The many pleasures of Paris’ No-Go Zones (SoPi)

The many pleasures of Paris’ No-Go Zones (SoPi)

Spotted on a Paris travel board:

“[Pigalle:] Dodgy looking people, gangs bothering tourists and locals in full view of the police, a pedestrian road lined with the most sketchy looking bunch of people. I had to walk it on my own to buy some macaroons to take home with me from the best macaroons in Paris, but I walked quickly and frankly felt safer anywhere in London.
Miss. Avoid. Dont bother.

Ah, tourists…
So determined they will brave the French capital’s nefarious Red Light district, around la Place Pigalle, just to get their hands on the pretty round cookies with a name they can’t either pronounce or spell.

Ah, the scary tales they will share post-trip with friends and colleagues: “I survived my visit to one of Paris’ worst no-go zones, you know!

Moulin Rouge, Place Pigalle
Moulin Rouge, Place Pigalle

What, exactly, does one expect when visiting Pigalle? A peek at the famous Moulin Rouge cabaret? Cheap thrills when peering inside the ubiquitous sex shops, adult movie theaters, hostess or “American” bars, patronized by G.I.s after the Liberation of Paris?

supermarche erotique

Apparently, one expects to find macarons.

In Pigalle, like in many other Parisian neighborhoods, it pays to be adventurous and to explore. What may appear like a “no-go zone,” is, in fact, a fast evolving neighborhood. Many sex shops and hostess bars have closed down in recent years. Hipsters have found their way into the old, seedy streets, and claimed them as their own. According to this alarming New York Times article, they are in the process of turning Paris into Brooklyn!

Like many, I have mostly gone through Pigalle, and its Metro stations, Anvers, or Place Blanche, on my way to Montmartre. Last summer, I made the neighborhood my destination and walked around to try and see if the rumors were true.

Montmartre
Le Sacré-Coeur, in the distance.

In the 9th arrondissement, the area south of boulevard de Clichy, with the lively rue des Martyrs as its dorsal spine, has been nicknamed “SoPi” (South Pigalle.) Pigalle, c’est très Brooklyn !

I visited on a lovely July afternoon. There was no sign of activity at trending local bars. Hipsters, it would appear, are not early risers (or they may have been working.) I followed the steep rue des Martyrs all the way down to the charming Notre Dame des Lorettes church. La rue des Martyrs is a lively street, similar to many streets in Paris, with the addition, that’s true, of award-winning boulangeries and  pâtisseries.

Chez Sébastien Gaudard
Chez Sébastien Gaudard, Pâtisserie des Martyrs

Emblematic of the French way of life, specialty shops abound, signs of a thriving neighborhood.

Cordonnerie
La cordonnerie (shoe repair shop)
REtoucherie
La retoucherie (Repairs and Alterations shop)


Patisserie

I ventured into small side streets, rue de Condorcetrue de Navarin, rue Clauzel, rue Henri Monnier, and was rewarded with more delightful sights.

Navarin Fleurs
André Navellou Fleurs, rue de Condorcet.
HipsterLand Boutiques
Boutiques with English names…
LesP'titsBobos
A hip child-friendly consignment shop (with a clever name) rue Clauzel

My favorite spot: The peaceful square at the corner of rue Navarin and rue Monnier. Three coffee shops, a newstand, a few benches… Paris is a no-go zone village.

Place et Lectrice

From the church of Notre-Dame des Lorettes, I walked my way back up the hill along the church’s eponymous street. I arrived quickly at the scenic Place St Georges, with its impressive real estate and quaint Metro station. I spotted several cafés and restaurants along the way, some trendy, some traditional.

PlaceStGeorges

MetroStGeorges

My goal was rue Chaptal, where le Musée de la Vie Romantique, one of Paris’ smallest museums, is located, tucked at the end of a dreamy courtyard, next to an elementary school. As I sat in the garden, sampling an éclair au café purchased earlier rue des Martyrs, all I heard was the chatter of my two Parisian neighbors, the laughter of children in the school’s playground, and birds chirping.

Communale
Public elementary school

 

MuseedelaVieRomantique
Musée de la Vie Romantique, in an 18th century private mansion
MuseedelaVieRomantiqueGarden
The museum’s greenhouse and its tea room.

