La Mouzaïa: Secret Paris

Mouzaïa. Here is an unusual name for an unusual Parisian neighborhood. If you think you know Paris; if you have visited the landmarks, the best museums, (large or small,) the iconic neighborhoods, this small corner of the French capital may still surprise you. La Mouzaïa has a rich history, born in the second half of the 19th century. It offers a picturesque atmosphere and absolute peace, a rare find in Paris these days. This is an authentic part of the city, where real Parisians live and work, fiercely protective of their privacy (they know they are lucky.) You may encounter some visitors strolling around on a Sunday afternoon, but you will not spot many tourists. So if you go, please remember, as my group and I did on a cold but sunny February afternoon, to be respectful of les riverains (residents.) Keep your voices low, and if you have to peek into their private space, do so discreetly.

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Villa Marceau (la Mouzaïa)

La Mouzaïa refers to a place French and Algerian troops fought over during the colonization of Algeria in the mid-19th century. It sits on a hill, in Belleville, on old gypsum quarries (carrières.) The quarries produced renowned plaster, shipped around the world, including the United States. Part of the neighborhood (and a local street) are still referred to as “les Carrières d’Amérique.” This was a working class neighborhood. Some of the old fabriques (factories,) remain.

Menuiserie (woodshop,) la Mouzaïa.
Menuiserie (woodshop,) la Mouzaïa.

The soil was fragile, and this protected la Mouzaïa from urban sprawl. Quarry workers needed places to live. In the 1880s, Architect Paul Casimir Fouquiau designed and built 250 identical homes, on a slope, minding the unstable ground: They had red brick façades, were two-story high, with a small narrow front door covered by a wrought-iron marquise (awning) overlooking a small courtyard or patio. In the summer, the scent of roses, jasmine, honeysuckle and lilacs filled the neighborhood. They still do today. La Mouzaïa homes are neatly lined in small private alleys, called villas, and branch off of la rue Mouzaïa. Some are dead-ends. All are peaceful. There are about 20 villas, and it is wise to pick and choose when you visit.

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La Mouzaïa neighborhood is a 20-minute walk from le Parc des Buttes Chaumont. I recommend doing both on the same day, because they were built in the late 19th century. Be aware les Buttes Chaumont are undergoing a major remodel. Some areas of the park (such as the Belvédère) were not accessible in February. It retains its unique charm, and is a classic example of the romantic parks Napoleon III and his team, Baron Haussmann, and Jean-Charles Alphand, developed in Paris during la Belle Epoque.

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If you do not want to walk from les Buttes Chaumont to la Mouzaïa, ride the Métro instead, Line 7bis, and exit at “Botzaris.” A stroll in the neighborhood takes you back to the days of the 3rd French Republic, streets named after prominent statesmen and artists (Félix Faure, Emile Loubet, Sadi-Carnot, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and more.) At a three-street intersection, we were reminded of the French Republican values: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. We could have easily missed the street signs. Once again, being aware of your surroundings and looking up tends to pay off while visiting Paris.

Rue de la Liberté intersects with rue de l'Egalité and rue de la Fraternité.
Rue de la Liberté intersects with rue de l’Egalité and rue de la Fraternité.

EgalitéFraternité

We noticed interesting details along the quiet, paved villas (alleys) lined with la Mouzaïa‘s houses: I was struck, once again, by the difference between French and North American homes. The French, who value privacy and safeguard their private sphere, always hide behind hedges, walls, or fences. In sharp contrast, suburban American homes seem to spill over into the street, sprawling lawns and interiors showcased for all to see.

Rowofhouses

It was fascinating to notice the small metal gates guarding each home from the stares of curious passers-by. They were anonymous, but it was obvious locals know each other, from the small note left on one of the doors.

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Privacy
“The door bell is broken, please call us.” (no phone number = no call)

It is not to say that the houses lack in exterior whimsy…

Whimsy
Creative container gardening

Colorful walls

Even if the weather was cold, we were happy to meet some of the felines the neighborhood is well-known for: les chats de la Mouzaïa. We saw two, who were playing in the trees in the absence of blackbirds, their favorite prey. They were friendly enough, teasing us, purring; but kept their distance, quickly retreating to the safety of the private courtyards when we tried to pet them.

Cats

There aren’t many cars in la Mouzaïa. What a relief! We spotted this French classic, a Peugeot 404, designed by an Italian in the 1960s, and a commercial success in my homeland until the mid-1970s.

Peugeot 404

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Alain Delon drove a 404 before meeting an untimely death in “Le Clan des Siciliens,” (the Sicilian Clan, 1969)

Bucolic, intimate, full of old-fashioned charm, la Mouzaïa neighborhood offers  – to those who venture off the Parisian beaten path – a chance to embark on a nostalgic trip back in time, and to get a glimpse at the populaire (working class) side of Paris.

A bientôt.

Further reading: 

Do you want to discover another village-like Parisian neighborhood? Visit la Butte aux Cailles with French Girl in Seattle.

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.

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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.

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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)

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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!

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

Paris for the people: Belleville and Menilmontant

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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From the Parc de Belleville

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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.

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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.

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Rue des Cascades

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La maison aux volets verts

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“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.

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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.”

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Place Maurice Chevalier, Ménilmontant.

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Place de Ménilmontant

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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.

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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.