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Undiscovered Paris: Je T'Aime

Eika Aoshima Tourists and Parisians enjoy an outdoor cafe.

Photo: Eika Aoshima

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.


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