In search of a more authentic Paris, far from the camera-wielding crowds, a native heads east— to the city's oldest neighborhoods, where provincial charm meets edgy urban style
I was born and raised in Paris, and yet it is only now, as a visitor, that I can wander the city of my childhood at will. "What were you doing there?" asks my sister, who has lived in Paris all her life. She is visibly annoyed whenever I tell her about exploring some little-known corner of the city. In her Parisian book of etiquette, idle curiosity is a sign of social anxiety.
Irritating as it may be to some Parisians, the flow of tourists is as much a part of the city's urban texture as is the river that traverses it. Like the Seine, this stream of visitors is channeled through the neighborhoods on the river's Left and Right Banks. Few sightseers venture beyond this area, with all its museums, monuments, and shops. But the daring explorer who escapes this gilded cage is never sorry. The minute he walks into a café-tabac and asks, "Où est le Métro Bolivar, s'il vous plaît?" he has made the city his own.
If you are in an adventurous mood, go east. Enclaves in this part of Paris—the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 19th, and 20th Arrondissements—have retained some of their rural character and are now colonized by young bourgeois in search of the bohemian lifestyle. Although eager sightseers are never far behind these stylish real estate pioneers, you can still find unspoiled areas that are quietly sensational—non-médiatisé, or "not publicized," as the French like to say.
To discover them, you may have to get lost. Follow a resident into a courtyard (saying a polite "Après vous, Madame" as you hold the gate for her), to see what's around the corner. Rather than making a beeline to the most happening addresses in this suddenly chic eastern crescent (you've heard of the Rue Oberkampf, haven't you?), take a more roundabout approach. Because you cannot actually plan to get lost, the following destinations are great starting points. They include some of my favorite hidden haunts, boutiques, sights, bistros, and landmarks on the east side of my hometown.
Zigzagging in the 10th
I sometimes start my peregrinations by nosing around the wholesale district at the eastern end of the Rue de Paradis. A paradise indeed, if you are as fascinated as I am by the French-country porcelain called faïence. Almost all the stores—some specializing in fancy crystal, others in sturdy crockery—are open to the public. The most welcoming is La Tisanière Porcelaine, an intimate shop jammed with teetering piles of dishes and a wide range of charming 18th-century reproductions, some originally designed for Marie Antoinette.
Around the corner, on Rue d'Hauteville, the 18th century is alive and well at the Hôtel de Bourrienne, a small palace open by appointment only. Behind its ordinary façade, the mansion retains its original (and thus slightly musty) Empire décor. You'll be able to imagine what it was like to be Napoleon's wife, as Josephine did indeed sleep here in one of the delicately ornate bedrooms.
Another destination in the 10th is that great old railroad station, the Gare de L'Est. After a stop in the main waiting room to pay homage to a monumental Norman Rockwell—style painting of young World War I soldiers embarking for the front, I too head east. Taking a shortcut across Square Villemin, I reach the graceful bend of the Canal St.-Martin, on the tree-lined Quai de Valmy. The breathtaking sight of the vaulted footbridges over the placid water usually incites me to stop at L'Atmosphère, a bistro on Rue Lucien-Sampaix. I lean on the wooden bar, order a glass of Pinot Noir, and watch corpulent barges negotiate the locks that regulate their gradual descent toward the Seine.
Moving as slowly as the water itself, I work my way downstream to Antoine et Lili, a colorful "village" on the Quai de Valmy made up of a boutique, a florist, and a restaurant. These form a poetic world thanks to a mix of ethnic, kitsch, and naïve objets. The menu changes daily, depending on "le feeling" of the chef, but a spicy "feuilleté Ali Baba" is likely to supplant the traditional croque-monsieur.
Across the canal, at the end of Avenue Richerand, stands an enticing pavilion in the same style as Place Dauphine. Without asking permission, I pass through its portal into what looks like a bastion. Beyond the first courtyard is the majestic and peaceful quadrangle of the Hôpital St.-Louis, one of the oldest hospitals in Paris. The spacious garden is surrounded by cheerful brick-and-stone façades, their steep slate roofs accented by classic dormer windows. In this leafy sanctum, forgotten by busy Parisians, one can taste a silence four centuries old.
