This week we slip back within the périphérique to explore a neighbourhood called Belleville. But only just. Located mainly in the 20th Arrondissement, Belleville began life as a wine-making village well outside the city walls. It was only in the 1860s that it was dragged kicking and screaming into Paris.
Since then various waves of immigrants have kept changing the face of Belleville, the latest being the Chinese. In some parts it feels distinctly like we never left Hong Kong, with Asian shops, restaurants and residents dominating the landscape.
But it’s more than just another Chinatown. On top of the Asian vibe is a cosmopolitan, arty feel, something close to New York’s East Village.
Nearby is also the world’s most visited cemetery, Père Lachaise, where anyone who was anyone is buried, from Napoleon Bonaparte to Jim Morrison. Knowing I would encounter le touriste there, in droves, I ventured not.
Anyway, enough chit chat. Let’s go Belleville!
Part 1: Asia in Paris
As I said, Belleville houses one of Paris’s Chinatowns (the other is in the 13th). By the way, if you’re wondering why there are no images of any Chinese people, it’s because they were extremely reluctant to be photographed. It was even touch and go there for a while with the dumplings.
Part 2: The bar scene of Belleville
Well, the bar scene before dark anyway. You know I don’t do dark. Like to but the logistics of organising babysitters etc etc … Anyway, Belleville and nearby Menilmontant offer everything from the quiet, shady to the hip and loud.
I spent most of my time at one cafe-bar called Aux Folies. This was where Edith Piaf, who was born in Belleville, used to sing when the place was a cabaret theater back in the 1950s.
Aux Folies is the sort of place you can’t fail to meet someone interesting. Like Luna and her dad, Pat. He runs a rock n roll bar in nearby Menilmontant and told me that I should come that evening as there was an excellent singer on. I mumbled something lame about babysitters, all the while thinking, damn, I’d so love to go.
Right now, the various bars in Belleville are filled with people studying the papers – the Presidential elections are on this Sunday.
Part 3: Spring has sprung
Well, sort of. When we arrived almost five weeks ago it was unseasonably warm and sunny. Not a glove or hat to be seen. Spring, I thought. But no. In the last week the real Spring has reared its head apparently, which pretty much means rain, wind and cold with occasional sunny bits. Gloves and hat back on. Maybe even thermals.
Still, the gardens and flowers of Paris could care less. They’re out and proud, holding their pretty little heads high despite the chilly drenchings. All except for the cherry blossoms, which seem to have peaked and are now busy forming pink carpets all over Paris.
Belleville has le Parc de Belleville. Not only filled with fleurs but also offering an excellent view over all of Paris – Montmartre without the crowds. The first time I looked out over the view I couldn’t believe I could see the Eiffel Tower as well as the twin steam stacks of Ivry-sur-Seine, a suburb just outside Paris where some friends of ours live. Paris proper really is very small.
Part 4: To Gambetta
It’s quite tricky knowing when you’ve left one neighbourhood and entered another in Paris. So I decided to just wander and not worry too much if I strayed out of Belleville. Which I did, quite convincingly, into nearby Menilmontant and Gambetta.
Gambetta in particular has some interesting pockets. Still in the 20th, the area around rue Saint Blaise is one of the oldest in Paris, with the original cobblestone street still intact.
It was on rue Saint Blaise that I met Florence, a proud African woman who was somewhat bemused by my desire to take a picture of her dress. But come on, great frock.
Just around the corner from Florence I met this lovely lady. I can’t remember her name but I loved her ‘do.
Gambetta is home to Mama Shelter, a hip hotel designed by Philippe Starck, located alongside an abandoned railway, le Petite Ceinture, which I think once defined the boundary of Paris.
(And yes, you have seen Lena before, in the first Paris post. I met her in the 20th when we first arrived and I was nosing around the area. I mistakenly put her in the Faubourg Saint Denis post. She’s so radiant I thought she deserved a second appearance.)
Gambetta is also home to La Fleche d’Or, a famous music scene that operates out of an old railway station.
Part 5: Yes Coco, by law French people must eat a baguette every day
It could almost be true. What else can explain the fact that every French man and woman seems to end up with a baguette under their arm at some point during the day, if not at numerous times.
The queues outside the Patisseries also make me wonder if every Parisian eats cake every day. It would make sense – they need the calories to fuel all the walking they do, especially the near vertical variety.
Part 6: Chiens and chats
Hate to end on a sad note but one of our cats, Jinx, is still missing in action in Sydney. It’s been weeks now but I still haven’t told Coco as I keep waiting, hoping to hear news. As a result, I seem to have noticed more ‘Lost Cat’ posters than ever in my life as well as wanting desperately to stop and pat every single four legged creature that comes my way.
I don’t think I’ve done Belleville and its surrounding areas full justice – blame it on the rain, as well as the fact that I suspect I missed a lot by not being there at night when the place apparently really swings. But from what I did see, I can understand why those that live there are fiercely proud of it and consider it the best in all of Paree. Diverse, down to earth and not trop cher to live in. Vive le 20e arrondissement!
On the ‘home front’
Coco loved her kid time at the local bilingual Montessori school. She finished up there a week ago when the school broke for holidays. But she may be going back – because guess what? We’re staying longer in Paris. After booking flights to Berlin and arranging accommodation from next weekend onwards, I suddenly realised that I really wasn’t ready to leave. As excited as I am about Berlin, I’m just not done with Paris. (Okay, you may as well know, I love the place. Somewhere between the 4th arrondissement and the 20th, I got Paris. It happens.)
Who would have thought it from just two posts ago?
This suburb has been brought to you by Berice Dudley and her grandchildren
See you next Friday.