Paris: They Say Paris Is for Lovers
Away from the paths trod by a million lovers, you may discover new ways to say ‘Paris, je t’aime’, writes Kate Hodal…
They say Paris is for lovers.
Well, maybe that’s the problem with Paris.
With all those googly-eyed people in love crowding the Champs-Elysées, proposing atop of the Eiffel Tower, and gazing at the sunset over the Seine, what are the rest of us supposed to do? With 30 million visitors a year, Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world. Sure, Paris might be the capital of fashion, romance, cuisine, and style, but what happens when you venture off the beaten path a bit?
You discover that Paris is bustling, vibrant, chaotic, and home to far more immigrants than you’d ever imagined.
However much the French would like to consider it as their own, Paris has always been a city of immigrants. Founded around 4200 BC by a Gaulic tribe called the Parisii, it’s since changed name (and back again) under the Romans, been invaded by the Germans, inspired Hemingway, Picasso, Stravinsky and Dali, and provided refuge to asylum seekers, political refugees and, even, the odd brokenhearted man whose marriage proposal in the City of Light was turned down.
The 10th Arrondissement
Just a stone’s throw from the well-groomed safety of Paris’s gaily exuberant Marais lies an incongruous home to Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. It’s not the calmest quartier in all of Paris – two railway stations, the Gare du Nord (the busiest in Europe) and the Gare de l’Est ensure constant visual, aural and frenetic activity – but it’s certainly not shabby. Flanked by the pretty Canal Saint-Martin, a mossy-green waterway, the 10th is one of the most densely populated (one out of three inhabitants here is an immigrant) but up-and-coming neighbourhoods, home to an interesting mélange of bars, restaurants, cafés, and shops that reflect the multiethnicity of its inhabitants.
Located on the corner of Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle and Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis and twinned with the Porte Saint-Martin, this ‘portal’ into the city now frames the southerly view of Rue St Denis’ sex shops, blow-up dolls and wide-shouldered bouncers. A wander north will lead you past cafés with their kebabs and hookahs, mosques calling for evening prayer, and offers on cheap phone calls to nearly any country you could imagine.
Turning right off of the Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis will lead you into a glass-ceilinged arcade packed with Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi cafés, restaurants and markets. They compete for your attention with their specials, but a few stand out in their service and attention to detail.
Where to shop: Velan, a supermarket specializing in traditional Indian fare (henna, incense, spices, shivas) and British-inspired items like Marmite and brown sauce, is owned by immigrants from Pondicherry, who settled in Paris during Partition. Prices are cheap and morale ishigh. (M: Strasbourg St Denis.)
Where to eat: Pooja, owned by an immigrant from Uttar Pradesh who learned his skill at the Sheraton in Delhi, specializes in biryani and isa favourite among local Indians. Menus from 7E50 to 26E.
Opened in 1825 as an artificial waterway to supply Paris with water, this Napoleonic legacy stretches from the northeast corner of the 10tharrondissement (M: Jaurès) to a couple of blocks east of République. Its wrought-iron bridges, endless locks (remember that scene inAmélie, when she skips stones on the canal? that was here) and wide promenades make the canal a great place to take a sunny stroll or a hot summer night.
Where to shop: Antoine et Lili, 95 quai de Valmy (M: Jacques-Bonsergent). This eclectic store – comprising a café, home and furniture shop and women’s clothing store – is tastefully but artfully decorated with items sourced from the owner’s travels to Latin America, Asia and Africa. This is the place to come if you’re looking for vases made from recycled tin, picture frames from old bike tyre, or glow-in-the-dark Virgin Marys.
Where to eat: Chez Prune, 36 rue Beaurepaire (M: Jacques-Bonsergent). A canal-side, art-deco space done up in a way that only a Parisian could imagine: cool green walls, retro clocks, fresh flowers, plates of saucisson et fromage, and it’s open until 2am. Great formeeting locals, popular at evenings, and just a short stumble down the canal to get you into central Paris.
The 18th and 19th Arrondissements
Famous for the Sacré Coeur basilica that towers over its cobbled lanes, the Moulin Rouge and the sex shops along Boulveard de Clichy, the18th arrondissement is also the place that most Maghreb and African immigrants call home. Always a working-class quartier, it once attracted peasants seeking industrial jobs in the 1840s; now those immigrants mostly speak French in Moroccan, Cameroonian and Senegalese-inflected French. Its next-door neighbour, the 19th quartier, is bisected by the Canal de l’Ourcq and Bassin de la Villette. Parts of it can be quite suburban and industrial – especially along the péripherique, the dual carriageway that surrounds Paris – but cafés along the Canal de l’Ourcq and the beautiful Parc des Buttes Chaumont more than make up for it.
As dawn breaks on Wednesday and Saturday mornings, vendors start rolling in their racks of clothing, bags of fresh fruits and veggies, crates of cheese, and buckets of flowers. This is the time when the pedestrian walkway beneath the Métro arches is turned into a mass of sellers, buyers, children and bargains. It’s the only time you’ll see women in traditional African dress bartering for lilies with a toothless man in Arabic. How it all works is anyone’s guess, but you’d have to be nuts to miss it. (M: Barbès).
Rue Goutte d’Or
Honoré de Balzac epitomized this little street in the 19th century with his tales of debauchery and drinking dens (‘Goutte d’Or’, or “golden drop”, was once a very popular white wine), and it would be safe to say that not much has changed since then. There are still bars aplenty, but they’re tempered in number by the street’s surrounding mosques and shops selling burqas, African textiles, saris and dashikis.