Trend-Spotting in the 11th
Overrun but still worth the detour, the Rue Oberkampf, in the 11th Arrondissement, is the gateway to one of Paris's most talked-about neighborhoods. But don't expect picturesque sights: here, people-watching is the main event. The street is a catwalk for Parisians doing their utmost to be "très looké." During a recent lunch at Café Charbon, I was so distracted by the couple at the next table that I had trouble concentrating on the menu. (Too bad I understand French; I might have been spared the details of their amorous afternoon.)
I prefer the quieter Robinet Mélangeur, a small bistro on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. This shaded esplanade off Rue Oberkampf is fast becoming as hot as Boulevard St.-Germain was in its existentialist heyday. The new generation of Sartres and de Beauvoirs are called anars, for "anarchists," and despite their facial hair and nose rings, they still look incredibly chic.
The Robinet, with its bright red walls, hearty plats du jour, and housemade tarts, is a well-kept secret for loyal 11th Arrondissement gourmands. My favorite seat is a banquette by the window, from which I can observe the 20th Arrondissement, across the boulevard. Throngs of people press flesh at the Montagnard and the Brasserie Le Soleil, popular cafés with impromptu terraces made up of mismatched tables and chairs set out on the sunny sidewalk.
The "it" destinations for the branché set: the Place de la Bastille and the busy Rue du Faubourg St.-Antoine, along with the maze of small streets east of them, Rue de Lappe and Rue de Charonne in particular. Droves of chic Parisians migrate to the noisy La Fabrique or the bustling Chez Paul. A cherished haunt of mine is Pause Café Bastille, one of the most popular places to see and be seen east of the Café de Flore—or so I was told after a friend and I happened upon it one afternoon. Within minutes, the little watering hole had worked its magic on us. We felt so mellow watching a bevy of slender customers nonchalantly chatting on tiny cell phones that when a light rain started, we didn't bother to leave the terrace for a drier spot. Eventually my friend opened an umbrella and insisted I take a picture for her folks back home in West Virginia. And indeed, sitting there among the locals with her rumpled raincoat, wet hair, and devilish smile, she looked as deliciously French as anyone I had ever met.
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.
East of the Buttes-Chaumont you'll find dainty Victorian bungalows standing on foundations so brittle no developer can ever attempt to replace them. Narrow lanes and cottages form a spiderweb at the crossroads of three short streets, Rue de l'Égalité, Rue de la Fraternité, and Rue de la Liberté. Known as Carrières d'Amérique ("American Quarries"), this hilly neighborhood stands over a rich gypsum mine that used to produce high-quality stones reserved for export to America. As pretty as dollhouses, the Victorian villas, made of wood and light stucco, seem even more affecting when you consider that they are balanced over holes left by stones which, no doubt, are now the façades of mansions along New York's Fifth Avenue.
To get back on solid ground, go downhill to the Rotonde de la Villette, at the foot of the Avenue Jean-Jaurès. Only a handful of Parisians know this serene part of their town, and even fewer are familiar with the Bassin de la Villette, a reservoir that connects the Canal St.-Martin with the Canal de l'Ourcq and its tributary, the Canal St.-Denis.
Le Rendez-vous des Quais, a restaurant on the Quai de la Seine, is the haunt of the most discriminating promeneurs—and a favorite of film buffs. With a cinema and a terrace café overlooking the waterway, this unusual place offers six first-run films along with its quiche. You may think the menu prices are a tad expensive, but the cost of a meal includes taxes, gratuity—and movie admission.
While you're at the reservoir, stop to watch the Pont de Crimée, a drawbridge, yawn ever so languidly to allow boats to proceed on their indolent journeys. On the Quai de la Loire you can rent a private boat or reserve tickets for the Canauxrama daytime cruises. These floating excursions are far less crowded than the bateaux-mouches, which shuttle tourists back and forth in front of Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. One watery escape route leads to the "pays des guinguettes," quiet islands and riverbanks where Parisians used to go for picnics in the company of plein air painters like Renoir and Manet.
Finding Peace in the 20th
A pilgrimage through the arrondissement made famous by Édith Piaf begins with a brief meditation at the singer's grave in Père Lachaise cemetery. Fittingly understated, her black marble tombstone is always covered with fresh flowers. The spirited guidance of the Little Sparrow (piaf in French) is helpful in fully experiencing the plucky innocence of the 20th Arrondissement.
