I once lived in the 11th arrondissement before it became trendy. My first place was a 270 sq. foot studio I rented rue Alexandre Dumas, for almost two years. It was cramped, dark and damp (the only window faced north.) It had no proper kitchen. Like an afterthought, a two-burner electric cooktop, small sink, and small fridge were tucked to the side of the short hallway connecting the front door to the main living area. A small bathroom with a narrow standing shower completed this attractive package. It was not much, but it was mine, as long as I came up with the rent money each month, my first taste of independence since I had lived on an American campus in Atlanta, GA, a few years earlier. I was already in my mid-20s then. It was not unusual for young Parisians to continue living at their parents’ because they couldn’t afford their own place. Things have not changed that much in the French capital I suspect. As an up-and-coming young executive working for American Express France, I loved my neighborhood, conveniently located near la place de la Nation, a public transportation hub, between two Metro stops, and a 10-minute walk away from a good friend’s apartment, rue de la Forge Royale. We worked together and commuted to Rueil Malmaison daily. I look back fondly on these years, the friendships I made at work, the paycheck that came in every month and was enough to go out, catch a movie or two, and enjoy lively dinners at small local restaurants several times a week. Life was busy but good, and everything seemed possible. In April, while vacationing in Paris, I returned to my old neighborhood, in the heart of an arrondissement that is now part of the so-called “New Paris,” to see what the fuss was about.
11th arrondissement: Orientation
Bordered by three of the French capital’s most well-known places (squares,) place de la Bastille, place de la République, place de la Nation, the 11th arrondissement has always been one of the most densely populated areas in Paris. It boasts a tumultuous history and remains quintessentially French. The storming of la Bastille in 1789, the Revolution of 1848, and the Commune uprising in 1871 (the 11th was one of the last neighborhoods to fall at the end of la Semaine Sanglante, the Bloody Week,) are only a few chapters of the area’s eventful past. Barricades have traditionally been part of the urban landscape in that section of the Right Bank, and even today, as many unsuspecting tourists find out, la Bastille remains a favorite location for demonstrations and marches. In Chapter 1 of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo writes about le Faubourg Saint Antoine, the lifeline, “(…) the old faubourg is a hero.” From the start, the 11th arrondissement was un quartier populaire, a working class neighborhood where real people lived, socialized and worked. It benefited from a special status granted by French kings whereby small trades would be allowed to develop there, without paying taxes. As early as the 15th century, the 11th arrondissement attracted artisans and craftsmen. When Parisians were looking for quality wood furniture, ceramics, porcelain, wall paper, marble, tile floors, they would head to la rue du Faubourg Saint Antoine. The area thrived in the 19th century, and when I moved to Paris in the mid-1980s, the lively street was still a big draw for anyone interested in buying quality furniture. My parents are very proud of the dining room set they bought there 30 years ago.
11th arrondissement: a modern-day stroll
That day, I arrived at la Bastille with le Métro, and started walking down le Faubourg Saint Antoine, a couple of hours before I was scheduled to meet an old/new friend, American expat and author Lisa Anselmo. Was I going to recognize the neighborhood, or had it been taken over by Parisian hipsters, their cutesy stores, new wave coffee shops and bars churning out Mojitos and Spritz?
Many of the old furniture stores were gone. I spotted a Starbucks and a local bagel store with a sense of humor (“Le Bagel, c’est très Brooklyn!”) During my walk, I noticed the ubiquitous hamburger on many café and bistro menus. L’apéro time has turned into les Heures Joyeuses, Happy Hour(s,) and food, still served en terrasse, “must” be presented pre-sliced and on a board. Other than that, same old, same old. The street is still as busy and as diverse as it always was, with locals chatting at a street corner on their way to la boulangerie, or outside their favorite café.
This famous Parisian outdoor market is actually located in the 12th arrondissement, yet I could not miss it: It’s just a few minutes away from le Faubourg Saint Antoine. This is not to say the 11th arrondissement does not have its own outdoor markets (check out le marché de Belleville or le marché de Charonne.) The old village-like atmosphere once prevalent in the neighborhood is still palpable there, especially off-season. Things get much busier in the summer months. There are three sections to this down-to-earth, affordable market, la rue d’Aligre, where stalls and stalls are lined up, (with a few interesting shops along the way,) la brocante, located on a small square at the end of the street, and finally the covered Marché Beauvau, first built in the 18th century, with more food merchants. This may come as a surprise to visitors who faithfully return to la rue Cler in the 7th arrondissement, but there are très authentiques market streets in Paris in just about every neighborhood. Le Marché d’Aligre stands apart. Food author and blogger David Lebovitz explains why in this article.
11th arrondissement: In a French Girl’s footsteps
After I left le Marché d’Aligre, I returned to le Faubourg Saint-Antoine and headed towards la Nation. There was no rush in spite of the final destination, and I took the time to indulge in a very Parisian flânerie along the way, stopping for a few photos, some lèche-vitrine, and a walk around my friend and former colleague’s old neighborhood (she now lives in London.) I took a short detour via rue de la Forge Royale, where she used to live, on to square Louis Majorelle, one of these peaceful public gardens you find by chance at a street corner, usually empty. I found examples of the 11th arrondissement’s old trades rue Saint Bernard, with Produits d’Antan, a store specializing in supplies for cabinetmakers and stone masons.
I kept walking along boulevard Saint Antoine, passing many familiar sights, cafés and restaurants, some quite renowned, along the way, until I reached la place de la Nation, and spotted the café where my friends and I used to meet before we embarked on Parisian adventures together.
At that point, I headed down another major thoroughfare, le boulevard Voltaire. It would take me to my old street, rue Alexandre Dumas, where I was scheduled to meet my lunch date. From the looks of it, it had not changed one bit, with stately buildings, a few storefronts, more cafés and restaurants and their terrasses.
After I watched school kids being picked up by their mothers for their daily two-hour lunch break, I decided to rest my feet and watched the world go by in this quartier I once called home.
Finally, it was time to meet my American friend Lisa, and in my old street, what a treat! She introduced me to a wonderful little restaurant, specializing in French-Japanese fusion cuisine. Le Sot L’y Laisse, is highly rated and filled in quickly at lunch time with habitués (regulars.) Lisa will likely get upset with me for mentioning it here, as there was not a tourist in sight, with the exception of this French Girl. Pardon, Lisa. Conversation was lively (Lisa and I are two cities girls at heart who share a passion for New York and Paris.) The food, artfully presented, was fresh and delicious. For those of you who don’t know, le sot l’y laisse refers to a tender part of the chicken, located right outside its… derrière. You’re welcome.
And so this day in my old stomping grounds (the section of the 11th arrondissement known as Sainte Marguerite,) wrapped up with a fun meal with a new Paris friend. She invited me to join her and other American expats at a meeting held in le Marais that afternoon. Right before we disappeared inside le Métro off boulevard Voltaire, I looked back quickly, and had a distinct feeling of déjà-vu.
Join a stroll around le marché d’Aligre, here.