20th arrondissement: Where Paris keeps it real

For the last twenty years, I have had the luxury of being a tourist in the city I used to call home, Paris. Like a tourist, when I visit, I return to popular neighborhoods and landmarks, but my favorite times in the French capital are spent off the beaten path typically in the outskirts, like the 20th arrondissement. I am not the only one to like it there: Parisians and visitors alike flock to areas like the popular cemetery-turned-tourist-attraction, le Père Lachaise. Belleville, another part of the arrondissement, and its neighbor Ménilmontant, are also getting more attention and foot traffic these days. I wrote about them here. There is a lot more to the 20th arrondissement, however. When I arrived in Paris in June for a 2-day visit on my way back from Bordeaux and le Périgord, I did not have to think a long time to plan a fun day of exploring. Reasons I am attracted to that area of Paris? It is diverse, multi-ethnic, a mix of busy streets and peaceful, village-like corners, quaint and easy on the eyes in sections, covered in street art (or graffiti) in others, lively and quiet, gentrified and populaire (to honor its working class roots.) In short, one never knows what to expect at the next street corner. Many discoveries and rewards await visitors with an eye for detail and a willingness to explore.

20th arrondissement

There are different ways to approach the 20th arrondissement. That day, I arrived in the northern section, the unglamorous area near Porte de Bagnolet, a few minutes from le Périphérique (the beltway around downtown Paris.) La Place Edith Piaf is a good starting point. It was market day, and I could have witnessed the same scene all over France. I walked past the unremarkable statue dedicated to France’s beloved “Môme Piaf” (the Little Sparrow,) who was born in nearby Belleville. I headed uphill to la Campagne à Paris (the countryside in Paris.)

20th arrondissement

20th arrondissement
The Edith Piaf Legend lives on!
20th arrondissement
rue Père Prosper Enfantin (quartier Saint Fargeau)

Isn’t it ironic how much I – and others – enjoy spending time in Parisian neighborhoods that make you feel like you are no longer in Paris? La Campagne à Paris is one of them. Welcome to Happy Few central! At the turn of the 20th century, this housing development (about 90 homes total,) was built for working-class families, on a former quarry. If you enjoy quaint pavillons (detached homes,) tucked away behind romantic hedges, their façades covered in ivy, wisteria and jasmine, glass and steel marquises (marquees) hanging above their front doors, you have arrived. Follow streets Père Prosper Enfantin, Irénée Blanc, Mondonville, and Jules Siegfried, as they meander around a couple of peaceful blocks. Vive la vie en province! 

20th arrondissement
La Campagne à Paris (20th arrondissement)

20th arrondissement

20th arrondissement

After la Campagne à Paris, any street is going to appear crowded and loud. I headed west, first exploring the area south of la rue de Ménilmontant, (one of the 20th arrondissement’s lifelines.) I walked past l’Hôpital Tenon and modern buildings, through real neighborhoods, where real people live, a far cry from elegant, iconic, grandiose Paris, found on the Right Bank along the Seine river. Turning left, then right, without any particular purpose, I enjoyed this multi-faceted stroll.

20th arrondissement

20th arrondissement

20th arrondissement

The closer I got to Belleville, along la rue de Ménilmontant, the more street art I noticed. It was easy to miss at times, high up on facades, above the street.

There was more: What a feast for the eyes, for this urban walk lover!

20th arrondissement
Café La Laverie (the Laundromat)
20th arrondissement
Cité de l’Ermitage
20th arrondissement
Place du Guignier
20th arrondissement
Bonjour gentrification! (Flakes Cereal Bar)

As I approached rue d’Eupatoria and Notre-Dame de la Croix, I knew I had reached the western limits of the 20th arrondissement, and I would soon hit busy boulevard de Belleville. Sidewalks were packed. Cars and scooters rushed by. I looked back one last time, up la rue de Ménilmontant, then took out a metro ticket and disappeared underground. I was on my way to an apéro with a friend, in my old neighborhood, the 11th arrondissement, just a few stops away on line 2.

20th arrondissement
Notre-Dame de la Croix

A bientôt.

 

All photos by French Girl in Seattle. Do not use without permission.

 

Ménilmontant (written by Charles Trénet,) interpreted by Ray Ventura, 1941.

Village de Charonne, Paris, 20ème arr.

An Emperor’s dream

Le Village de Charonne and other Paris villages almost disappeared when Napoleon III, who had a grand vision for the French capital, annexed suburbs around Paris. These communities had until then led peaceful, pastoral lives outside the old city walls, the Enceinte des Fermiers Généraux (the Farmers General wall.) Baron Haussmann (in charge of carrying out the Emperor’s dream,) needed extra land to create the large avenues, parks and boulevards that would become his signature style. He got it after Napoleon III signed the Decree of Annexation in 1859.

