Montsouris Park … Of Mice and Mockingbirds …

There is a little paradise in Paris, south of the Seine – on the Left Bank. It is Parc Montsouris, and I should not be telling you about it; I should keep it for myself. I should not spoil its tranquillity; I should guard against tourists discovering it. I should enjoy the wonderful Café Chantilly […]

There is a little paradise in Paris, south of the Seine – on the Left Bank. It is Parc Montsouris, and I should not be telling you about it; I should keep it for myself. I should not spoil its tranquillity; I should guard against tourists discovering it. I should enjoy the wonderful Café Chantilly – milk coffee with whipped cream on top – sold at the park’s kiosk while I sit under the trees, beside the lake, and watch the ducks and swans pop up and down in the water. But here goes …

Parc Montsouris is in Paris’ 14th arrondissement (district). It is the brainchild of France’s last ‘monarch’, Napoléon III and his Prefect (the politically-elected head of Paris’s police and fire brigade) Baron Haussmann (yes, that Haussmann to whom we owe Paris’s architecture, wide and tree-lined boulevards, and shady parks).

The two – the Emperor and the Baron – put their heads together and the result was four parks: Parc Montsouris, Parc de la Villette, and Parc des Buttes Chaumont. Montsouris, with 15 hectares (37 acres), is the smallest of the three. It was opened in 1878. It cost around two million francs to create. Those were old French Francs, which makes its conversion into today’s currencies (Euros, Dollars and Pounds) a treacherous undertaking, so I won’t do so: just know that it was a lot of money!  (There are bigger green areas in Paris but they are not parks as such, but woods: Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes. The first, unfortunately known as a prostitute playground, and the second becoming so fast.)

To get to Parc Montsouris, you can take the RER, the fast Metro (underground) line and descend at Cité Universitaire, in front of the park.  The line runs through the park. Or a really pleasant way to get there is to take Bus 47 from in front of the Pompidou Centre (Beaubourg) in central Paris (Rue de Renard or Rue Beaubourg) which will pass Notre Dame Cathedral, traverse the Latin Quarter and go all along Rue Monge and Avenue d’Italie to Porte d’Italie. You descend there and get on to Paris’s only tramway which will drop you right in front of the park – stop Cité Universitaire.  (You need a Paris transport ticket for the tram too.)

You would want to walk around the park, see what there is, which will take you about 45 minutes.

There is the lake, of course, and majestic trees, and statues, and several play areas for children (these can become noisy in the afternoons), and grassy knolls to navigate, and the snack kiosk. The Café Chantilly costs €2.50 ($3.50 /£2.25). You can drink it sitting at one of their metal tables or go and drink it on one of the benches alongside the lake.

Kiosk

(There are public toilets and they are clean and reasonably free of odours, but do not expect to be walking into a Sephora or a Marionnaud perfume shop.)

Black Swans ... do not mix with the White Swans ...

There are ducks on the lake, and swans too. This spring two black swans joined the two resident white swans. And listen to this – they practice Apartheid: they do not mix. If you see the two white ones, know that the two black ones will be at the other end of the lake.

White Swans ... ignoring the Black Swans ...

 

 

You are not allowed to feed the ducks and swans or any of the birds, as a board will warn you. And oh yes, there are fish in the lake. Big ones at that. I think they are carp.

Seeing you are there, have a walk along the streets and lanes around the park. The street in the north-east is Avenue Reille (Honoré Reille was one of Napoléon’s Marshalls) where you will see two Roman water reservoirs, today, behind protective glass.

In ancient times the area was one of gypsum quarries, and in the18th century the disused mines were converted into catacombs where skulls and bones, dug up from discontinued Paris cemeteries, were deposited. (The Catacombs can be visited – they are in another area of Paris, though – where you would be able to see something like 5-6 million human bones and what not.)

Roman water reservoir

To the west of the park is the charming Square Montsouris – it is a lane and not a square, though – which is lined with houses, some of them almost entirely covered in creepers.

To the south of the park is the Cité Universitaire and its extraordinary buildings. It is virtually a city of student homes; a third of the students who live there are foreign, representing over 80 nations.

But know that if you feel like doing a big splurge for lunch, you should go to the very chic and very expensive restaurant, Le Pavillon Montsouris. The least expensive of the fixed menus will take at least €55 ($75 / £50) per person off your credit card. And this is without wine. Rest assured though that you will have a splendid meal and in the spring, summer and autumn you will be able to lunch on its terrace. The restaurant’s entrance is on Rue Gazan (General Maxime Gazan de La Peyrière was a bodyguard to Louis 16th and had later joined Napoléon).

The story is that the name Montsouris derives from the words moque and souris.

Moque is French for ‘to mock’, or ‘not to care’ or ‘not to give a damn’. Souris is the French for ‘mouse’ – there were many rodents in the area during the gypsum mining era.

So the story continues that those who lived in that area used to claim that the mice did not bother them. When one says, ‘I don’t care about it’, in French, one says je m’en moque. In this case ‘I do not care about the mice’. The area had therefore become known as moquesouris.

I have my theory about where the name comes from, though.

Mockingbird in French is moqueur. In those mining days there were not only mice up on that hill but also birds which the people had called moqueurs whether they were mockingbirds or not. Accordingly, when speaking of the area they had called it the place of the moqueurs and the souris – place of the mockingbirds and the mice. Eventually, they had simply said moquesouris, and then, one day, it had become montsouris.

Anyway, that’s my theory!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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