From there, it was an easy walk to la Gare St Lazare, the train station where I caught the RER back to my parents’ place in the suburbs.

Brooklyn or not, Paris, as it changes, retains amazing diversity, with so many neighborhoods with distinct crowds, sights, and flavors. Most of all, Paris still surprises and charms those who take the time to explore with a curious and open mind.

A bientôt.

Further reading about SoPi (South Pigalle:)

The Guardian, 3/2014

Hip Paris, 9/2013

Eclair au café, Sébastien Gaudard.
Eclair au café, Sébastien Gaudard.

21 Responses to The many pleasures of Paris’ No-Go Zones (SoPi)

  1. I love this area! We were once looking for a café near Metro St. Georges, but we didn’t find it because we walked the wrong way. We ended up at the Moulin Rouge, and we found the area delightful! Another time, we visited the Musée de la Vie Romantique just to sit in the garden. Lovely!

    Sandy

  2. This whole area looks positively chic now! I haven’t been around there in ages. I was in a hotel in that neighborhood (Blvd de Clichy, I think) with my college group way back in the early 80s and remember it as feeling pretty sleazy at the time. Not in the ridiculous “no-go zone” sense that was tossed out by Fox News, of course! But there were plenty of sex shops and so forth, and we all got the general feeling of walking on the wild side by even being there. I imagine it has changed immensely.

    • Bonjour Betty. A lot of what you saw in the 80s is still there, at least around boulevard de Clichy or la place Pigalle. But even there, as I mentioned, things are changing fast. The most pleasant – and trendiest – part of Pigalle is the one I cover here, south of boulevard de Clichy. I hope you can return soon.

  3. The “macaroon” thing nearly killed me! Obviously this was the first visit to Paris that the reviewer wrote. I don’t get it. If people research their trips before visiting, they are aware that Pigalle, with the touristy “Moulin Rouge”, isn’t exactly l’avenue Foch. Although I don’t frequent the Pigalle area, I’ve driven by many times and find the area quite colorful. Besides, my Frenchman’s family had a huge apartment in the area. His grandfather’s studio had this amazing rounded window for a fantastic view of the neighborhood. I gotta go. I’m going to make a “banquette” to accompany those tasty “macaroons”!

    • Bonjour Cathe. I hope you are making a “BLANquette,” not a “banquette,” to accompany the macarons! ;-) Yes, it makes you wonder what people expect when they visit a big city’s Red Light district. And yes, preparation and research do pay off when traveling. Pigalle is changing fast, like many other neighborhoods in the northern sections of Paris. Good or bad thing? Only time will tell. Bonne semaine !

  4. What a lovely stroll. Good thing you got there before the Caliphate was created and they kicked out all those hipsters, bakers and poor innocent children. :D Seriously, even the most run-down parts of Paris have more charm and interesting architecture than many chain-store laden blocks in US cities.

  5. Hi Veronique. I am so glad you wrote about this today. I have been to Paris several times and have explored this area too, but not the same route as you (I will have to try this one). My friends and family ask frequently if I am afraid to go back and my answer remains the same…no. Just as I was beginning to waver I read you article….I may keep my plans and go this fall.

    • No wavering, Jeanne. Paris, even when under the threat of terrorist attacks, is still safer than many American cities. I am convinced of it! You should absolutely return this fall. With a bit of luck, I will be able to return before summer.

  6. What a delightful and fun post, an armchair trip to Paris! The pix are excellent, what a beautiful day when you were there. I’m ready to go!

  7. Veronique – love your opening line: “just to get their hands on the pretty round cookies with a name they can’t either pronounce or spell.”

    I can somehow understand why Amerlockes cannot pronounce macarons, but why oh why can’t we properly pronounce MOULIN?

    Seriously, all the actors of the film Moulin Rouge pronounced it as mouLON. Like jarDON? RoDON? GraTON? Aaargh!

  8. I haven’t wandered around Pigalle for a few years but I always found it to be a colourful, lively place but never threatening in any way. I had already decided that we should explore this area again before reading this post. One of the reasons was in fact a visit to Sébastien Gaudard as I have read so much about his wonderful creations (and you already know about my sweet tooth!) I’m sure I would enjoy that delightful tea room too and of course the museum itself!

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