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.
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.)
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!
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.
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!
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.
All photos by French Girl in Seattle. Do not use without permission.
Ménilmontant (written by Charles Trénet,) interpreted by Ray Ventura, 1941.