Promenade de deux

The main hall of 104 Centquatre is a vast space. Concrete floor, skylight open to the cerulean-grey patchwork above, red brick, iron beams. Dancers of a world of styles – hip-hop, tango, salsa – are toiling joyously in the natural light that pours through that transparent roof. It’s hard to believe this building was once home to the city undertaker service, where up to 1400 people organised 150 funerals a day, where first horses then motorized hearses were accommodated on a site the size of Place de la République. The 1873 building has, since its rebirth in 2008, housed rehearsal and performance spaces, a start-up incubator, bookshop, cafés and vintage boutique Emmaüs. It’s a world unto itself – from the Open Wall neon installation by Pascale Marthine Tayou in the arched floor-to-ceiling glass frontage as you enter to the tucked-away Café Caché.

Paris does urban renewal with style, and this is the second example of it on our Saturday afternoon ramble through the 10th, 18th and 19th arrondissements to Aubervilliers, a copy of L’Autre Paris in hand.

When J and I meet at Gare de l’Est at 3pm, we have it firmly in mind that we’ll be finished and settled with beers in hand at Le Supercoin by six at the latest. Not so fast. Turns out perhaps we walk slowly, or take too long over coffee, or there are just too many things to see on Nicolas Le Goff’s second itinerary in the book to rush things.

Our first cool discovery is behind a high wall over the road from the 19th-century railway station, one of Paris’s six main hubs and the departure point for the first Orient Express to Istanbul (thank you, Wiki, for that titbit). The station façade is gorgeous. But more lovely in its way is the garden of Café A in the Maison de l’Architecture. Too late for lunch, too early for coffee. We snap a couple of pictures, take a look at the menu and promise to return another day.

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Right, to serious navigating, wandering, wondering and getting under the skin of a new part of town. (Sorry, 20th, you’ll have to sit this one out.)

We cross the forecourt of the station, up horseshoe-shaped stairs, over an iron bridge next to an old viaduct, around the corner to find the coloured façade of Collectif 23 is no more. We stand at the gate, making friendly noises to the dog on the other side. Eventually, a nice chap comes to ask if he can help us. I explain we’re doing a tour and hold up the book. He looks puzzled, then amused as he reads the entry that mentions this art collective squat – the mural was painted over, he says – and invites us in to see their latest photography exhibition, of women fighters during the Balkans conflict.

Onwards. Through the Indian quarter, past an incense-scented temple, piles of shoes at the door, to La Halle Pajol, our first repurposed utopia. The former mail exchange depot (built 1926) is now, yes, a cultural centre and 330-bed youth hostel. Its roof also supports Paris’s second largest collection of solar panels. We find a table at Les Petites Gouttes’ leafy terrace and order coffee (for me) and a house-brewed IPA (for J).

Breather over, next stop is the Marché La Chappelle on rue de l’Olive. The covered market, which stays open until 7.30pm most days, has immaculate stands of produce, fish, meat and cheese. I love French markets – rabbits with organs neatly on display, chickens with feet and head intact, pungent cheese, fresh oysters to be devoured standing up. Nearby En Vrac sells wine by volume – you can take your bottle and refill for just 3€.

Due to my inability to navigate and read instructions at the same time we’re halfway across the power-blue bridge over the train tracks before I realize we’ve skipped a garden or two. Regardless, we continue to the Jardins d’Eole, which stretch along the railway with basketball courts, lawns and a lovely view of the Sacré-Coeur off in the distance. It’s a green oasis between transport infrastructure and high-rise apartment developments and very popular, it seems.

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Around the corner, through a neighbourhood vide grenier in full swing, we stop to gape at the Orgues de Flandre, a monumental 1970s housing development. From there, it’s five minutes to Centquatre.

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Deciding not to have another stop, at Café Caché, we leave arts central and walk along Paris’s longest street art fresco to the new Gare Rosa-Parks. (It links to Saint-Lazare in seven minutes!) The pedestrian/cyclist thoroughfare takes us to Square Claude-Bernard, then over the Périphérique via a curvy wooden bridge, glancing right at the Forêt Linéaire but a bit too weary to explore further.

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Our final destination is the canal and the free shuttle ferry from enormous shopping centre Le Millénaire to the Corentin-Cariou métro station, where our “official” itinerary ends. The ferries come every 12 minutes and are a novel way to travel.

So, at nearly 8pm, we finally reach Le Supercoin, a close-to-perfect neighbourhood bar that specializes in craft beer. Oh yes. We get two demis of Rhythm’n’Blues, a smoked rye IPA from local O’Clock Brewing. At 7.5 per cent alcohol, it’s a big beginning but, hey, we’re been walking. And, oh yes, she’s a lovely drop, with clear notes of smoke and pleasing bitterness. We discuss barley wine and the merits of ambrée versus IPA, all the while continuing with a mini degustation (and nibble a complimentary crêpe complète). Our next beers, shared, in bottle not pression, include a coffee number from Brasseurs du Grand Paris that we agree would make a cracking biramisu.