Reenter the world of the living by stopping for a pastis at Le Piston Pélican on Rue de Bagnolet. Its style suggests the black-and-white realism of photographer Robert Doisneau's The Kiss. You're likely to see artists who live and work in ateliers nearby, taxi drivers discussing politics on their break, blondes fresh from the hair salon, lovers holding hands oblivious of the hubbub—all of them cheerfully assembled under the supervision of an aloof waitress. You half expect an accordion player to walk in at any moment.
At the corner of the Rue de Bagnolet and Rue des Pyrénées is a typical housewares bazaar, Best Affaires. Don't miss it. The most ordinary French products look design-conscious by American standards. There are stackable bins, plastic chairs, decanters, lamps, tablecloths, dustpans, brushes, vases, watering cans, rubber duckies, alarm clocks, frying pans—all at irresistible bargain prices.
Past the Rue des Pyrénées, on the Rue de Bagnolet, is Le Flèche d'Or, a bohemian restaurant that turns into one of the hottest stamping grounds for young revelers at night. It's perched over an abandoned railroad track, and used to be a rural train station. With its makeshift Dada décor, its stage wired for live techno concerts, and its eclectic assemblage of salvaged architectural artifacts, it looks like the backstage of a music hall. But in the afternoon, before the crowds arrive, it's the place to daydream with a cup of tea on the glass-enclosed terrace overlooking the weed-covered tracks. A little edgy, yet steeped in offbeat nostalgia, this is the kind of artistic setting an Impressionist painter would have loved to capture on canvas.
Less than a block up the Rue de Bagnolet, a medieval village church called St.-Germain-de-Charonne sits on a bluff surrounded by a rustic cemetery. Its stocky silhouette is a comforting sight in this urban landscape. At the foot of the church, on the Place St.-Blaise, is an old-fashioned boulangerie, the Fournil de Stéphane et Sophie (buy an éclair au chocolat just for the chance to admire the painted ceiling). A pedestrian mall, the old Rue St.-Blaise is bordered with sympa (friendly) restaurants: Aucune Idée?, Café Noir, and Le Courtil. Farther down the street, a salon de thé named Le Damier showcases sugary confections called sucres d'orge and dapper-looking gâteaux in its vitrine. Deceptively quiet by day, Le Village de Charonne, as this modest crossroads is called, attracts curious Parisians looking for a relaxed scene in the evenings and on weekends.
The most Parisian of all villages, though, is 10 minutes up the street, across the Place de la Porte de Bagnolet. Aptly called La Campagne à Paris, or "The Parisian Countryside," it's a group of miniature turn-of-the-century terrace houses high on a ridge. The place, connected to the streets below by steep flights of stairs, looks like the setting for the 1956 film Le Ballon Rouge (it was actually shot in nearby Belleville, a district that did not survive the urban renovation of the sixties).
Here, under an ever-changing sky, you hear birds chirping and the sound of your footsteps resonating on the cobblestones. The face of a child appears at a window as an invisible hand parts the curtains; when you turn a corner, an old woman closes a creaking metal gate and quickly disappears behind the thick foliage of her tiny front yard.
OTHER PARIS FINDS
Although the east side of Paris has the most territory left to explore, there are hidden gems in other quartiers, too. Here are a few worth the detour:
Restaurant de la Cordonnerie 20 Rue St.-Roch; 33-1/42-60-17-42; lunch for two $48. Not far from the Louvre, this charming bistro serves traditional cuisine prepared by the owner's son, Monsieur Hugo Wolfer.
Passage Choiseul 23 Rue St.-Augustin. A busy covered passageway lined with bookstores, restaurants, and clothing stores. Couture Choiseul 4 Rue de Choiseul; 33-1/42-60-42-86. An old-fashioned emporium that sells a variety of ribbons, buttons, and trims. Also take a look at Ultramod across the street (3 Rue de Choiseul; 33-1/42-96-98-30) for stylish chapeaus from the same owner.
Musée des Arts et Métiers 60 Rue Réaumur; 33-1/53-01-82-00. Newly restored, this museum will stimulate your curiosity. The Foucault pendulum on display in the chapel is particularly dramatic. Wholesale silversmith district Rue du Temple. Around the mairie, small shops are crowded from floor to ceiling with trophies, tea sets, samovars, and gilded silver plates.
