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.
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.
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.)
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)
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!