Sweet.

 

 

Urban ramblings

On the other side of the southern wall of Père Lachaise cemetery, Le Jardin Naturel – the natural garden – has been left to self-seed and native species encouraged to proliferate thanks to chemical-free, eco-friendly maintenance. It’s tucked in behind rue de Bagnolet and feels, over its 6300 square metres, more like a walk in the country, with birdsong and sunlight breaking through spring leaves in patches. It’s unusually unkempt for a city park, charming and rambling, with signs offering information about the indigenous plants. Here, an oak, there a field maple, copper birch, bellflowers, ferns and so on in a tapestry of green, and pink, and gold.

I had forgotten the little park was there until yesterday when we came upon it during a “randonnée urbaine” organised by local bookstore Le Merle Moqueur. Our expert guide was Nicolas Le Goff, whose excellent new book, L’Autre Paris,  I’d brought weeks ago during a fact-finding sortie to FNAC. Happily, J and M agreed to come and we joined about 15 others (mostly women, as another walker noted while we were milling about waiting to begin) for the 90-minute walk. We started at Square Edith Piaf and ended with a signing at the bookstore. (When J observed that it was the first time she’d seen the statue of the Little Sparrow, M responded dryly that she was often skirted by locals and their bottles, which we all agreed was somehow appropriate.)

My hope was that Le Goff, whose book details 10 promenades around the greater city with a focus on architecture, urban design, parks, street art, culture and food, would offer some insight into my ’hood. I was not disappointed. It turned out that many of the participants were also locals, and he clearly felt the pressure to give us something special. At one point, as we walked through an innovative social-housing development, Le Goff asked J and me if we had seen it before. Our shaking heads elicited a very pleased, “Yes!”

We began at Campagne à Paris, which is utterly village-like in its spring finery, then tacked south through manicured Square Séverine, along the narrow elevated street that overlooks rue de Bagnolet from which we could see two elegantly curved staircases at the front of houses that once sat amid vineyards. Our path took us through the cemetery at the back of Eglise Saint-Germain de Charonne, and Le Goff allowed a few minutes for us to go inside the medieval church (the first time I’d seen it open) whose interior dimness showed off the brilliant hues of the stained-glass windows.

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Crossing rue des Pyrénées, Le Goff, who has previously worked at cultural centre Centquatre and clearly loves his subject, took us through the public housing development around Place Mélina-Mercouri, pointing out energy-saving features (heat-retaining construction materials) and how car-free thoroughfares linked adjacent schools. In this “eco-quartier”, there’s child-friendly, ethical Super Café, gardens and a sense of light and space. The design was created in consultation with the residents, he said.

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Cutting through Place de la Réunion, being prepped for the Sunday market, Place Marc Bloch and Jardin Casque d’Or, we emerged at rue des Vignoles, and another corner of the arrondissement that was completely new to me. And this is where having a guide really paid off because we were able to peep behind a private gate into another development, this one all external staircases and green walls. It was so lovely. And utterly hidden from the street.

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Next door was the brick-red cobbled courtyard of Flamenco en France, opposite a retro barber shop, and down from tempting bar Café de l’Amitié and organic restaurant La Petite Fabrique (where J and I went last night for delicious homemade quiche, brandade de morue and natural wines).

Our route back to rue de Bagnolet also offered a glimpse at the art deco Eglise Saint-Jean-Bosco de Paris, built in 1937, with its 53-metre clock tower.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Paris rewards curiosity at almost every turn, but it does help to be pointed in the right direction. All around Père Lachaise are little cul-de-sacs. We wound our way up and down several, one through Le Jardin Naturel and another that seemed to be lined with warehouses, where work was going on to re-lay the cobbled surface. I immediately wanted to live there.

Yet another took us past the Cité Aubry community garden, one of 14 in the arrondissement, where weekend gardeners were happy to pause in their work to explain the project to us. (I discovered later from the website that the garden was created nearly three years ago, and there is a long waiting list for plots.) The walls surrounding the garden are covered in beautiful murals, and the garden makes excellent use of wooden palettes for planters, dividers and racks. The most magnificent yellow and red tulips filled one box; strawberry plants donned white flowers in pots by the red-arch entry.

We finished back at the bookstore, which has recently had an update, filling its industrial-style interior with more light and opening up the space. We took the opportunity for a browse, particularly the graphic novel section; J bought a copy of L’Autre Paris and we made plans to do the itineraries (watch this space).

The 20th can feel like the ultimate urban mash-up, dominated in so many places by nondescript high-ish-rises from decades past. The walk with Le Goff revealed some of the neighbourhood’s hidden greenery and, even better, offered a chance to learn about projects putting heart and soul into the built environment. Yes, another Paris, indeed.

