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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It is not to say that the houses lack in exterior whimsy…
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.
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.
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.
Do you want to discover another village-like Parisian neighborhood? Visit la Butte aux Cailles with French Girl in Seattle.