160 years ago, 500,000 people previously living in the suburbs became Parisians overnight. It took a while for many to recover and adjust. The “Grand Paris” (No, the current city mayor Anne Hidalgo did not invent the concept!) was launched. The city was organized in 20 arrondissements, now sprawling all the way to the other wall, the Thiers Wall, built in the early 19th century. Taxes previously levied within the Farmers General wall were extended to the new neighborhoods within the Thiers wall, a very beneficial move for the authorities. Thus started a major exodus out of the French capital when newly-minted Parisians (many from the working classes,) could not afford to remain in the city. Napoleon III was about to create the modern, beautiful capital that (he hoped) would finally eclipse London.

village de Charonne

Irresistible “village Paris”

I have always been fond of the 2-digit arrondissements, as a local, when I lived here for a decade until I relocated to Seattle, and later as a visitor, during my American years. To me, a perfect day in Paris often involves quiet, quaint, village-like neighborhoods instead of the crowded, or more elegant areas along the Seine river downtown. I live off la Petite Ceinture, at the intersection of Vincennes, St Mandé and Montreuil, by choice. My preference for authentic, small-scale Paris is reflected in stories written on this blog over the years. From Belleville to Montmartre, from Auteuil, to Passy, les Batignolles, la Butte aux Cailles, la Mouzaïa, or la Campagne à Paris, I enjoy exploring many of the former Paris villages (and smaller neighborhoods) and often bring my readers along. I still remember when hardly anyone visited them. Before gentrification set in, parts of these out-of-the-way neighborhoods were a bit rough around the edges; and that kept many tourists (and a few Parisians too!) at bay. Everything’s changed. I hear English (and other languages) spoken along some of these streets. I see photos of la Butte aux Cailles, la Cité Fleurie or le parc de Belleville on Instagram daily. I hope that before packing their camera, visitors dig a little deeper and take the time to discover the stories that make these corners of Paris so unique.

village de Charonne

Le Village de Charonne

No wonder I like it so much here: le village de Charonne could be anywhere en province. In the heart of the old village, there’s a church, Saint-Germain de Charonne, towering over a small square, la place St Blaise. It sits on the site of an old chapel built in the 9th century. A local legend claims that a long time ago, Saint Germain, the bishop of Auxerre, Burgundy, met a young girl nearby. Her name was Geneviève. She came from Nanterre, west of downtown, and later became the patron saint of Paris. A painting inside immortalizes the scene. One of the last Parisian parish cemeteries sits behind the church. You may recognize a few names on gravestones even if most did not make the international Hall of Fame.

Saint Blaise: Welcome to the neighborhood!

In the village de Charonne, vignerons (wine makers,) maraîchers (vegetable and fruit growers) petits métiers (tradespeople) are long gone, as are fields and vineyards. Wine was once plentiful here, and until the annexation, so much cheaper than in heavily-taxed Paris, on the other side of the Farmers General wall! There were lively guinguettes, where local factory workers and craftsmen rubbed shoulders and enjoyed a bit of fun on Sundays. Today, pedestrian-friendly rue St Blaise, once the neighborhood’s lifeline, still winds down the hill, lined with boulangeries, restaurants and bars, revealing courtyards, small alleyways, rows of modest low houses, (former blue collar workers’ homes,) to the curiosity-driven visitor’s eye. As befits small town life en province, a lull falls on the street in the early afternoon, after the lunch crowd has left.

Disclaimer. The challenge when visiting Charonne, is to ignore what is around the village: high rises, loud streets, cars, in short, modern day Paris. It’s worth it, however. Walk across pretty place des Grès, with its fountain and café to reach le square des Grès, named after an old cobble stone depot. You will find honeysuckle, wisteria, climbing roses, and a playground where local children come after school. You will also see nearby high rises. Block them out, as I did, and as locals likely do.

More village de Charonne exploration

Le village de Charonne once had a train station. It sat along la Petite Ceinture, the circular railway that used to go around Paris from the late 19th century to the 1930s. The train station was rehabilitated into a café with live music, la Flèche d’Or, for a while, but it is empty once again. What will it be next?

Le village de Charonne has a giant salamander climbing alongside a tall building… and a plaque honoring a notorious former resident, the late Barbara.

At the end of a quiet street where elementary school children can be heard playing during recess (or summer camp,) le village de Charonne has a large garden, le Jardin Naturel, promoting biodiversity in Ile-de-France. On a hot day, it provides welcome shade and a chance to sit on a bench in a peaceful environment. There’s more: the park sits below the Père Lachaise cemetery. Visitors can see the top of ornate graves peeking above a high wall. At the end of the garden, an arched passageway and a few stairs leads into the cemetery.

