High Up in an Eclectic 'Hidden Paris'
Every couple of weeks I ride my rickety old bike one mile up the hill from my home in Paris's 11th arrondissement to the nearby Belleville quartier. When I take the time to look around instead of huffing and puffing, I can see an extraordinary transformation. As I pedal up the cobblestones of Rue du Faubourg du Temple, the self-conscious hangouts and trendy boutiques of my neighborhood slowly disappear. The scent of warm honey wafts from North African pastry shops. Neon Chinese characters flash above noodle bars. Art students drink red wine and puff on a hookah at a sidewalk cafe.
Belleville is one of the many eclectic neighborhoods that make up "hidden Paris," that holy grail of authenticity sought by travelers who don't live and breathe by Rick Steves. An afternoon visit or day trip allows plenty of time to take in its lofty views of the city, dazzling range of ethnic food and electric ambiance. And it's a quick stroll from the fabled Père Lachaise cemetery; the two could be combined for a fascinating day in the oft-overlooked 20th arrondissement.
Belleville's improbable mix of cultures -- Algerian, Moroccan, Chinese, Orthodox Jewish, Senegalese -- is a revealing window on modern Paris. But unlike the suburbs touched by the fall 2005 riots, Belleville is a society in which immigrant groups coexist relatively peacefully. Belleville might not be a melting-pot utopia, but it is one of the more peaceful neighborhoods of its kind.
The Metro plops you in the heart of the village, at the intersection of the Rue de Belleville and Boulevard de Belleville (which turns into the Boulevard de la Villette). To grossly oversimplify things along ethnic lines, to the right is Jewish North African, uphill is Chinese, downhill is Muslim North African and to the left is trendy French bobo (bourgeois bohemiens).
What usually brings me to Belleville is an ingredient. I'll be surfing Epicurious.com, dreaming of cooking a green curry or Senegalese yassa chicken, and come across some obscure element that can be found only at the teeming Belleville market, which is legendary for its range of exotic fruits and vegetables. Every Tuesday and Friday from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., merchants line the Boulevard de Belleville, hawking everything from tamarind to tapioca. Don't be intimidated by the yelling and cajoling; it's part of the atmosphere.
With a shockingly cheap kilo of
litchis in hand, I stop next at Belleville Park (Rue des Couronnes). It's the unfortunate victim of some gruesome recent landscape design, but it does offer a stunning view of Paris, second only to Montmartre's. And on one of Paris's 11 sunny days of the year, the fountains are perfect for foot-dipping.
Time for shopping. Not for chic little trench coats or fabulous boots; this isn't the Marais. Belleville shopping is cheap, impulsive and a tad ironic. The area's Chinese supermarkets and trinket shops are perfect sources for Buddha figurines and paper lanterns. But the best spot is the utterly unassuming China Bazaar (14-16 Rue Rébeval), with an incredible selection of goods, from kitschy to elegant (an anti-insect device that works by "sexual attraction," phone deodorizers, porcelain pottery). I recently snagged a white bowl with a blue bamboo design for $8.
I often meet friends for drinks in Belleville. For pure, unadulterated bohemian ambiance, there's no place better than the slightly scruffy, low-key Aux Folies (8 Rue de Belleville). There is no typical client here, although I would venture to say that you would be out of place wearing Chanel. A half-pint of beer will set you back $3.25. One recent balmy evening, I overheard a group of young workers from the nearby Communist Party headquarters animatedly criticizing a certain interior minister's latest TV appearance.
A bit more branché (trendy) is Café Chéri(e) (44 Blvd. de la Villette). Free wireless Internet draws local writers with their laptops during the day; the upstairs art gallery hosts art openings and a DJ spins at night. During happy hour (5 to 8 p.m.), a classic pastis is $2.75. L'Ile Enchantée (65 Blvd. de la Villette) is a touch more scenester, with a hip, colorful decor and a schmoozier clientele.
Belleville is a budget foodie's heaven. The sheer number of Asian restaurants can be overwhelming. The Rouleau de Printemps (42 Rue des Tourtilles) is often cursed with a line (arrive early!) but is home to some of the most scrumptious and affordable Asian food in Paris, with most entrees less than $11. Not far away, Lao Siam (49 Rue de Belleville) specializes in Laotian and Thai cuisine. Some make the pilgrimage all the way across Paris for the fish cooked in banana leaf and the stuffed crab, topped off with perfect sticky rice. Dinner for one runs about $20.
For dessert, swing by one of the Northern African bakeries selling pastries flavored with almond, orange blossom, pistachio or honey. Paradis Oriental (29 Blvd. de la Villette) has assortments for $4 and $8.
-- Rory Satran
The Belleville Metro station is a 10-minute ride from central Chatelet (on Line 11).