Krystyna Bukowska 1 Rue du Pont-Louis-Philippe; 33-1/42-77-87-58. One of the most elegant boutiques in Paris for chic, cheerful, feminine clothing and accessories. Café Louis-Philippe 66 Quai de l'Hôtel-de-Ville; 33-1/42-72-29-42. Bourgeois fare at its best, with views of Notre Dame and Église St.-Gervais-St.-Protais from the upstairs dining room.
Librairie Gourmande 4 Rue Dante; 33-1/43-54-37-27. One of the best cookbook stores in Paris (and possibly the world). All the classics on gastronomy, in new and old editions.
Bois de Rose 30 Rue Dauphine; 33-1/40-46-04-24. Adorable party dresses and hand-embroidered smocks for girls. Buy a doll in a matching outfit.
Passage Jouffroy 10 Blvd. Montmartre. Where Paris's adolescent fashionistas shop for inexpensive handbags and secondhand costume jewelry.
Villa du Parc-de-Montsouris On the west side of Parc Montsouris you'll find cobblestoned alleys bordered by ivy-covered artists' studios. Also visit Square de Montsouris and Rue Georges-Braque.
Marché du Livre Ancien et d'Occasion 104 Rue Brancion. On weekends, explore the used-book flea market east of the Parc Georges-Brassens.
Café Antoine 17 Rue La Fontaine; 33-1/40-50-14-30. Have a beer in this bar-restaurant, with its original "style Métro" décor by Guimard, and don't miss Castel Béranger, the architect's Art Nouveau masterpiece down the street.
Tisanière Porcelaine 21 Rue du Paradis; 33-1/47-70-22-80. Hôtel de Bourrienne 58 Rue d'Hauteville; 33-1/47-70-51-14. L'Atmosphère 49 Rue Lucien-Sampaix; 33-1/40-38-09-21; lunch for two $34. Antoine et Lili's Cantine 95 Quai de Valmy; 33-1/40-37-34-86; lunch for two $55.
Café Charbon 109 Rue Oberkampf; 33-1/43-57-55-13; lunch for two $33. Robinet Mélangeur 123 Blvd. de Ménilmontant; 33-1/47-00-85-48; dinner for two $25. Le Montagnard 132 Blvd. de Ménilmontant; 33-1/43-49-42-38; lunch for two $15. Brasserie Le Soleil 136 Blvd. de Ménilmontant; 33-1/46-36-47-44. Pause Café Bastille 41 Rue de Charonne; 33-1/48-06-80-33; lunch for two $26.
Marché d'Aligre Place d'Aligre; Weekends 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Le Baron Rouge 1 Rue Théophile-Roussel; 33-1/43-43-14-32; charcuterie and wine for two $10. Viaduc Café 43 Ave. Daumesnil; 33-1/44-74-70-70; lunch for two $41. Partie de Campagne 36 Cour St.-Émilion; 33-1/43-40-44-00; lunch for two $27. Vinéa Café 26-28 Cour St.-Émilion; 33-1/44-74-09-09; lunch for two $41.
Le Papagallo 25 Rue des Cinq-Diamants; 33-1/45-80-53-20; lunch for two $41. La Piscine de la Butte-aux-Cailles 5 Place Paul-Verlaine; 33-1/42-76-78-10; admission $2.20 per person.
Weber Café Parc des Buttes-Chaumont; 33-1/42-00-00-45; lunch for two $28. Le Rendez-vous des Quais 10 Quai de la Seine; 33-1/40-37-02-81; dinner for two (including movie ticket) $41.
Le Piston Pélican 15 Rue de Bagnolet; 33-1/43-70-35-00; lunch for two $19. Best Affaires 94 Rue de Bagnolet; 33-1/43-67-10-25. Le Flèche d'Or (Now under new management). 102A Rue de Bagnolet; 33-1/44-64-01-02; dinner for two $33; www.flechedor.com. Lefebvre (Formerly Fournil de Stéphane et Sophie, now under new management). 120 Rue de Bagnolet; 33-1/40-24-01-43. Aucune Idée? 2 Rue St.-Blaise; 33-1/40-09-70-67; lunch for two $33. Café Noir 15 Rue St.-Blaise; 33-1/40-09-75-80; dinner for two $41. Le Courtil 15 Rue St.-Blaise; 33-1/43-70-09-32; lunch for two $19. Le Damier 29 Rue St.-Blaise; 33-1/43-72-16-95; lunch for two $24.