PARIS: I N HON­OUR OF LEG­ENDS

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - Donal Con­lon

The shape of the square may not have changed much since the Com­mu­nards looked down on it

There are al­most 500 squares in Paris, some large, pompous and fa­mous, many small and un­no­ticed. Each, how­ever, has its per­son­al­ity. Place Mau­rice Che­va­lier, in the 20th dis­trict on the Right Bank, has its large church, grandly named the Church of Our Lady of the Cross of Me­nil­montant, its Wal­lace water foun­tain, an iconic fea­ture of Paris, and its fa­mous name.

From its lofty perch 57 steps up, the church looks down on the small square. Be­cause of its sit­u­a­tion and height, it can be seen from afar. For some, its mix­ture of Ro­man and gothic ar­chi­tec­ture is dar­ing, for oth­ers, os­ten­ta­tious or pre­ten­tious. It has many ex­cep­tional fea­tures not least the early use of me­tal in its construction. The church, fin­ished in the early 1870s, is the third largest in Paris. It was used for po­lit­i­cal meet­ings by the rad­i­cal Com­mu­nards who con­trolled this part of Paris dur­ing their re­bel­lion against the na­tional gov­ern­ment at the start of the 1870s. At one meet­ing there they con­demned the arch­bishop of Paris and many priests, their pris­on­ers, to be ex­e­cuted. They them­selves were ex­e­cuted not long af­ter­wards.

In the cen­tre of the square is a drink­ing-water foun­tain, one of more than 100 to be erected in Paris af­ter 1870 to al­le­vi­ate the water short­age af­ter the dam­age done to the viaducts by the bom­bard­ments dur­ing the Prus­sian siege of 1870. They were paid for by Richard Wal­lace, a rich English Fran­cophile liv­ing in Paris, who felt it ab­hor­rent that wine was cheaper than water for poor peo­ple at the time. They are named in his hon­our. Their prac­ti­cal side, their aes­thetic ap­peal and their nu­mer­ous lo­ca­tions el­e­vated the foun­tains to iconic sta­tus. Four me­tal cary­atids, rep­re­sent­ing kind­ness, sim­plic­ity, char­ity and so­bri­ety, sup­port a dome dec­o­rated with dol­phins.

They sur­round a bowl into which Parisians could dip the me­tal mugs pro­vided. They still pro­vide drink­ing water in sum­mer al­though now are less used. They have, as with the Eif­fel Tower, be­come a sym­bol of the city.

Coin­ci­den­tally, the two most in­ter­na­tion­ally recog­nis­able French en­ter­tain­ers of the 20th cen­tury grew up, their lives over­lap­ping in time, in this neigh­bour­hood of Paris. Mau­rice Che­va­lier, singer, ac­tor and charmer, rep­re­sents for many the car­i­ca­ture of a ro­man­tic French­man. He was born and raised in a small street off the square that car­ries his name. Edith Piaf grew up a short dis­tance away. Apart from their shared fame, they ap­peared on stage to­gether and lived un­der a post­war cloud dark­ened by ac­cu­sa­tions of over-friend­li­ness with the Ger­man oc­cu­py­ing forces.

Small veg­etable and fruit patches have ap­peared re­cently in Paris in many of the squares and on streets and av­enues where there are open spa­ces. There are three in this square and res­i­dents are in­vited to plant some­thing and watch it grow. Anne Hidalgo, the “cool” Mayor of Paris, is very eco­log­i­cally minded and has en­cour­aged Parisians to grow veg­eta­bles and fruit wher­ever they can — and many have re­sponded. She has done her part by hav­ing mu­nic­i­pal work­ers dig up the con­crete and pre­pare patches ringed by sim­ple wooden fences. An off­beat ur­ban plea­sure is evolv­ing: nod to your daf­fodil, tomato or potato stalk on your way to work.

The shape of the square may not have changed much since the Com­mu­nards looked down on it nearly 150 years ago, but what they would see has changed. On one corner is a typ­i­cal Parisian bak­ery, and fac­ing each other across the square are con­trast­ing cafes with their ta­bles out­side. At the smaller of th­ese, two peo­ple are drink­ing pun­gent, strong black cof­fee from tiny cups; at the other, the cus­tomers, all men, are sip­ping mint tea and smok­ing hookahs. This is a mul­ti­cul­tural area and all the busi­nesses are run by North Africans.

To visit Place Mau­rice Che­va­lier, take Line 2 of the metro to Me­nil­montant, look to your right as you exit and you will see the spire of the church.

How­ever, take a few min­utes to have a cof­fee at Cafe Me­nil­montant on your left, which dates from the end of the 19th cen­tury but is now a pleas­ing art deco bistro with staff in tra­di­tional aprons. Edith Piaf of­ten drank her cof­fee here, as she lived nearby for years in a tiny apart­ment, and the song Milord is re­puted to de­scribe a lo­cal per­son­al­ity.

Do take a mo­ment to ap­pre­ci­ate the un­usual but pleas­ing Me­nil­montant semi-cir­cu­lar square — be­cause as this is Paris, not all the squares are ac­tu­ally square. • au.france.fr

Place Mau­rice Che­va­lier, left; Che­va­lier the en­ter­tainer, be­low left; Wal­lace drink­ing foun­tain, above

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