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December 2001 - Paris' Hidden Treasure - The 20th Arrondissement (Part 2)

The Entrée to Black Paris team wishes you the happiest of holidays. Merry Christmas!

After having visited the southern half of the 20th arrondissement (see Paris Insights, September 2001), the northern half seems like another world. Extensive natural and man-made hills give the pedestrian a good workout, and visits to some of the most quaint and charming little neighborhoods in Paris are your reward for braving them. Evidence of the history of the former villages of Ménilmontant and Belleville lingers, including street names and some original architecture that evoke the era of the springs that once flowed there. And if you find yourself in the right quartier at the right time, you can feast upon freshly baked bread from the best boulangerie in Paris!

The boulevards Belleville and Ménilmontant that set the boundaries of the northern 20th to the west are named after two villages that were annexed by the city of Paris in 1860. Belleville was the more notorious of the two - it was one of two strongholds of the fierce Communards of 1871. Once a pleasant countryside endowed with natural water sources and vineyards, the Industrial Revolution so spoiled the area that only isolated pockets of private homes and gardens remain. Since then, Paris' native underprivileged and successive waves of immigrants have inhabited the arrondissement. This is especially evident when one walks up the boulevard de Belleville - Blacks, Arabs, Jews and Asians of various nationalities abound. And market days on the boulevard are nothing short of a multicultural wonder!

The western side of the arrondissement still harbors a few stone structures called regards that were used as control stations for the aqueducts built when water from this once fertile area was channeled downhill to serve the needs of Paris. It also boasts several tiny alleys and impasses that harbor individual homes or row houses behind stone walls clad with creeping vines and flowers. Several of its streets were used as locations for the Jacques Becker film Casque d'Or. Sweeping views of Paris from the terraced Parc de Belleville and the rue de Ménilmontant are reminders that this was once remote territory to which Parisians repaired to leave behind the doldrums of city life.

The Parc de Belleville is now home to a small, working vineyard called the Clos des Envierges. It was established in remembrance of the times when vineyards flourished on the hill and drinking establishments served the guinguet, or sour wine, that was produced from local grapes. The word guinguet was eventually used as the name of the bars and taverns themselves, and the area soon became renown for a lively tradition of drinking and debauchery. During the 19th century, the descent of drunken Mardi Gras revelers down the hill to Paris on the morning of Ash Wednesday became an annual event.

Ménilmontant, affectionately called Ménilmuche by its inhabitants, was never a true village in the administrative sense. Located between Belleville and the village of Charonne, its residents were considered to be less troublesome than their neighbors to the north. Maurice Chevalier, who was born in this hamlet only 28 years after its annexation by Paris, described it as "calm", "sweet" and "poetic". And much of that feeling remains today. Because there are few large businesses and tourist attractions here, local activities continue to center around neighborhood vendors and markets, the corner café, and artistic endeavors. The spirit of the village remains.

Ménilmuche is the home of the legendary boulangerie Ganachaud, found on the rue de Ménilmontant. The master baker has retired, but his successor continues the tradition of producing some thirty varieties of bread daily. Ganachaud's daughters have their own shop on the rue des Pyrénées near place Gambetta and are living up to the reputation of their father. They have experienced such great success that they have opened a kind of "baguette-to-go" counter to accommodate their faithful clientele. Judging by the number of people that you see walking in this neighborhood with bread tucked under their arms or in baskets of many shapes and sizes, these artisans are well appreciated!

Even more than in the southern part of the 20th, theaters and ateliers abound in the north. Near the Belleville cemetery, a theater called Théatre des Songes is tucked down an alleyway lined on one side by a vine-covered wall that encloses a private yard. (Unfortunately, across from the theater lies yet another of the construction sites that pock the surface of the hills of the 20th.) Farther south, on the same street on which Maurice Chevalier was born, a cultural space called the Théatre de Ménilmontant houses theater, dance, photography, music, and community activities. It owes its theatrical heritage to the Salesian order, which first founded a theater here in 1886.. Every year since 1932, the play entitled La Passion de Ménilmontant (which depicts the Passion of Christ) has been staged here, and the members of the cast are all residents of Ménilmontant.

In the southwest corner of the northern 20th, the whimsical appearance of the Vingtième Théatre on a small street south of rue de Ménilmontant give an eclectic touch to a neighborhood with an otherwise typical appearance. Just around the corner, a modern local community center presents theatrical productions as well. And the café-théâtre La Maroquinerie, located in what was once an old factory, lies just next door to a large center devoted to the art of African dance.

On the opposite side of the arrondissement, a housing development called La Campagne de Paris represents one of the most pleasantly surprising areas in Paris today. Built atop a manmade hill, this group of 89 single family row houses looks as though it came right out of one of the regentrified areas of a city in the northeast U.S. Three curved, narrow streets are lined with trees and each house boasts its own spray of flowers and verdure. The appearance of each facade is different due to the use of different kinds of brick, stone or paint, an architectural style antithetical to the Haussmannian model so common in many areas of Paris. The view of the lush gardens at the rear of the homes on one of the streets is so atypical of Paris that it is sure catch the stroller by surprise. What is most surprising about this small haven is that the neighborhood was initially developed as low-cost housing development.

Not far from here is place Gambetta, which can be considered the focal point of the 20th. Located at the junction of avenue Gambetta, rue des Pyrénées and rue Belgrand, it lies virtually in the center of the arrondissement. The Mairie is located here, Père Lachaise Cemetery is nearby, and the main thoroughfare of the arrondissement, rue des Pyrénées, is bissected here. A huge fountain in the roundabout has a contemporary sculpture that is illuminated at night giving the place a certain je ne sais quoi.

Shade trees are plentiful, especially along the main arteries intersecting the place. Dozens of restaurants can be found in the immediate vicinity, from traditional French bistrots to colorful Indian and Asian establishments (though for the best Asian food, you are likely better off in Belleville). The Belgrand outdoor market is only a few blocks away, as are several gastronomic boutiques and the Ganachaud bakery mentioned above. All combine to give a sense of both vibrancy and calm, an unusual combination in Paris! Even if you don't make your way into the far corners of this area, a visit to the 20th can make a perfect off-the-beaten-path excursion for your trip to Paris.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2001