Charonne has a lot to offer and in spite of its busy surroundings, manages to retain charm and authenticity. A few days after I took these photos in July, I showed a couple of clients around le village de Charonne and the 20th arrondissement. Their request when they contacted me: “We know Paris well. Surprise us.” — Mission accepted… and accomplished. When touring season wraps up, and I return to l’Ile de France, I will be looking forward to bringing more visitors to this special corner of the French capital. I may introduce them to some of the characters who lived there a long time ago, when the small village de Charonne was not part of Paris (quite happily so.)

A bientôt.

Additional material: Charonne in the 1970s

Here’s an interesting documentary filmed more than 40 years ago. Locals in Charonne (who all knew each other,) were getting ready to fight for the preservation of their village, as modern buildings and high-rises started to encircle them, and riverains were moving away. They were right to worry: We all know some of the eyesores 1960s and 1970s urbanism efforts spawned in downtown Paris. Fortunately, they persevered and were successful in preserving not only buildings and streets, but also a community feeling that still survives today. (in French)

village de Charonne
Outside a local elementary school, parents protest recent education reforms and the closing of local schools (July 2019)

How to get to le village de Charonne

Le Village de Charonne is located between the Père Lachaise cemetery and the Porte de Montreuil, from boulevard de Charonne to boulevard Davoud. It takes the good part of a day (with a sit-down lunch) to explore all the hidden corners of the neighborhood. I have only shown a few here. We, tour guides, like to keep a few secrets! 😉 Bonne visite!

village Paris
Once upon a time, rue St Blaise, village de Charonne

Paris for the people: Belleville and Menilmontant

belleville and menilmontant
rue Laurence Savart, Ménilmontant, 20th arr.

Bienvenue à Belleville and Menilmontant. Once located outside the Paris city limits, these neighborhoods, like la Butte aux Cailles, les Batignolles, or Montmartre, were annexed after 1860 when Napoleon III and his wingman, Baron Haussmann, undertook the 20-year “remodel” that would give birth to the modern city we all know and love today. Of all the former villages of Paris, I like this area the most. Is it because it is located on a hill, with sweeping views of the French capital, like its neighbor Montmartre? Is it because Belleville and Menilmontant (once nicknamed Ménilmuche by locals,) were true quartiers populaires with working class roots, and a long tradition of welcoming and integrating those who needed a fresh start? Is it because the area is still largely ignored by tourists, lively, diverse and authentic in sections (along la rue de Belleville,) quaint, peaceful, and village-like in others? Is it because so many talented performers who are an integral part of the French cultural landscape were born and raised in Belleville and Menilmontant‘s streets (Can-can dancer Jane Avril, Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Eddy Mitchell to name just a few,) and others performed in movies filmed in the area (Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani in Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or?)

Maybe all of of the above.

Belleville and Menilmontant
Rue de Belleville

Belleville and Menilmontant
Aux Folies, once part of a guinguette, then a café-concert hall, still has a popular terrace day and night.

Belleville is a very large area by Parisian standards and straddles four arrondissements (the 19th and 20th in its upper section, the 10th and 11th at its lower end.) Even if several Metro stations stop there, it is best explored on foot, as one might expect when visiting Paris. When you exit the Metro on boulevard de Belleville (Metro Couronnes or Belleville,) it is a fairly long climb to the top of the hill along rue de Belleville. If you arrive on a Tuesday or Friday morning, you will get to enjoy the bustling Belleville market. As you walk your way uphill, along rue de Belleville and in nearby streets, you will spot Chinese eateries, traditional cafés, new coffee shops patronized by hipsters and young professionals, boulangeries, multi-ethnic restaurants honoring the diverse roots of the neighborhood (Jewish, Spanish, African, Algerian, Tunisian, Asian and more,) complete with Frenchified Tacos and Burger joints (gentrification is alive and well in many Parisian arrondissements.) Artists have always loved it here. Street art is ubiquitous, like in the endangered rue Denoyez, where graffiti is legal and used as a powerful form of expression. Sadly, even in unapologetically leftist neighborhoods like Belleville and Menilmontant, with a long tradition of social unrest and resistance (during the violent Commune uprising in the 1870s, residents fought long and hard against the Versailles army, and their barricades were the last ones to fall,) real estate developers may win and tear down la rue Denoyez soon in spite of residents’ efforts to save it.

belleville and menilmontant
“New” coffee shops in the “new” Paris. (FGIS udpate: June 2018. Cream is now closed.) 

Belleville and Menilmontant
Graffiti, rue Dénoyez

In les Hauts de Belleville (the upper section of the neighborhood,) A popular place to explore is le Parc de Belleville, a far cry from the classical Parc des Buttes Chaumont or the elegant downtown parks, le Luxembourg and les Tuileries. It’s still new (1982,) it’s modern, and, like Montmartre, it offers sweeping views of the French capital, but without the crowds.

