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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”