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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

The Parc des Buttes Chaumont and Rosa Bonheur

The Buttes Chaumont is one of the largest parks in Paris and also the steepest – it’s built on the old quarries of Belleville. Inaugurated in 1867 – Napolean III decided to give some fresh air and green space to the people of Paris – it’s a very popular park amongst Parisians, great for running, picnicking, or just relaxing and reading a book. The park is planted with many different types of trees, and is big enough to feel like you are really escaping the city. You can also enjoy a lake with a restaurant located in a restored 19th century pavilion (the 5 pavilions in the park were all opened in 1868) Le Pavillon du Lac – check out their website if you can read French, on Sundays in the summer they organize dances, parties and concerts – a waterfall (with an amazing fake grotto underneath!) and a belvedere with great views across the city.

If you’re visiting the Buttes Chaumont in the afternoon, stop at  Rosa Bonheur and enjoy a drink and some delicious tapas. Named after a 19th century artist, this bar/café – also located in one of the original park pavilions – transforms itself in the evenings into a guingette – a traditional French dance hall, and is a current favourite of the Parisians. On a summer evening the line can stretch out of the park! This time of year though it’s quiet and relaxed in the afternoons and the food and drink is very reasonably priced.

  • Parc des Buttes Chaumont, 1 rue de Botzaris, 75019 Paris. Open Oct – April 07:00 – 20:00, 1 May – 31 Aug 07:00 – 22:00, Sept 07:00 – 21:00
  • Rosa Bonheur. Parc des Buttes Chaumont, 2 allée de la Cascade, 75019 Paris. Open Wed – Fri midday to midnight, Sat & Sun 10:00 to midnight
  • Metro: Botzaris

Villages in Paris – la Mouzaia

Whilst strolling around Paris, you can suddenly stumble across areas that look and feel more like a village in the middle of the countryside than a part of the city. I came across one of these today in the 19th arrondissement, a collection of narrow, sloping, cobbled streets  or ‘villas’  known as La Mouzaia. In a city where most people live in apartments, here you can still find rows of houses, with tables and chairs hiding in gardens overflowing with flowers.

These houses were originally built for workers at the end of the 19th century, the nearby Parc du Buttes Chaumont was at that time a gypsum quarry, and the surrounding area was full of modest houses like these. Most were demolished in the 20th century to make way for apartment blocks, but due to the labyrinth of quarries underneath it was impossible to build bigger structures here, so this small ‘quartier’ was saved.

Surrounded by Belleville and the Buttes Chaumont, once working class and now increasingly fashionable parts of the city, a walk through these streets is a world away from the city around it. The traffic noise disappears, time seems to stand still, and the perfume of flowers hangs in the air. Take the metro to Botzaris, walk along the rue de la Mouzaia and lose yourself among the dozen or so ‘villas’. You can finish your afternoon in the Parisian countryside with a stroll through the nearby Parc des Buttes Chaumont, and a drink (and why not a dance?) at Rosa Bonheur.

  • rue de la Mouzaia, 75019 Paris  metro: Botzaris

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