The camellias are in bloom. So too the daffodils and tulips. The trees are full of flowers or sprouting shy signs of green. In Square Édouard-Vaillant, a small park near Place Gambetta, the benches are filled and the playground rings with the squeals of children, their shrill cries of delight carrying on the breeze’s chill edge. At the foot of a statue of Léon Gambetta himself, a carpet of fat pigeons are grazing busily in the sun.
I’m about five minutes into a 2.5-kilometre walking circuit (the first in a series of neighbourhood strolls), which is, under blue skies or grey, interesting for its village-within-a-city, browse-inducing boutiques and typically 20th vibe.
But I should begin, like a civilized guide, at the beginning: Place Gambetta with its modern jagged glass fountain and imposing town hall (more on that later). It is, as always, a hive of activity – buses, shoppers, flower sellers clutching bunches of yellow daffs, with Père Lachaise adjacent and groovy Belleville up the hill. We’ll return here at the end.
For now, though, let’s walk down rue Belgrand and look right to appreciate the ornate façade of what is these days the MK2 cinema. Built in 1920, originally as a theatre, and restored in 1997, the Gambetta-Palais has a distinguished pedigree; its architect was Henri Sauvage, one of the pioneers of the art deco movement. The original interior is long gone but it retains its awning and decorative frieze.
The aforementioned park, on the opposite side of the street, is a verdant oasis in the Haussmann mold, opened in 1879. The Gambetta statue, which once stood in Jardin des Tuileries and then the Napoleon courtyard in the Louvre, was installed in 1982 to commemorate the centenary of the great politician’s death. (Fun fact: Gambetta – lawyer, statesman, publisher – lost an eye in a childhood accident and that eye is apparently preserved at the museum of Cahors, the town where he was born. His heart is in the Panthéon.) The park also has a couple of playgrounds and a small glasshouse.
On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the stretch of rue Belgrand beyond Square Édouard-Vaillant (named after one of the founders of French socialism) hosts an open-air market. It’s dominated by fresh produce but also has wine, flowers and other goodies.
Another block along is the frankly a little down-at-heel Place Édith-Piaf, where the Little Sparrow (or the brat of Ménilmontant), immortalised in bronze by French sculptor Lisbeth Delisle, reaches for the sky. The singer was born in the 20th and is buried in Père Lachaise.
The slope of rue de Capitaine Ferber is gentle. I can never resist popping into Le Village (2 rue Etienne Marley) to see what jewellery, homewares and trinkets they have, especially at sales time in January and June.
On the other side of Place Octave Chanute, up a photogenic stairway, is one of the arrondissment’s – and indeed the city’s – hidden treasures: Campagne à Paris. This early-20th-century housing co-operative of about 90 one- and two-storey townhouses (over principally rues Paul Strauss, Jules Siegfried and Irénée Blanc) is a world away from the high-rise hodge-podge of today’s cité developments. Its cobbled streets, manicured gardens and climbing ivy feel part of another time. When the project was inaugurated in 1926, houses cost about 37,000€ ; today, a quick Google search of estate agent sites shows those picturesque workers’ houses change hands for about 750,000€.
Leaving the urban bucolic behind, at the top of rue Irénée Blanc, turn left, then veer left again into rue du Lieutenant Chauré past the impressive L’église du Coeur-Eucharistique-de Jésus, constructed in 1938.
From there, we weave our way through streets with the typically 20th mix of architectural styles. The arrondissement only joined Paris proper in 1859, so it can feel part provincial, part city. An upward glance is usually met with a mix of roofs and materials that is at odds with ideas of uniform Parisian stone façades.
At local pitstop Le Quinze, go left into rue du Surmelin. We’ll hold off on coffee for now in order to visit Maison Bohème (at No.15), a pocket of all things craft and hand-made. When I was there on Saturday, the owner Cécile kindly interrupted her radio interview (discussing knitting workshops) to help me and introduce her beautiful store. I bought iron-on patches and a card.
Over the road is Goldy Mama (who are relocating their vintage/retro boutique to rue Orfila around the corner) and Au Chat Qui Pêche (No.12), a true local bistro that I haven’t yet tried but whose classic menu, including a bargain 12.50€ formule, scores excellent online reviews. Personally, I love the little sign with its black cat and cute feline postcards in the window.
At the intersection, check out the art deco Pelleport metro station (built in 1921 and dwarfed by the super-modern extension to Tenon Hospital behind it). You can take a detour to Julien Davin (129 avenue Gambetta) – I bought duck breast but they also have horse steak. Horse butchers (chevaline) are less and less common in Paris – usually recognizable from equine features above the awning.
I grabbed a coffee (une noisette – espresso with a stain of milk) on the terrace at Les Tontons Flambeurs (127 avenue Gambetta). Again, I’ve not eaten there but the plates coming out looked generous and fresh and online reviews are positive.
The wide avenue Gambetta, put through in 1883, is an easy stroll. At the corner of rue de la Chine (95 avenue Gambetta) is an art nouveau landmark apartment building, with ornate bay windows and ironwork. A few steps up rue de la Chine is Iris Absinthe, the leather workshop and store of Picardie native Candice Caulle. She has just reopened after a three-month break and her bags, purses, belts and keychains are rather lovely (as is her enormous snowy dog who greeted me with tail wags when I walked in).
So, back down the hill to Place Gambetta. The town hall has recently been cleaned back to its creamy 19th-century glory, and its patrician officialdom dominates the square. According to the council website, the building took 10 years to build, and was finished in 1897. The salon des fêtes is 400 square metres replete with chandeliers, but on Saturday I found my way (after being scanned at the entrance as is the case with all public buildings in post-attack Paris) to the salon d’honneur and its current exhibition of war photography by Syrian activist and AFP reporter Zakaria Abdelkafi. The images, taken in Aleppo between 2013 and 2015, contain blood and destruction, snow, kids playing in a burnt-out car and, in one extraordinary picture, three upended buses blocking a street.
It was blunt contrast to my historic, quotidian wanderings, but also, in a way, it being there is emblematic of the quartier. Any itinerary, random or planned, is as likely to deliver an eye-opener as an expected history lesson or simply a way to get from A to B.
Now, to pop around the corner to Maison Landemaine to pick up bread…