Belleville and Menilmontant
From the Parc de Belleville

belleville and menilmontant
From the Parc de Belleville: Tour Montparnasse, Notre-Dame, and Musée Georges Pompidou (Beaubourg)

Belleville and Menilmontant
Détente au Parc de Belleville

A vineyard reminds visitors of Belleville‘s past as a major wine producer. Way back when, Belleville was an independent hilltop village surrounded by vineyards, orchards, and gardens. On Sundays, local guinguettes provided cheap entertainment and welcomed workers and artists.

belleville and menilmontant
In the tradition of yesteryear’s Guinguettes: Le Vieux Belleville, “restaurant musette

Today, artists are still there, working in their ateliers (workshops,) tucked away in narrow alleys and courtyards, out of sight. Every year, for a few days during the Portes Ouvertes event in May, studios open to the public, and entrance is free. Hip bars have replaced the old guinguettes; but la Bellevilloise multidisciplinary arts centre, technically located in Ménilmontant, ensures a thriving vie de quartier (neighborhood life.) A historical building and a former worker co-op, it was fully renovated in 2005 and turned into a multi-cultural performance center, complete with a restaurant, exhibit hall, a childcare center, and a library.

belleville and menilmontant

If Belleville was once a village, Ménilmontant, its neighbor, was barely a hamlet, perched on a hill. Land was fertile, and access to spring water plentiful. In the 12th century, Religious orders who owned the land quickly understood there was an opportunity to supply downtown Paris with water (a vast improvement over the dirty, unsanitary Seine river routinely used by Parisians.) An aqueduct and underground pipelines were built. Belleville and Ménilmontant would supply the Right Bank with water for over five centuries. Many Ménilmontant street names today remind residents and visitors of this utilitarian past.

Belleville and Menilmontant
Rue des Cascades (Waterfalls street)

On a cold but sunny winter day during the Holidays, a friend and I strolled through the heart of the 20th arrondissement, in the area north of le Parc de Belleville, and west of lively rue de Ménilmontant. Starting rue des Envierges, outside le Parc de Belleville, we took a trip back in time as we explored the cobbled streets, pausing to take photos of quaint homes, peaceful streets and their four-legged residents.

belleville and menilmontant
Rue des Cascades

belleville and menilmontant
La maison aux volets verts

belleville and menilmontant
“Bonjour, le chat de Ménilmontant!” (Photo Peter Olson)

If downtown Paris has beautiful covered passages, like Galerie Vivienne or Galerie Jouffroy, Ménilmontant does them a bit differently: Passages and Cités are hidden pathways with small houses tucked away behind metal gates. These developments were built in the late 19th century for blue-collar workers. They can be found in many Parisian neighborhoods such as la Mouzaia, another favorite of mine.

belleville and menilmontant
Cité Leroy

belleville and menilmontant
Cité de l’Ermitage

Back to lively rue de Ménilmontant, the neighborhood’s lifeline, I could almost hear Maurice Chevalier’s voice and pictured him walking down the long street, whistling a favorite song, his famous canotier (straw hat) cheekily tilted to the side. In spite of cars and motorcycles zooming by, and pedestrians chatting away on their cell phones, I could see why so many people have chosen Ménilmontant as their quartier (neighborhood) for so many years. If you look closely, you realize how special it must be to live so close to downtown Paris, while enjoying the perks of residing dans le village de “Ménilmuche.”

belleville and menilmontant
Place Maurice Chevalier, Ménilmontant.

belleville and menilmontant
Place de Ménilmontant

belleville and menilmontant
Notre-Dame de la Croix de Ménilmontant

A bientôt.

All photos unless otherwise noted by French Girl in Seattle

Please do not use without permission.

More Belleville and Ménilmontant: 

Charles Trénet sings “Ménilmontant” (1939)

Casque d’Or, the movie, was filmed in a house located rue des Cascades, featured in this story. Here’s an excerpt from the movie, when Simone Signoret and Serge Reggiani’s characters meet in a “guinguette.”

Paris in the winter

A French native and former Paris resident, I often get asked: When is the best time to go to Paris? Spring, summer and fall all offer perks. The Holiday season is a special time. Yet, after each of my visits, I am reminded of a valuable lesson: Paris is a great city year round.

Paris in the winter
Maison Fournaise. La Seine. Seen from Rueil Malmaison.

Look at this photo. This is Paris in the winter as many people describe her: Slate gray skies. Short days. Perpetually rainy weather. Chilly temperatures. Now look closer. Notice the light, the sky, low and soft, the peaceful surroundings. Notice the beautiful reflections in the Seine river. History is still there, all around you. Do you see it now? This is the mythical Maison Fournaise restaurant, and its famed terrace, immortalized by Auguste Renoir and his friends. For several years, as an adopted Parisienne, I was lucky to enjoy this view from my office window.

