PARIS: I N HONOUR OF LEGENDS
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