnasse around the station and the railway lines. But I know something of what it once looked like from a book called The Streets of Paris, by Richard Cobb with photographs by Nicholas Breach, published in 1980. The photographs depict five walks in the city, beginning with the quartier de Gergovie.

Richard Cobb’s introduction explains his choice of the neighbourhood in this way:

The quartier de Gergovie, the only interesting area in the otherwise sadly banal and often rather mean and hopeless – what could be more wretched than the rue Gassendi – XIVme, seemed to call out pathetically for attention, before its small houses and amazing courtyards were smothered by the spreading horror of Maine-Montparnasse.

I take exception to his remarks about the 14th arrondissement, where we have often stayed. Okay, some little houses and their courtyards are gone, but the rue Gassendi is far from wretched and the rest of the arrondissement is mostly leafy and pleasant. There are still many amazing courtyards in the area. Banal? Mean? Hopeless? I beg to differ.

In fact, the time we stayed on the rue de Gergovie, we occupied part of a small house, formerly a workshop, separated from the buildings fronting the street by a narrow courtyard. On the far side of this little house, separated from the houses by a wall, was an open area of grass and trees, containing what looked like an old country house that had become marooned in the city. There was also a newer building in this open area that served as an Evangelical church, and on Sundays we heard people talking quietly as they walked down the path before and after the service. It was oddly bucolic.

Not only does Cobb overstate his case, but the photographs seem intended to suggest that all is lost. Far from it. The very first photograph, depicts a boulangerie-patisserie at 124 rue du Chateau, a business that is still thriving, and looks much the same as it did back then.

And of the remaining 19 photos of the quartier, six are of the same courtyard in a complex at 9 rue de l’Ouest that was later demolished and another six are of a doomed courtyard at 3, rue Vercingétorix. That doesn’t seem to constitute enough data to support his gloomy dismissal of the quartier.

But I guess things seemed hopeless in 1980, when entire streets were disappearing. In search of the old quartier, I found a map from 1978.

Compare that with what is there now (this is from a 2010 Michelin map).

All those streets between the rail lines and the rue Vercingétorix are gone, replaced by green space. There is a circular place where the old rue Bourgeois met the rue du Chateau. There are small parks that were not there before, and in a densely populated area, that is a good thing.

When Cobb and Breach were exploring the area before its transformation, many buildings had already been abandoned. The Tour Montparnasse was there, completed in 1973, overshadowing the neighbourhood. Here is a typical photograph, showing a defunct café-bar, at 53 rue Vercingétorix. This is now an open area beside Notre Dame du Travail.

The caption mentions the faint vestiges of the telephone number on the wall, Suffren 2556. “Suffren, as a telephone exchange, has long since been overtaken, along with Danton, Odéon, Jasmin, Nord, Botzaris, Daumesnil, by computerized numbers,” Cobb notes. (Hands up those old enough to remember when telephone numbers started with the name of the exchange – mine in Toronto was “Hudson” and Norman’s in Hamilton was “Liberty”).

A postcard from Gallica shows how the building looked in better days (around 1910). It’s the one just this side of the church with its projecting clock on the left.

Another of Breach’s photographs shows part of the façade of the Hotel de l’Industrie at 65 rue Vercingétorix.

The caption reads, “The very faint and peeling reminder, in Second Empire lettering, Chambres au mois, Chambre à la journée at each end, of the past social history of the quartier de Gergovie, the home of immigrant Breton workers, settling near the old Gare du [sic] Montparnasse, most of them building labourers… The lettering is pale yellow on faded red.”

The hotel is just visible on the right in this postcard from Gallica. The two-storey building on the right beside the church survives to this day, as does the five-storey building on this side of it, but the rest have disappeared.

A tradition survives in this area, too. Although the Breton workers may have been displaced over the years, Montparnasse is still a good place to find a crêperie selling a traditional Breton meal of buckwheat galettes.

As it happens, some popular cookie-sized galettes in boxes have the image of Astérix on them, a tribute to the series, which is set in Brittany. We are back where we started.

*A menhir is an upright stone or standing stone from the prehistoric period. The word is of Breton origin.

Text by Philippa Campsie, images from Gallica and The Streets of Paris (New York: Pantheon, 1980). Cartoon image from Wikimedia, cookie box from eBay, and photograph of Notre Dame du Travail by Norman Ball.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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13 Responses to Astérix and the lost streets of Montparnasse

  1. Ellen A. says:

    I so look forward to your posts, as they are always fascinating and well-researched. Thanks for this glimpse into the past of the 14th arrondissement, and the introduction to Asterix comics (the idea of a city named Babaorum really made me chuckle). Used your link to go back and read Norman’s previous post about Notre Dame du Travail. Truly excellent, and quite moving.

  2. Narelle Jarvis says:

    Wow! I was reading this and recognised the name of Rue de Gergovie. My sons and I stayed in an apartement at No. 55 for a bit over a week, in 2008. The owner was a young English guy and his mother met up with us to hand over the keys. Thankyou for a bit of the history of the area. We caught the Metro from Pernety.

    • Dear Narelle,

      That is the same one! We are still in touch with Alex (who now lives with his growing family in England) and his mother Anne. Do you remember the tiny spiral staircase?


      • Narelle Jarvis says:

        Petit monde!
        We remember those stairs well. A bit scary for me. I also remember the people talking in the laneway as you described and we loved the old leather chair. It was a comfy home for us while in Paris.

  3. Goyo says:

    While wandering around the area, my growling stomach insisted I go into La Petite Alsacienne, that patisserie-boulangerie on the corner of rues Losserand and Chateau. What a little gem! I thoroughly enjoyed their “bretzel”. I try to spend a day or two in the Montparnasse area whenever I’m in Paris, but I would like to make it home base for my next trip. Any suggestions on where to hang my hat would be most welcome! Thank you for another wonderful peek back into Paris history.

    • For many years, we rented a place near the Observatory. We became very fond of that neighbourhood. The owner was a friend of the people who lived on the rue de Gergovie, but her husband has recently died, so on our next trip we will be looking for an alternative ourselves. But we will be back to revisit old haunts and favourite bistros, you can be sure!

  4. Deborah Cheadle says:

    Thank you! I love your emails, which are so thorough and clear.

  5. voparty says:

    I am working on a book about the cultural history of Paris, so you can imagine how interesting I find everything about Parisian Fields – you’ve taught me so much.
    Je vous remercie de tout coeur.

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