Do not discount Paris in the winter. Even after she has shed her spectacular Holiday lights, January and February offer many surprises to those who take the time to slow down and look. Of course, you will follow locals’ example and spend more time indoors. After hours of walking, you will welcome the chance to warm up with hot chocolate, or a cup of tea at a local café or tea room.

Paris in the winter
Le Loir dans la Théière, rue des Rosiers.

You will visit museums, and exhibits.

Marmottan-Monet museum, 16th arrondissement
Marmottan-Monet museum, 16th arrondissement.

Keep in mind that Paris awaits outside, as beautiful and mesmerizing in the winter as she is in the summer months – minus the crowds.

Paris in the winter
An empty [heated] café terrace.

EmptyRuedesRosiers
An unusually quiet rue des Rosiers (Le Marais.)

It is easy to forget that Paris has great bones when she is wrapped in summer foliage. The temptation, then, in the shadow of the trees, is to look around, more than to look up. In the winter, your eyes focus more easily on the elegant façades, the architectural feats, and the details.

Paris in the winter
Peeking through the trees in the Haut Marais, 3rd arrondissement.

Paris in the winter
Square du Temple, Haut Marais.

Paris in the winter
Mouzaïa neighborhood, 19th arrondissement.

How fun to return to summertime favorites and discover them dressed in their winter attire!

Paris in the winter
Reflections at Parc de Bercy, 12th arrondissement.

Paris in the winter
Parc de Bercy: Maison du Jardinage, Vineyard.

Place des Vosges
Place des Vosges.

Paris in the winter
Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

In the summer, Parisians take the sun and heat for granted. In the winter, they live for those precious moments when the clouds part; and the sunlight wraps them up, bringing some warmth, revealing colors and shadows.

Sun and shadows at le Palais Royal, 1st arrondissement
Sun and shadows at le Palais Royal, 1st arrondissement

Paris in the winter
A bench with a view. Parc des Buttes Chaumont

Sun break. Place de la Bourse, 2nd arrondissement
Sun break. Place de la Bourse, 2nd arrondissement

Then there is the rain. Like most Parisians, I used to hate it, as I commuted to work. I would overhear tourists rhapsodize about it. I did not get it, but I do now. Paris in the rain glistens. Paris in the winter shines. Forget pollution and filth: The rain magically washes it all away, revealing those great bones, that once immaculate complexion.

Paris in the winter
Fontaine Wallace. Parc de Belleville. 20th arrondissement.

Paris in the winter
Rainy day. Belleville (20th arrondissement.)

Let’s give credit to Paris: The city makes even the rain feel special (if not downright romantic, according to some.) And so rainy Paris continues to inspire visitors and artists, old and new.

Paris street; Rainy day. (Gustave Caillebotte)
Paris street; Rainy day. (Gustave Caillebotte)

To quote Gabrielle (Léa Seydoux,) in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris: “Actually, Paris is the most beautiful in the rain.” 

A bientôt.

 

Le Canal Saint Martin and beyond

In the heart of Paris’s trendy 10th arrondissement lies the peaceful and atmospheric Canal Saint Martin. Unlike some of the eateries, cafés and boutiques in the neighborhood, the canal has been there for a very long time. In the early 19th century, Napoleon I, who was as much a skilled administrator as he was a military man avid for conquest, planned for a canal network to bring drinking water to the French capital. Some of these canals, (Canal de l’Ourcq, Canal St Martin,) were connected to the Seine river and two large ports, that have evolved but still exist today, le Bassin de la Villette (located north, in the 19th arrondissement,) and le Port de l’Arsenal, by la Bastille (11th arrondissement.) Life was busy in the industrial areal along the canals, where boats delivered merchandise later stored in giant warehouses.

canal saint martin
(WIkipedia Commons)

Few tourists ventured along le Canal Saint Martin in the 20th century, even if it was featured in a few movies, including Marcel Carmé‘s iconic Hôtel du Nord, in 1938. By 2001, in Jean-Pierre Jeunet‘s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain (Amelie,) Audrey Tautou famously threw rocks in the murky water of the canal. By then, a lot had changed in the neighborhood, and le Canal St Martin had stepped into the {Parisian} limelight.

Canal Saint Martin
Hôtel du Nord (1938) Amelie (2001) Photo: Canauxrama

The banks of le Canal Saint Martin were rehabilitated in the early 1990s. On its way to the Seine river, it disappeared underground near la Bastille and le port de l’Arsenal as small public gardens and avenues were built above it. The old waterway became a protected Historical Monument of France in 1993. Over the next 20 years, the neighborhood would morph into one of the trendiest, most popular strolling grounds in Paris, favored by locals and out-of-town visitors alike. Who has not walked the atmospheric canal banks in the shade of the plane trees? Who has not enjoyed an improvised picnic on a sunny day; or sat at one of the many café terraces?

