Vaugirard is one of those place names that have slipped from Parisian consciousness. There is the ghost of Vaugirard on métro line 12, where the once-independent commune of Vaugirard is recalled in a station name.
The man sitting at a table outside a bistro on the rue de Cronstadt has his own take on Parisian geography. “When I was a lad, my father — like his father before him — worked in the slaughterhouses over there,” he said, pointing over the road towards the Parc Georges Brassens. “In the abattoirs de Vaugirard,” he added as if his family calling were the noblest of professions. “In those days, this was not any old arrondissement. It was the arrondissement de Vaugirard. We never called this area the fifteenth.”
Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement is quite something. From Montparnasse — a quarter of the capital reserved for arriving, departing, artistically lingering or just carousing — the fifteenth sprawls south towards the boulevard périphérique.
The bistro Au Bélier d’Argent serves an excellent planche de charcuteries, so we lingered and nibbled while Gaston, proud descendant of generations of slaughterers, told us exactly why the fifteenth district of Paris should unfailingly be referred to as the arrondissement de Vaugirard. Here, clearly, was a man bypassed by modernity and postcodes.
Paris’ fifteenth arrondissement is quite something. From Montparnasse — a quarter of the capital reserved for arriving, departing, artistically lingering or just carousing — the fifteenth sprawls south towards the boulevard périphérique. As the city spread in the mid and late nineteenth century, it gathered unto Paris little hamlets and villages that once stood is open countryside. Grenelle and Vaugirard succumbed to the city in 1860. Vineyards and orchards, which long outlived the monks who planted them, were cut to the ground. The gentle slopes of one valley, once home to Monsieur Perichot’s vines, were carved up by men and machines as they built a series of slaughterhouses. “My family worked in la halle aux chevaux of course,” said Gaston in a conspiratorial whisper.
“Of course,” we replied, discerning that their prowess in killing horses possibly placed Gaston’s forebears in a superior class to other abattoir workers. Somehow, what little remained of the planche de charcuteries lost its appeal and — bidding an adieu to Gaston and making a mental note to become vegetarians — we set off to explore the arrondissement de Vaugirard.
Echoes of Russia
The rue de Cronstadt is a good place to start. It takes its name from Russia’s military complex on the island of Kronstadt on the approaches to St Petersburg in the Gulf of Finland. When the road was laid out and named in 1897, it was very popular to choose Russian names for Parisian streets. It embodied the Franco- Russian Alliance. And this was not any Russian name, for the rue de Cronstadt recalled the port where the French fleet had been ceremonially received by the Russian authorities in 1891. So that particular choice of street name was part of a wider enthusiasm for all things Russian that found a more visible expression in the Pont Alexandre III, which is arguably the loveliest of the bridges across the River Seine in the middle of Paris. French President Félix Faure received Tsar Nicholas II in Paris in 1896, where the visiting Russian monarch laid the foundation stone for a bridge named after his late father.