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
Blink and you could be in a village in the west of Ireland. Or perhaps Portobello Road in London. The rue Cremieux in the 12th arrondissement is one of the most picturesque streets in Paris. The street is only 144 metres long and 7.5 metres wide – thirty five houses, no more than 2 storeys high and with a kitchen in the basement, were built in 1857 for local workers, and in 1993 it was repaved and became pedestrian only.
The brightly painted houses and tranquil atmosphere of the street are a world away from the busy Gare de Lyon just around the corner. If the bustle of the city gets a bit too much, step off into the rue Cremieux, and the roar of the city around you could almost transform, just for a moment, into the roar of waves crashing onto an Irish beach.
- rue Cremieux, between the rue de Lyon and rue de Bercy, 75012. metro: Gare de Lyon or Quai de la Rapée
Every summer, from mid-July to mid-August, 3.5km of the busy road running along the Seine in the centre of the city is closed off and transformed into a beach, complete with golden sand, palm trees, deck chairs and petanque players. Introduced by the socialist Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoe in 2002, Parisians who were not leaving the city to go on summer holidays discovered the joy of going to the beach in the heart of their city, and since then it has become a Parisian institution and also been the inspiration for many other towns and cities around Europe.
There are plenty of deck chairs and parasols, food trucks and ice cream stalls, dancing and ‘baby foot’, children’s clubs and petanque balls on loan. The atmosphere is relaxed and laid back. On a sunny afternoon it’s a great place for a stroll along the riverside, or take a book and find a deckchair in the shade.
As well as the beach running along the Voie Goerges Pompidou, Paris Plages can be found alongside the canal in the Bassin de la Villette in north east Paris. There are also beach volleyball courts in front of the Hotel de Ville.
- Voie Georges Pompidou, 75004 Paris. métro: Pont Neuf/Hotel de Ville/Chatelet/Cité
- Bassin de la Villette, 75019 Paris. metro: Stalingrad
Paris Plages (map)
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
At the north eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes, lies a half hidden glimpse into the past. The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was created for the Colonial Exhibition of 1907, and consisted of various different pavilions, each representing the colonies of the old French Empire – Indochina, Madagascar, Sudan, Guyana, the Congo and North Africa, including Tunisia and Morocco. Later used to grow and study plants brought back from these colonies, it is now almost completely derelict – the gardeners clear what is necessary to keep the pathways and buildings clear but otherwise nature has taken over once again.
The Indochina pavilion has been carefully restored, and gives a wonderful idea of how this fascinating site must have looked all those years ago, and could possibly look again. It’s now used for temporary art exhibitions.
It’s a strange and quite enchanting place, turn a corner in the wood and you suddenly come across a stupa, or a Chinese pavilion. Time really seems to have stood still here, and the contrast of these silent old buildings with the families picnicking nearby in the park is quite ethereal and beautiful.
- Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, 45 bis avenue de la Belle Gabrielle, 75012 Paris. metro: RER A Nogent sur Marne then 10 minutes walk. Open daily from 9:30, free entry.
This past weekend was the ‘Puces du Design’, the flea market dedicated to furniture from the 1950’s to 2000.
Now in it’s 15th year, this street market brings together around 100 gallerists and dealers showcasing, and of course selling, all the iconic names in furniture and lighting design – all original vintage and in pristine condition. It’s a design lovers paradise…
The Puces du Design is held twice a year in October and May, locations around the city vary. Check out their website for information about past and upcoming editions.
Les Puces du Design