Villages in the city: Vaugirard
By Jerry Marterer
Gate to the former Horse Market in Vaugirard. Photos courtesy of the author.
Even after the small village of Grenelle was partitioned in 1824, the larger town of Vaugirard still occupied the rest of what became the 15th arrondissement in 1860. In the 13th century, the land was cultivated by Benedictine monks. The village’s name came from the word val (valley) and the first name of the abbot of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Girard. The two words became one. The town suffered from pillaging during the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) and had a bout with the black plague, but other than that, it was a blissful, pastoral village. The main street, the rue de Vaugirard, follows an ancient Roman road and is the longest street in Paris, extending all the way to the Luxembourg Gardens.
Map locating Vaugirard within Paris.
Up until the mid-19th century, the area was still a place for country houses. Stone quarries, vineyards and turnip farms were spread throughout the area. The annexation of the village by the city of Paris in 1860 was not at all welcomed by the citizens of Vaugirard. They believed they were entirely self-sufficient and nothing good could come of it. They were right! Their original town hall was torn down to build the new 15th arrondissement mayor’s office. Where vineyards once stood, an immense slaughterhouse was built in 1894 to supply Paris with meat. A horse market was added in 1904. Later we will discover why the horse is still a prominent symbol in the neighborhoods of Vaugirard. The slaughterhouses were closed in 1975 and replaced by modern grassy parks, and one can still find small, detached houses with a rural look, a vineyard, an old, elevated section of La Petite Ceinture that is the newest high line of Paris and an iconic artist colony, La Ruche (the Beehive), where Chagall, Léger and Soutine lived when they were poor.
Vaugirard is spread across a much larger area, and there is no one single town center. It’s best enjoyed in two separate segments. It would be helpful to bring a street map.
Start at the park on the site of the old slaughterhouse and horse market. Take the 95 bus to the Brancion stop and walk back in the direction the bus came from on the rue Brancion. A bridge spans the abandoned tracks of the Petite Ceinture. There were actually two stations in Vaugirard, one for passengers, still standing, and one, since destroyed, at the slaughterhouse. The wrought iron and tile-covered shelters of the horse market stand quietly to the left. On weekends they are home to a used and vintage book market. I was there on a Thursday, and a vintage vinyl album and postcard market attracted a crowd.
On the corner of the rue Brancion and rue des Morillons is the stone gate to the former horse market, with a horse’s head over the portico. Just inside is another Wallace fountain, a sign of a working-class neighborhood. Across the street is a café, the Cent Kilos. The gate and the café are related. Cent kilos, or 100 kilograms, about 220 pounds, was the weight that butchers were supposed to be able to lift in the slaughterhouse. Inside the horse market is a statue of a butcher hoisting his 100 kilos.
A word here about horsemeat in Paris: After the French revolution, horses owned by aristocrats were butchered for their meat by hungry commoners. During Napoléon’s war campaigns, army surgeons advised starving troops to eat the meat of horses fallen in battle. Then during the 1870 Siege of Paris and the near-famine conditions, the locals regained their taste for horsemeat. There are still a dozen horse butchers (boucheries chevalines) in Paris, mostly in working class neighborhoods, and half as many restaurants that serve it. Eating horsemeat is still socially acceptable in France. Even if it is not acceptable to Americans, it’s a part of the history of Vaugirard.
The bell tower at Parc Georges-Brassens.
Walk down the rue des Morillons to the grand entrance to the slaughterhouses, marked by two bronze bulls on pedestals. A clock tower belfry sits in the distance on a small lake. The slaughterhouses and horse market were torn down in 1974. A magnificent park was built and named after Georges-Brassens, a singer songwriter who lived in the neighborhood. This 18-acre piece of heaven is in sharp but pleasant contrast to what went on here for almost 100 years. In it there are puppet shows for children, walking trails, wild flowers, ponds with ducks and swans, honey-producing beehives and a theater. Lonely donkeys await children to ride them. The park holds the last of the Vaugirard vineyards, planted with Pinot Noir grapes. Each year, wine is bottled from the vineyard and sold at the town hall. Take the time to experience all of the park.
Exit the park through the same main entrance. Across the street is a small square, the place Jacques Marette. A good restaurant, Arthur et Juliette, is convenient for lunch. Continue along the rue des Morillons. The building at the end of the park is the lost-and-found department of the city of Paris. It’s called the department of objets trouvés (found objects). Inside is a small museum that displays the incredible items found but unclaimed: a wooden leg, several skulls and the more mundane items left in taxis.
At the corner of the rue de Dantzig, there is a modern version of a half-timbered building. Turn left and walk up the hill toward the tabac-café Dantzig. To the left is a passage. At the beginning is a gated courtyard. Inside is an octagonal building. In 1900, Alfred Boucher, a philanthropist and art patron, bought a brick building from the closed Paris Universal Exhibition and had it moved to a vacant lot where it now sits. He called it La Ruche — the beehive — and leased spaces for a pittance to the poorest of the poor artists. Chagall, Poutine, Léger, Zadkine, Modigliani and Matisse lived there before they could afford to move to Montparnasse. Chagall even left some paintings there that were supposedly used for firewood. Later, moderns such as Bernard Buffet used La Ruche during their starving artist days. The building was listed for sale in the 1960s by the heirs of the founder. The city of Paris, supported by funding from Americans, saved La Ruche, which, now modernized with creature comforts like indoor plumbing, still houses up-and-coming artists selected by competition. There is a number 89 bus stop on the corner of the rue de Danzig and the rue des Morillons that goes back to central Paris.
For the second part of the tour, start by taking the number 80 bus from the École Militaire to the Cambronne-Vaugirard stop. The rue Cambronne starts here on the left. What is remarkable about it is the village-within-a-village feel that intensifies as you approach the rue Lecourbe. Near the corner on the left is one of Paris’s remaining boucheries chevalines. A noble horsehead sculpture, haloed in neon, sets it apart from the neighboring charcuterie, poissonnerieand other food markets. It is unashamed of its presence. After all, this is Vaugirard. Who knows if the boucherie chevaline will have another generation of customers?
The neon horse head above a boucherie chevaline.
Vaugirard is still for the villagers, many of them from the working class of its heritage. It is a given that restaurants will serve good, hearty food at affordable prices. The Auvergnats came to Paris from central France in the 1860s, first selling firewood, coal and wine and later opening some of the best neighborhood restaurants, which were called bougnats. Sadly, a place we enjoyed on a previous visit, Café Chastel, has since closed, but I remember that on our first visit, the owner, or patron, was behind the bar toasting his lunchtime worker friends with Pastis. Any one of them looked as though they could hoist 100 kilos.
After lunch, turn right off rue de Vaugirard onto rue Gerbert for a visit to the church of Saint-Lambert de Vaugirard. It was built in 1853 in the Neo Romanesque style, on the site of the original church that dated back to the 14th century. The old church supposedly contained the relics of Saint Lambert, bishop of Maastricht.
Vaugirard has been through a lot. It will never be pastoral again — nor will it ever be industrialized again. Though it seems to be content with its working-class status, low rents and property prices make it ripe for gentrification.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at email@example.com.