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.

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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…

 

 

Escape to Burgundy

The young men at the table next to ours seemed overdressed for Saturday coffee on the terrace in a tiny village. We had watched them file in, solo and in twos and threes, and now their large table was surrounded, long limbs and bare ankles stretched out underneath, seersucker suit jackets slung carefully over the backs of chairs. They ordered a raft of espressos, salade chèvre, a smattering of beers, and we waited for the waitress to lower the awning to protect us from midday sun.

Once our corner was in shade, I set to eavesdropping. (There can be no more satisfying use for nascent French skills than this.) It took fewer than three sentences before someone mentioned a wedding. The medieval church was just around the corner in the main square. My travelling companion, P, and I looked around, discreetly, to try to work out who, among those smooth faces, some adorned with tastefully groomed beards, was the groom. I couldn’t tell, but neither could I help being pulled into their orbit, into that early-twenties mixture of hope and uneasiness, feigning adulthood, learning the motions. Their energy was familiar and alien to my forty-something head. They were deep in agitated conversation, like sparrows around a birdbath.

Amid times and names and organisation, the details of which flew by too fast for my intermediate-level comprehension, I caught mention of Munich, nine dead, scores injured, and so real life intruded on southern Burgundy. The topic moved on, and the cobbled patio filled with more voices, glasses filled with local pinot, reflecting sunlight breaking through clouds. The market gardener out in the main street packed up his little stand, the thoroughfare emptied of cars.

P and I split a dozen snails, which arrived sizzling in golden butter, heavy with garlic and flecked with parsley, and two of those goat’s cheese salads, and watched the sun peak and dip into clear afternoon over Saint-Gengoux-le-National.

Much can be said of the virtues of beating a retreat from Paris in the company of an old friend, with a shiny hire car in which to explore vineyard-checked hills and crumbly hamlets. We started in Dijon, devoted a couple of hours to Beaune, then took the B roads south to digs in Saint Boil. That was Friday. This was the first full day of our long weekend and, on the advice of a laconic English neighbour (“it’s nice and there’s a shop”), found ourselves in this centuries-old village, wandering blindly. Isn’t that the best way to travel? On arriving, we asked a local to point us towards a lunch spot, and to highlight sights of interest on the map helpfully billboarded in the car park. After coffee, no dessert, we began at the church, with its twin spires (one religious, one secular) joined by a narrow wooden bridge high in the sky. We didn’t want to disturb the wedding, so we didn’t go inside.

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L’Eglise de Saint-Gengoux was first cited in the 10th century, according to Wikipedia (yes, I need to upgrade my research tools), under the growing influence of the abbey in nearby Cluny, but a new church was built in 1120, just a few decades before the village and its surrounds were ceded to King Louis VIII. (The town was then renamed Saint-Gengoux-le-Royal, becoming Jouvence after the Revolution, and reverting quietly to Saint-Gengoux-le-National in 1870.)

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Opposite the church, more or less, are the remains of a 13th-century castle and washhouse (pictured below), and all around the town centre snake immaculate narrow streets, with requisite geraniums, passageways and picturesque cats posing for next year’s Felines of France calendar. As P was snapping someone’s private garden, the owner appeared with a breezy “Bonjour!” and an offer to visit the wine cellar under her house. Chantelle introduced herself and explained that the house had once been used to produce wine, pointing to the hole in the cellar ceiling where the pressed juice would pour into barrels below to be turned into wine. These days, the constant temperature makes it ideal for the family’s pinot noir collection. We silently willed the invitation to include a tasting. No such luck. But a quick exchange about the perils of modern life and the necessity of living boldly regardless of threats and current events did offer a chance to practise French.

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The village is built on a hill that slopes gently to the Grosne river. We went in the opposite direction, up past the fountain, up to the remnants of defensive towers, up to a view over fields and forests. Up past rows of 19th century houses that care little for time. I stood on the picnic table to better frame my photographs.

