Villages in Paris – Le village de Charonne

The Village de Charonne in the 20th arrondissement is sometimes referred to as the last village in Paris. Just a few steps away from the busy peripherique ring road, the village was annexed to the city of Paris in 1860 along with Belleville, Vaugirard, Montmartre, Les Batignolles and others – 11 villages and communes in total, finally making up the 20 arrondissements we know today. Prior to this, they were independant villages, often very bucolic, the countryside on the edge of the city.

Traces of many of these former villages can still be found in the city, although most of them are now becoming gentrified. Charonne still retains the feel of an authentic village, although it remains to be seen how long it will be able to sustain that for. The romanesque church of St Germain de Charonne, parts of which date back to the 12th century, sits in what would have been the heart of the village, with the old main street, the rue Saint Blaise, running down from it. Looking down from the terrace of the church you really can feel like you are in a French country village, despite the high rise blocks just a few hundred metres away.

Charonne was a quiet place where rich Parisians had their country houses. The fertile soil was covered with vineyards, and the abundance of wine gave rise to over 200 dance halls or ‘guinguettes’. You can also find the Pavillon de l’Ermitage, a small folly belonging to the Duchess of Orleans – daughter of Louis XIV and his mistress Madame de Montespan – all that remains of the enormous Chateau de Bagnolet. Otherwise there are no major monuments and no reason for any tourists to visit here. Just a charming slice of old Paris, with some of the country houses still hidden around street corners, winding cobbled streets and quiet squares where you can have a drink under the shade of the magnolia trees. But I would visit soon if you can, the clock is ticking and the authenticity of this small corner of French countryside risks disappearing.

metro: Porte de Bagnolet

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Villages in Paris – Belleville

For me, Belleville is one of the most fascinating and charming parts of Paris. Spanning 4 arrondissements in the north east of the city, it’s home to a hugely diverse population and an eclectic mix of artist’s studios, Chinese supermarkets, excellent and reasonably priced restaurants, and hip new bars, along with the coffee roasting house that supplies many of the new wave of cafés currently reviving the coffee drinking scene in Paris. Once a village on the outskirts of the city, pockets of it also retain the charm of old Paris, with hidden alleyways and courtyards where you can still find the small worker’s houses of years gone by, winding cobblestone streets, and a village atmosphere that’s a world away from the grand boulevards of central Paris.

Belleville and neighboouring Menilmontant were once home to vineyards, then to migrant workers from rural France, and after WW1 welcomed immigrants from Poland and Armenia along with a sizeable Jewish community from Central Europe. They were followed by workers from the former French colonies in North Africa, and Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1980’s, forming a substantial Chinese quarter in the area immediately around Belleville metro. Nowadays these communities co-exist alongside each other, along with a new wave of artists and young professionals, now turning the area into not only one of the most culturally diverse parts of the city, but also one of the coolest areas of the city, home to venues such as La Bellevilloise and the Belleville Brulerie.

Successuve renovation projects over the years have demolished a lot of the old Belleville, but some parts of it still remain, a wonderful example being the Villa Castel (see also main photo) at 16 rue de Transvaal.

Nowadays, the juxtaposition of a jumble of architectural styles – not all of them beautiful – certainly adds to the eclectic charm of the area. Edith Piaf was from Belleville (although the legend that she was born on a doorstep is apparently not true), and some of my favourite French films were filmed here – Jules et Jim, Casque d’Or (her house is also here), Le Ballon Rouge and more recently l’Ecume des Jours, based on the Boris Vian novel.

Belleville is also home to a beautiful park, established in 1988 it’s the highest park in Paris and has spectacular views over the city. It’s also has a community garden and small vineyard. Stop in at the bakery Le Panorama Gourmand at the top of the park (10 rue des Envierges) and pick up a picnic to enjoy with the locals and some of the best views in the city.

metros: Belleville/Jourdain/Pyrenées

Open days – artists’ studios in Belleville

Last weekend over 120 artists’ studios and galleries around Belleville, showing work by 250 artists, opened their doors to the public. I really love these open days – not only do they give you a chance to discover the work of the artists, to meet the artists themselves and talk to them about their work, but they also open up hidden courtyards and passages, and encourage you to explore the city in a different way.

Belleville is a fascinating part of Paris, a cultural melting pot which still holds on to the village atmosphere of its past. Now home to a vibrant and diverse community of artists, you can wander the streets with the map provided and push open the doors into a sometimes hidden world.

The atmosphere at these open days is always festive and joyful, the artists are welcoming and you constantly bump into people strolling the streets armed with the map as you are. There is often music and always plenty of places to eat, and on a sunny day it’s a wonderful way to explore a part of the city that is full of creative energy.

The open days in Belleville are held once a year on the last weekend in May (this year they have been extended across 2 weekends), and this is the biggest of the open days held around the city. If you are here at other times of the year there are the open days in Abbesses in November, around Père Lachaise in late April, and several others throughout the year. All the open days are free.

metros: Belleville, Pyrénées or Jourdain, 75020 Paris

website (in English)

The real Chinese quarter in Paris – Belleville

Many visitors to Paris will hear that the Chinese quarter is in the 13th arrondissement. Today I took a fascinating guided walk of Belleville (spread across the 19th and 20th arrondissements) and learned otherwise. The tour was part of an initiative called ‘Paris Face Cachée’, or Hidden Paris – organized once a year in February, it puts on guided visits of lesser known parts of the city or in buildings that do not normally allow access to the general public.