Canal Saint Martin

Canal Saint Martin

Canal Saint Martin

It is so pretty by the water, in spite of traffic zooming by on either side, along le quai de Jemmapes and le quai de Valmy. Is it the cast-iron footbridges, evocative of a different time? Is it the old locks (some still manually operated) providing entertainment as small pleasure boats (or one of two professional boat tour lines) tie up and wait their turn to move along the canal? Visitors and birds pause and watch. One thing is for certain: We are far, far, away from the commotion in downtown Paris.

Canal St Martin

Canal St Martin

Canal Saint Martin
La Mouette (seagull)

At night, the magic still operates.

Canal Saint Martin

My brother’s office is nearby, and I come and meet him for lunch whenever I am in town. I have seen the neighborhood change over the years, and feel connected to it, even if live 8,000 miles away. So much has happened in this area, especially in the last few years, with the Charlie Hebdo terror attack in the 11th arrondissement, or the November 2015 attacks, when people died at several locations, including the terrace of la Bonne Bière, my brother’s cantine (favorite lunch place.)

le Canal Saint Martin

Canal Saint Martin
A la Bonne Bière: l’ardoise

Canal Saint Martin
Fluctuat Nec Mergitur

Not all landmarks are sad ones. A walk along le Canal Saint Martin, for this French Girl, always includes a few favorite sights and stops.

Canal Saint Martin
The colorful façades of Antoine et Lili

canal saint martin
Invest in Made in France goods and indulge your inner Bobo (bourgeois-bohême)

All my trips to Antoine et Lili end like this…

Canal Saint Martin

Canal Saint Martin
Yes, this is the hotel featured in that old movie!

Canal Saint Martin
Paris-“Plage?”

Been there, done that,” you say? Have you actually walked the whole length of le Canal Saint Martin (or at least the section above ground,) as the waterway makes its way north towards le Bassin de la Villette? Forget the crowded Seine river banks on hot summer days. This is the place to be! The old port is the largest artificial lake in Paris. Long gone are warehouses, and the sounds and smells of the once popular Paris livestock market. Instead, you will find détente, (relaxation,) culture (a movie theater, barges hosting exhibits, cafés and even a bookstore,) pétanque games, a brand-new swimming area (inaugurated in 2017,) kayak, pedal and electric boat rentals. In short, heaven.

Once you have crossed the busy place Stalingrad, you will spot la Rotonde de la Villette, a historical building now housing a restaurant. Félicitations: You have arrived. Bienvenue dans le 19è. arrondissement !

Canal Saint Martin
Rotonde Nicolas Ledoux

Canal Saint Martin
Bassin de La Villette. The old, and the new.

Canal Saint Martin

On a hot day, sit down and enjoy a refreshing drink at le Pavillon des Canaux, an old house with a beautiful terrace overlooking the basin; or head over to the Paname Brewing Company, located in a former granary, to sample microbrews “made in Paris,” and unbeatable views of le Bassin de la Villette.

Canal Saint Martin
Maison des Canaux

Canal Saint Martin
From the terrace of the Paname Brewing Company: Thé glacé maison

The best thing about le Bassin de la Villette? It is easily accessible with public transportation. It is only a short walk away from other local attractions, le Parc des Buttes Chaumont, or le Parc de la Villette, site of the former slaughterhouses of Paris. Canal boat tours will take you there if you let them: You can explore la Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie, watch outdoor movies in the summer (or spectacular shows at la Géode year round.)

Next time you stroll by le Canal Saint Martin, keep in mind there is a lot more to see along its banks than meets the eye. Who knows? You might end up spending a whole day there, by the water, where life is good, relaxing and… civilized.

A bientôt.

 

Dear readers:

The French Girl in Seattle blog has just turned 7 and will be getting a new look in 2018! If you enjoy looking at France and all things French through the eyes of this French native, consider signing up for la Mailing List (on this page,) to receive new stories first via email, or join me daily on Instagram (@Frenchgirlinseattle)

With gratitude, FGIS

All photos by French Girl in Seattle. Please do not use text or images without permission. 

 

Canal Saint Martin

 

Additional resources:

Marin d’Eau Douce. Bassin de la Villette Boat and gear rental.

Swimming in le Bassin de la Villette: C’est possible! Story is here.

 

 

 

The extraordinary life of Josephine Baker

Last week, as I was discussing our European summer travels with a girlfriend, she asked: “What was your favorite part of the trip?” What a difficult question to answer. We covered so much ground, saw so many people, had so many adventures. Then I reflected a bit longer, and a special moment came to mind, the day I finally got to visit Josephine Baker‘s former home, le Château des Milandes, in le Périgord where we spent a few days on our way to Spain.