Walk this way

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.

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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.

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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.

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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€.

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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.

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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.

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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…

 

 

Slice of life

Making a reservation was a necessity. Reserving early was a stroke of genius. When J and I pushed open the door at Le Popine (aka pizza nirvana), the place was deserted and we had our choice of position – window-side table, shared bench or high table with a clear view of the bar and pervy perspective through the pass into the kitchen. We took a place up the back, pushing aside throw cushions to pile up coats and scarves on the banquette.

The menu (delivered swiftly with a branded carafe of Paris’s finest tap) proved a challenge. As J said, why have a gourmet section when the classique pizzas are all artisan prosciutto and buffalo mozzarella? We ordered a 500ml pichet of Chevry and a carciofina (ham, mozzarella and artichoke) for me and something similar (the name escapes me) with added olives and marinated capsicum for J. The tapas, burger and charcuterie were tempting, too, but somewhat tangential to our mission.

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I had seen it claimed that Paris’s best pizza came out of wood-fired ovens in the 20th, and so my friends and I have been roadtesting the contenders. Happily, it’s an ongoing quest…

Popine, recommended vigorously by both Le Fooding and Time Out, was second on the must-visit list. First glance, and eager first bite, confirmed the advance notices. The crust was damn near perfect – salty, light, just the right amount of blister and crunch without being dry or brittle, wheaty from artisanal flour in the best possible way – with sparing toppings of quality and flavour. When we finally lifted our heads from flat, round Neapolitan heaven, we realized the room was now packed and buzzing, with a typical Ménilmontant crowd, which is to say young and fashionable.

The crowd at the pizzeria at Mama Shelter is rolled from similar dough. I’ve been a few times, because it’s reliably good and there is usually a spot at one of the two long, skinny tables in the underlit but welcoming space. You enter through the lobby of the hotel, peruse the gift suggestions in the glass cabinets and turn left. (My goal this summer is to be organized enough to make the reservation that will allow me to turn right and step into the elevator up to the popular roof terrace.) There’s a restaurant, too, but usually it’s pizza and a carafe of house red calling my name. No need to be fancy. Mama Shelter is an international chain of affordable, photogenic boutique hotels, styled by French interior designer Philippe Starck. I’m happy they decided to put the Paris one in my neighbourhood.

The service, on this visit as on previous ones, was quick and friendly. C and I clambered onto chunky high stools – I may have crawled under the table to avoid going all the way to the end and squeezing past half-a-dozen fellow diners (Pardon! Excusez-moi! Désolée!) – and ordered a vegetarian for her, Bellota for me. It’s still weird to get a pizza not neatly cleaved into eight, but, hey, if I have to navigate chorizo, tomato, mozzarella and oregano with a knife and fork, so be it. The menu has 10 options and you can add extra toppings. But why mess with something “created with the complicity of three-starred chef Guy Savoy”? The ambient buzz was as noisy as the décor is groovy, and we decided not to stick around for dessert. The helpful waiter packed the leftover pizza into a takeaway box and we headed out, the beginnings of a long night cranking up behind us.

And so, to number three. On a recent Friday, noting with pleasure the lengthening evening (roll on, spring), I installed myself on the closed-in terrace at Tripletta on boulevard de Belleville, ordered a glass of Côtes de Roussillon red and settled in with my university copy of Le Grand Meaulnes to wait for J and M. This restaurant strip, which runs all the way from Père Lachaise cemetary to vintage brasserie La Vielleuse, hosts such a parade of diners, hangers-out, soldiers on patrol, hustlers, pavement smokers, locals with shopping caddies, it feels like the whole eastern city walks past your table, if only you sit long enough.

Tripletta is the compact sister address of bar-bistro Les Triplettes up the road, similarly casual, a bit grittier around the edges, perhaps; there is a constant stream of delivery guys collecting flat boxes for home delivery from the little window on the corner. It’s the kind of place you need for an end-of-week debrief. So it took us a while to get to consulting the menu – and decide on a Napoli (creamy mozza fior di latte, anchovies and black Caiazzan olives) for me and a prosciutto e funghi for J. M was avoiding grains and inducing order envy with a ricotta salad, beefed up with roast vegetables and served in a strangely heavy bowl (“so you think it is more substantial than lettuce leaves,” she said).

All present, correct and satisfying – snaps for the doorstop chunks of good bread (duly lifted and wrapped carefully in napkins for my breakfast) – from beginning until week’s-end fatigue got the better of us.

At Popine, they beat us to it, gently enquiring how long we planned to linger after the last crumbs and swish of wine had been downed. They needed the table. We obliged, of course, rugging up and stepping into that wonderful hum and movement of cars, bodies and possibilities of the boulevard.