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Undiscovered Paris: Je T'Aime

Eika Aoshima Tourists and Parisians enjoy an outdoor cafe.

Photo: Eika Aoshima

Secret Gardens in the 12th
In contrast to the 11th, where the focus is café life, you have to be prepared to walk in the 12th Arrondissement. Start with a visit to the Marché d'Aligre, one of Paris's busiest (and cheapest) farmers' markets. Get there around 10 a.m. to watch old ladies haggle over the price of nosegays of pink radishes, wreaths of garlic, and handfuls of needle-thin haricots verts. And rummage through stalls displaying bric-a-brac of all sorts: suspenders, Day-Glo water pistols, balls of pink raffia, porcelain figurines. Flea-market connoisseurs might uncover an 18th-century still life in a gold plastic frame or a pile of antique embroidered bed linens among cotton dishcloths.

Don't miss Le Baron Rouge, a working-class wine bar around the corner from the market, on Rue Théophile-Roussel. Here neighbors bring empty bottles to be filled with one of 10 vins de pays—straight from the barrel. Sit on an empty barrel on the sidewalk and order some charcuterie and a ballon de rouge, or glass of red wine.

Next, head for a stroll down Avenue Daumesnil on the Viaduc des Arts. The former elevated railroad track is now a landscaped promenade; underneath it, up-and-coming artisans display their crafts in a mile-long shopping gallery. Parisians come here in search of one-of-a-kind mosaic coffee tables, handmade fruitwood beds, and unusual wedding gifts. Meanwhile, the Promenade Plantée overhead stretches some two miles, a green track that runs from the Place de la Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes. It's easy to be distracted by the many unexpected urban sights visible only from this high vantage point. I inevitably slow down to peek inside courtyards with elegant trellises or to catch a bird's-eye view of the Gare de Lyon. Stairways all along the promenade lead back down to the avenue; under the arcades, I succumb to the appeal of countless bistros and salons de thé, such as the Viaduc Café, that serve aromatic brews and pastries, like pain perdu or tarte Tatin.

A short taxi ride away is the other bucolic attraction of the 12th Arrondissement, the new Parc de Bercy, the former home of Paris's legendary wholesale wine market and as large as the Jardin des Tuileries. Its modern cobblestoned paths deliberately ignore the pattern of ancient alleys, creating a playful grid that subverts the stately alignment of row upon row of the oldest sycamore trees in the city. Today, gazebos, pergolas, kiosks, arbors, and pavilions replace old wineries.

The Cour St.-Émilion, at the park's eastern end, is a group of small stone warehouses around a secluded, almost monastic, courtyard. But with a Métro stop of the ultra-modern METEOR line only a half-block away, it has become a popular after-dinner destination that competes with the Batofar on the other side of town. Daytime is still very civilized: you can sit outdoors at the pâtisserie-boulangerie Partie de Campagne for a brioche or a crêpe au sucre, or linger at the rustic Vinéa Café, where foie gras, frites, and a glass of Sauternes make a perfect lunch.

A Hillside Village in the 13th
Parisians tend to look down their noses at provincial towns. But in their own city they love to find two-story houses sheltered behind rusty iron gates and narrow streets where lush trees peek over crumbling walls. "On se croirait en province" ("We could be in the provinces"), they gush once they arrive at the Butte-aux-Cailles after a steep climb from the unromantic Métro Corvisart.

Here you could be in Nevers, Dreux, or Poitiers. The crooked streets follow the course of a stream that is no more. Canalized and covered, the Bièvre River used to wind through the hilly landscape. Until the 1910's, small industries flourished on its banks: laundering, dyeing, weaving, tanning. None of this remains, yet the river's presence can still be felt in the circuitous lanes bordered by modest dwellings where workers lived with their large families. Go to the Square des Peupliers, off Rue de Tolbiac, and check out La Petite Alsace on Rue Daviel—charming mews for a long-gone proletariat.

On top of the highest bluff is the Rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, the village's main street, whose rows of diminutive ivy-covered villas have barely changed. Bicycles are attached to old-fashioned street lamps; walls disappear under flowery creepers. And everywhere small restaurants like Le Papagallo, on Rue des Cinq-Diamants, keep their doors wide-open onto narrow sidewalks. La Piscine de la Butte-aux-Cailles, a red-brick Victorian building on Place Paul-Verlaine, is one of Paris's oldest établissements balnéaires, or spas. Its open-air swimming pool, fed by a natural spring of warm water, is popular with neighborhood kids.

Victorian Perspectives in the 19th
Most visitors are familiar with the Parc de la Villette, the immense cultural complex that dominates the 19th Arrondissement. But they're not aware that this area harbors one of the city's best-kept secrets: its underpinnings. The Parisian skyline looks the way it does, with well-proportioned buildings and plenty of open space, because it is built on fragile foundations over an extended network of ancient quarries. The laws of gravity—not the laws of aesthetics—have kept the capital from becoming a vertical metropolis.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the 19th, the site of some of the largest limestone and gypsum quarries in Paris. The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, now a verdant canyon surrounded by slate-blue roofs, was built at the bottom of a gigantic excavated gypsum hole. It's hard to believe that what looks like a Romantic landscape painting—an operatic backdrop complete with caverns, waterfalls, cliffs, suspended bridges, and gazebos—was once a dusty wasteland.

From the Weber Café, a salon de thé clinging to the steep eastern slope of the park, you see a vast panorama of the Temple of the Sybille (a replica of the one in Tivoli), as Montmartre looms in the distance.


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