To many in the United States, Josephine Baker‘s name is familiar, but they can’t quite place her. Quel dommage! In France, 36 years after her death, “La Baker” [La Bah-kair] has not been forgotten.

She was born Freda Josephine Mc Donald, a poor black child from St Louis, MO. She survived the 1917 racial riots but they made a strong impression on her. Finally, at age thirteen, Josephine ran away from home. She liked dancing, and a few months later, she became a Vaudeville performer at the Plantation Club in Harlem. These were exciting times (the “Harlem Renaissance”) in this predominantly-black neighborhood of New York city. Young Josephine later joined popular Broadway revues where she quickly drew attention and positive reviews for her dancing skills, enthusiasm and her comedic talent. Josephine wanted more.

In October 1925, she arrived in Paris where once again, her energy, unique personality and infectious enthusiasm got attention. Her big breakthrough came with a part in La Revue Nègre, a jazz show. Josephine performed several acts including La Danse Sauvage (the Wild Dance). She was exotic, sensual, and performed half-naked in a feathered skirt. These were the Roaring Twenties, and the integrated Paris society loved her. The famous cabaret Les Folies Bergère became her step stone to fame. She starred in a new act where she performed naked (in her iconic costume of 16 bananas strung into a skirt.) By the late 1920s, she had become a major celebrity all over Europe where she was the highest-grossing (and most photographed) artist. In the early 1930s, she was the first African American female to star in major motion pictures. Along the way, Josephine worked hard at developing her considerable talents. Her singing voice, stage and public persona evolved over time as she became one of the 20th century most revered entertainers.

The Jazz Age: Energetic and goofy performances in the early years
Her Parisian breakthrough show
Josephine, in the iconic “banana skirt”
A stylish star
“Toast of Paris”
“La Baker”- a true star!

Josephine never forgot her humble beginnings but by the mid-1930s, she was a very wealthy woman, and she spent lavishly, on clothes, jewelry and, as an animal lover, on pets. She visited and fell in love with a run-down property in the heart of the Périgord region of France, les Milandes. One can only imagine what the place meant to the poor, illegitimate street child who had left the slums of St Louis so many years ago.

Les Milandes, Castelnaud-la-Chapelle


One of Josephine’s greatest disappointments came in 1935-1936 when she visited the United States and starred in the Ziegfield Follies. American audiences were not receptive to the idea of a black woman with so much wealth and power. The show drew negative reviews and Josephine was replaced after a few performances. The New York time called her “the Negro Wench.” Devastated, Josephine returned to Europe where she married a Frenchman (her third husband) and became a French citizen.

“It [the Eiffel Tower] looked very different from the Statue of Liberty, but what did that matter? What was the good of having the statue without the liberty, the freedom to go where one chose, if one was held back by one’s color? No, I preferred the Eiffel Tower, which made no promises.”
— Josephine Baker

Josephine was determined to give back to France, her adoptive country. She detested Hitler and his ideology (she was black; her husband was Jewish.) After World War II started and part of the country was occupied by German troops, she volunteered to help the Free French Forces (led by General Charles de Gaulle from London) and took enormous risks throughout the war. She worked as a Red Cross nurse, raised money, entertained troops in North Africa. She hid Jewish refugees and weapons in her castle. She also worked as a spy and an underground courrier for the French Resistance (hiding secret messages in her band’s music sheets.) After the war, she was awarded several distinctions including the prestigious Legion of Honor.

Immortalized by the Harcourt photo studio

Josephine lived to defend causes she believed in. She fought against racism all her life. She married her fourth husband, Joe Bouillon, at Les Milandes after the war. Together, they started adopting orphan children from all over the world (Josephine was never able to have children of her own and gave birth to a stillborn child during the war.) Overtime, the family grew to include ten boys and two girls. Josephine loved her “Tribu arc-en-ciel” (Rainbow Tribe) and was a devoted mom to her children. She showcased her family at les Milandes to advocate tolerance and brotherly love. Thanks to her considerable fortune, Josephine created a theme park around the castle, complete with a nightclub (where she performed on occasion,) a hotel, a J-shaped pool, an experimental farm, and the replica of an African village. She named her magic kingdom: “Le Village du Monde” (the World’s Village.)

Move over, Angelina Jolie!
Josephine and her “Rainbow Tribe”
A devoted mom to her 12 children
Happiness at “Les Milandes”

Josephine’s World Village was the Perigord’s leading tourist attraction for many years.