Belleville is home to a large Chinese and Indo-Chinese population. It’s not the oldest Chinese community in the city, dating back only around 15 years, but our guide explained it’s now the most authentic within the city, as the Chinese communities both live and work here. This part of the city has always been, and still is, one of the most cosmopolitan areas of the city. Formerly home to the working classes when it was a village outside the city, throughout the 20th century it became home to successive waves of immigrants – Armenians, Greeks, Jews and North Africans – turning it now into a fascinating and diverse part of the city. More recently, artists and young professionals (or ‘Bobos’ as they are known here, bourgeois/bohemians) have begun to gentrify the quarter, but it is so far still managing to hold onto it’s ethnic diversity.

Some of the best places to eat in the neighborhood were pointed out to us during our visit,

along with a supermarket selling everything you could need to rustle up your own Chinese feast at home – Chen Market.

The Chinese part of Belleville is located immediately around the metro. It’s not the most architecturally interesting part of Paris – much of it was redeveloped in the 1970s, but there are still a few vestiges remaining of the old buildings. It is though a fascinating part of the city both culturally and historically, and a wonderful place to stroll around and stop for something to eat.

  • Belleville Chinese Paris
  • area around Belleville metro, 75020/75019/75011/75010

Restaurants: Raviolis du Nord Est: 11 rue Civiale, 75010.  Wenzhou: 24 rue de Belleville, 75020.  Dongfa: 26 rue de Belleville, 75020.  Best Doufu: corner of Bd de la Villette and rue Civiale, 75010.

Paris Face Cachée website (in French)

 

 

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Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Pere Lachaise cemetery is a beautiful place to spend a few hours exploring. Final resting place of Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Oscar Wilde (see main picture), Marcel Proust, Colette, Isadora Duncan and many, many more, it’s the largest cemetery in Paris and one of the most famous in the world (many say it’s also the most beautiful).  Opened in 1804, probably its best known resident nowadays is Jim Morrison, still attracting guitar playing fans from around to world who come to pay homage at his grave.

Situated in the 20th arrondissement, on the east side of the city, it covers 48 hectares (almost 120 acres), and is beautiful and tranquil at any time of the year. I was last there in late October as the trees were turning gold, one of the prettiest times to visit in my opinion. Not only can you find every style of tombstone imaginable, but also a huge variety of trees  – over 5000 in fact from 50 different species. Wear comfortable shoes and be ready to walk up and down a few hills, download their online map or pick one up at the entrance, and enjoy a few hours away from the noise and bustle of the city.

The cemetery is open daily from 8:00 to 18:00 (it opens at 8.30 on Saturday and 9:00 on Sunday).

Cimetière du Père Lachaise, 16 rue du Repos, 75020 Paris. métro: Gambetta or Père Lachaise

Map in English

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Open Days – Artists studios around Pere Lachaise

Several times a year it’s possible to visit working artist’s studios in the city. Different ‘quartiers’ or associations will organize open days when a group of artists open their studios and show their work – maps are provided and it’s easy to walk between them all This weekend it’s the turn of the artists working around the south side of the 20th arrondissement, in a fascinating part of eastern Paris. Not only is it a chance to discover, meet and talk to the artists, as well as buy their work, it also gives you the opportunity to explore areas of the city that you may not otherwise find yourself in, and generally if there are groups are artists working there I find they are areas well worth exploring. The area around the southern side of Pere Lachaise cemetery has tiny lanes which almost transport you into the countryside, studios both old and new tucked away in courtyards and gardens, vintage shops, organic shops and a diverse range of cafés and restaurants, both modern and traditional, all hidden behind modern apartment buildings.

The area around the rue des Vignoles is home to around 15 tiny alleyways dating from the 19th century, originally built to house local workers. We loved impasse Poule, 60 metres long and only 2 metres wide! We spent a lovely afternoon wandering around the studios, and stopping for mint tea and cakes in between visits. 40 artists opened their studios, and do so twice a year. Next week it’s the artists around Belleville who are holding open days, and I’ll be heading up there to see their work and explore another fascinating and often overlooked part of the city.

  • Area between metros Alexandre Dumas and Maraichers, 75020 Paris

Open days – Pere Lachaise

Fred le Chevalier in Menilmontant

I’m a big fan of the beautiful and poetic street art of Fred le Chevalier. It’s always a delight to suddenly come across it around a corner, on a drainpipe or a postbox, and every time I see one I take a photo. I’m building up quite a collection.

I love the fact that they don’t last, their beauty gradually disappearing with time and weather. Their fragility makes them even more special. The ones I have found are located in Menilmontant and some around Oberkampf and the top end of the Marais.

 

 

Take the metro, and your camera, to Pere Lachaise or Menilmontant and just wander. Not only is it a fascinating part of the city to explore, but who knows, at every turn in the street there could be a moment of surprise and joy just waiting for you.

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  • rue de Menilmontant, 75020 Paris. Metro Menilmontant or Père Lachaise