Where to buy: If you’re looking to tailor yourself a traditional African dress (and matching headdress), look no further than Newax Textiles, rue Richomme. The brightly coloured fabrics range in price from 15E to 100E for six yards.
Where to eat: Restaurant Chez Aida, rue Polonceau. This Senegalese restaurant serves traditional cooking – like yassa (chicken stewed with pimento, lemon and onion) and maffe (mutton in peanut sauce) – plus homemade palm wine. Expect to hear orders in Wolof and pay around 15E, with wine, per person.
Canal de l’Ourcq and Bassin de la Villette
Some locals say this is where the canal is prettiest: with wide, open spaces, few high-rises and nearly no traffic to disrupt the view, the Canal de l’Ourcq doesn’t attract as many tourists as its southerly counterpart, the Canal Saint Martin. Its cafés and shops offering bike or kayak rentals also offer an alternative to meandering up and down the pathways on foot. At the Bassin, a cinema on either side of the canal – plus two open-air cafés – make for some relaxing time in the sun.
What to do: If you’ve exhausted yourself by walking around all day, why not try a sauna or steambath at Hammam Medina Center, 43-45 rue Petit (M: Ourcq)? “Hammam” is an Arab word meaning ‘heat’, and that’s exactly what this gives you: at 40C, you can expect your body detoxed and your spirit purified. This medina smells of frankincense, is bejeweled in gorgeous Islamic tile, and offers a comfy robe, free tea and sweet cake with every entry. Facials, manicures and massage also offered. From 39E to 155E, depending on treatment.
Where to eat (and shop): Paris is known for combining disparate tastes into one (they, like, invented nouvelle cuisine), but bicycles and chocolates? Er, why not?. At Vélo et Chocolat, on 77 quai de la Seine (M: Crimée), you can sip an orange-infused hot chocolate while bartering over a second-hand bike to ride down the canal. Or, just have a croissant while they repair the one you’ve already busted (brunch from 10E, bikes from 199E).
Quickly becoming a Chinese and Vietnamese stronghold, Belleville effortlessly mixes Africans, Asians, the bleeding hearted (Amnesty International’s Paris office is based here) and artsy French people. It’s also a good place for daily fruit, veg and second-hand clothing markets, and to try out some phô, traditional Vietnamese soup.
Where to eat: Phô 27, at 27 blvd de la Villette, serves up traditional Viet food at reasonable prices, and is a favourite among locals. Menus from 8E90.
Where to shop: a daily marché, on blvd de la Villette, takes place on the sidewalk in between the two lanes of traffic (M: Belleville). Expect brassieres, fruit, books and second-hand shoes to take uncommon precedence.
Marché des Puces Saint-Ouen
It probably isn’t, but this flea market can feel like the biggest on the entire European continent. If you’re looking for retro Nikes, skinny jeans à la London style, a cheap (but real) leather jacket, or anything bad-ass and funky, this is the place to come. Open every weekend, Saint-Ouen can be a bartering hell: you might have to use your nails to prove just how much you want those vintage Vivienne Westwood heels… (M: Porte Saint-Ouen).
The 11th and 20th Arrondissements
Bastille has made the 11th arrondissement famous with its bars, shops and opera; but wander a bit more north, and you’ll find little alleyways teeming with students looking for a cheap but fun night out – and doing it Brazilian style. If you stay up late enough to catch the sunrise, saluting Jim Morisson’s grave at Cimitière Père-Lachaise – or wandering through the glorious Parc des Buttes Chaumont – is not a bad way to start the day.
Stretching downward from a hill that overlooks the eastern quartiers of Paris, rue Oberkampf plays host to artsy galleries, creperies, and Brazilian bars night after night. For a few years now, it’s been the place to see and be seen, and with happy hours cropping up at most of the bars, that doesn’t seem likely to change very soon.
Where to see: With school desks and chairs, open-plan seating, and chalkboard specials, La Mercerie is a homely, easy place for a beer and to watch people pass by. (98 rue Oberkampf, M: Menilmontant.)
Where to be seen: Bérim Bar, a Brazilian-infused place with a mural of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ Redeemer on the walls and caipirinhas (lime and sugarcane rum cocktails) to get you up and dancing to the samba on the sound system. The name is a play on words of the berimbau, a Brazilian instrument played during the martial arts practice of capoeira. (131 rue Oberkampf, M: Menilmontant). If Bérim Bar doesn’t tickle your fancy, there’s Cithéa Nova across the street, which often has live music, or Barracão just down the road.
Cimitère du Père-Lachaise
Reputed to be home to some of the most famous (dead) people in the world, Père Lachaise is loved for its cobble-stoned alleys and lipstick-stained kisses on Oscar Wilde’s Art Deco grave. It also houses the tombs of Molière, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Max Ernst, and Doors’ frontman Jim Morisson. (M: Gambetta, Père Lachaise or Philippe Auguste.)
Parc des Buttes Chaumont
Nestled atop Paris’s second-highest viewpoint (the first being the Sacré Coeur), the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is a welcome retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. Its Chinese gardens, wooden drawbridge, waterfall-spliced grotto, Corinthain-styled palace, and grassy knolls attract Parisians throughout the summer months and are a perfect place to prepare yourself for a walk down the nearby Canal de l’Ourcq. (M: Buttes Chaumont).