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On the way back to the car, we met wedding guests, tottering in heels, chiffon dresses floating on the breeze. The bunting over the streets could have been strung for the occasion, rather than for the twice-monthly Tuesday markets. By this time, even the supermarket was shut and it was easy to re-imagine the streetscape as it might have been in its Middle Ages heyday.

Out of the dark

In 430AD, or thereabouts, a fifty-something bishop met a young girl in the low hills of Charonne. Did Germain, bishop of Auxerre, and six-year-old Geneviève of Nanterre, future patron saint of Paris, exchange words? Or did she simply watch the great man sweep past along what is modern-day rue de Bagnolet? The plaque outside the church that sprang up, in stages over centuries, on the place of their encounter does not say. It doesn’t note whether the child, the only daughter of a civic official, was alone, how her presence was recorded, or if anything marked her out as special. Later, she would persuade her fellow Parisians to stand strong in the face of Attila the Hun and convince Clovis to build a church dedicated to saints Peter and Paul (which today bears her name) in the Latin Quarter. But then she was just a little girl.

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In memorial of this encounter, so the story goes, the locals built a small chapel. The chapel grew into a church in the 12th century, with further additions and refinements in the 15th, 17th and 18th centuries. Now the austere beauty of L’Église Saint-Germain-de-Charonne caps a neighbourhood that still feels like a village, with the cobbled rue Saint-Blaise leading from the foot of the stairs past artists’ studios and towards clusters of residential towers. On 21st-century evenings, along with the chiming of the clock, rock music from La Flèche d’Or opposite and chatter from the smokers out front of Mama Shelter’s fashionable pizza bar mingle with the stop-start sounds of traffic.

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I find it impossible to imagine what Charonne might have looked like in the fifth century. The Gallo-Roman garrison of Lutetia had been renamed Paris less than a hundred years before, and the nascent hamlet on its edges was still almost a millennia and a half from being drawn by Napoléon III into the city proper. I imagine it was fields and forests, feudal and stinking, pagan and God-fearing, and fearful of marauding invaders taking advantage of the collapsing Roman Empire.

It’s easy to be swept away with the Belle Époque vision of Paris, and to forget that the boulevards, art nouveau fountains and Métro signs are recent additions to the landscape. It’s easy to think of the city as a museum piece, frozen in time for our ease and consumption, both of which are very 19th-century concepts, also. (I’ve just picked up Au Bonheur des Dames by Émile Zola.) But there was a Paris before Haussmann, before the Revolution, before the Middle Ages brought such flourishes as Nôtre Dame, the fortress of the Louvre and the scholars of the Sorbonne to the banks of the Seine.

Of course, vestiges of the city’s past remain.

Yesterday afternoon, I stood amid all this history, smells of baking bread and bus fumes filling my nostrils, and took in the newly unveiled Saint-Germain-de-Charonne, which had been under scaffolding for at least two years while work was done to restabilise its foundations. The public has not been permitted inside since 2009 due to safety concerns, but you can mount the sandstone steps, pristine and crunchy underfoot. The little cemetery behind the church is open and affords the curious a chance to gaze upwards at the stained glass, and thick unembellished walls. If visitors could go past the heavy red doors, into the cool, somber interior, they would be able to see the depiction by Belgian painter Joseph Benoist Suvée (1743-1807) of Geneviève before the bishop, clad in white, hands clasped in prayer.

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Photo: http://www.saintgermaindecharonne.fr

In looking at the painting (or rather its digital image) showing Germain with eyes raised passionately to the heavens, I’m grateful to Wikipedia for providing the bones of his backstory. Before he was tapped to succeed Amâtre as bishop of Auxerre, he was a lawyer and, typical of his aristocratic status, fond of hunting. So much so that he liked to string the heads of his prey up in a large pear tree. Christianity was a much more fragile doctrine then, and Amâtre saw this as idolatry and had the tree felled. Germain threatened his elder with death, forcing him out of town. Regardless, the dying bishop had a vision that Germain was his successor, and put him on the path to conversion and sainthood.

Apparently, many years later, he and Geneviève crossed paths again, by that stage united in ideals of church and empire. I wonder what they would make of the city now.

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