When Josephine left Les Milandes and ventured in the outside world to finance her project, she could see that racism was rampant. In the 1950s, she took another trip to the United States, and had a much-publicized altercation with the owner of the Stork Club in New York city where she had been refused service. Actress Grace Kelly was there that night, and she was outraged. She immediately left the club with her entourage, in support of Josephine. The incident (in spite of negative press articles later accusing her of communism and fascist sympathies) gave Josephine a lifelong friend, who would stay by her side until the end. In the next few months, Josephine launched in a crusade for racial equality and for the rest of her long career, refused to perform in clubs or theaters that were not fully integrated.

Grace and Josephine, lifelong friends:
the later years

Even though she was attached to France, she also worked with the NAACP and openly supported the American Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, during the famed March on Washington, she was the only woman invited to speak at the rally next to Martin Luther King. That day, she proudly wore her Free French uniform and decorations.

March on Washington, 1963
Salt and pepper. Just what it should be.
— Josephine Baker, looking over the crowd at the 1963 March on Washington

Josephine’s tumultuous life, excesses and extravagant spending started to take a toll on her health and her finances. “The World’s Village”, her children’s education and other humanitarian projects would soon bring her to financial ruin. Joe Bouillon, her husband, finally left her in 1964 but they remained friends. Her creditors were relentless. In her 60s, Josephine went back to the stage to try and save Les Milandes and her family. At sixty-two, she looked phenomenal and her voice was as powerful as ever. Her fans still remember her moving 1968 performances at the iconic Olympia theater in Paris. Unfortunately, students’ riots put an end to the show and it proved a financial disaster. In the following clip, she interprets “Quand je pense à ça,” (When I Think About That). In some videos, you can see tears running down her face as she sings.

Her many friends attempted to help. In April 1964, French actress and icon Brigitte Bardot, at the peak of her career, made a TV appearance to ask the French to help save Josephine and her family. They had never met. It took a lot for the famously reclusive French star to step out and speak on public television.

Brigitte Bardot, 1964 TV interview

In 1969, Les Milandes estate was sold for a fraction of its value. Josephine had lost. After sending her children away, she was evicted, but she refused to leave the castle. The pictures of an older, exhausted Josephine, sitting on her kitchen steps, surrounded by a few belongings,  are heartbreaking.

The end of Josephine’s dream

An indomitable spirit, Josephine regrouped. She was saved by her friend and patron, Princess Grace, who gave her a place to live and financed a come-back tour in 1975, “Joséphine à Bobino” (Josephine in Bobino.) The shows were sold out months in advance. “La Baker” was finally back in Paris, her beloved city, to commemorate her 50 years in show business. All of Josephine’s friends showed up on opening night. There were many étoiles (stars) in the audience, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Princess Grace, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, and Liza Minelli. Josephine was the brightest of them all. As always, she delighted audiences, singing classics:”J’ai Deux Amours” (I Have Two Loves), “Dans Mon Village” (In My Village), “Hello Dolly” and more. On opening night, the public gave Josephine a fifteen minute standing ovation.

The great comeback she deserved


Josephine was back at the top, where she belonged. In 1973, she was overjoyed when her comeback performance at New York’s Carnegie Hall was a success. For the first time since her humble beginnings in Harlem so many years ago, she felt welcome in her native land. The final curtain was about to fall. In April 1975, four days after her first Bobino performance in Paris, Josephine died in her sleep of an apparent cerebral hemorrhage. She was 68. I like to think that her big, generous heart finally went to rest. On the day of her funeral, thousands of people showed up to follow the hearse carrying her body through the streets of Paris, paralyzing traffic for hours. She was given full French military honors (the first American woman to ever receive them) and the ceremony was broadcast live on French television. Heads of state, celebrities, and anonymous fans joined her family and the entire “Rainbow Tribe”. In the days that followed, Princess Grace organized a funeral service in Monaco, where Josephine was finally laid to rest. That day, her sister declared:

There were three things that Josephine clearly loved. 
She loved her children first of all; she loved the theater; and she loved France.

The French have not forgotten “La Baker.” They flock to “Les Milandes” every year to discover Josephine’s former home. In Paris, many walking tours highlight “La Place Joséphine Baker” (Josephine Baker’s square) in the 14th Arrondissement. On the blue street sign, she is identified as a “Music hall artist; Sub-lieutenant of the Free French Forces; Philanthropist.” In the summer, Parisians take a swim in the beautiful Josephine Baker pool, by the Seine river.

Some of Josephine’s gorgeous dresses are displayed
at Les Milandes
Place Josephine Baker
Josephine Baker pool, Paris

It seems “La Baker” is still around, smiling that great big smile of hers. I envy those who knew her, and I will let Al Stewart wrap up this story for us:

“I was born too late to see Josephine Baker
Dancing in a Paris cabaret
Born too late to see Josephine Baker
She must have been great in her heyday.”


— A bientôt.

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