Perennial and amateur visitors to Paris making the familiar loop around the city center may be inclined to ask: Where are all the Bohemians and intellectuals who forged the formidable artistic reputation of Saint Germain? Why do the most hallowed bastions of Parisian culture now seem like teeming tourist traps? And is that a Starbucks at the Odeon Metro stop?
Just as hip New Yorkers are stretching across the Brooklyn Bridge into trendy neighborhoods like Williamsburg, stylish Parisians have been heading northeast into the 11th arrondissement -- and bringing with them an array of quirky boutiques, neighborhood restaurants and cheap bars with good music.
Once a quiet working-class outback to the more desirable first through eighth arrondissements, the 11th -- aka l'Onzieme -- is not slick and swish like the eighth, nor relentlessly, cloyingly charming like the fifth. You will see people digging through the garbage in front of supermarkets, butchers selling whole heads of goat and bakeries specializing in cakes in smutty forms. But you will also see traditional Haussmann-designed stone buildings, glitteringly spare art galleries and stunning squares.
The population is generally a mix of working-class old-timers pushing their market caddies on wheels, young movers and shakers on bikes, skateboards and Pierre Hardy heels, and several ethnic populations, including Chinese and North African. More and more, it's the young folk, discussing art installations and recent novels over a beer in the afternoon.
The 11th -- bordered to the south by the grim 12th arrondissement, to the west by the Marais and the garment district of Sentier, and to the north and east by the hilly ethnic ghettos of Belleville and Menilmontant -- is a $7 cab ride from the Latin Quarter, or you can take the Metro to the Bastille station. But take the scenic route, a 15-minute walk from Notre Dame. Starting from Paris's poetic center, the Ile St. Louis, take the fabled bridge Pont de Sully to the right bank. Head north by foot (or bicycle, tres onzieme!) on the Boulevard Henri IV until you reach the Place de la Bastille -- the beginning of the 11th, and usually as far as most tourists venture before retreating to their Latin Quarter hotels.
The Bastille has always been a populist, working-class area, in keeping with its inception as the site of the legendary storming of the Bastille prison by the masses of proletariats during the French Revolution. The Place de la Bastille, like its sister to the north the Place de la Republique, is a rather charmless and overpopulated hub. However, there are a multitude of fascinating hot spots both north and east of the Bastille. To the east lie the arty enclaves clustered around the Metro stations Faidherbe-Chaligny and Charonne. This was once Paris's furniture-making capital, and there are still many of the original ateliers. To the north are established hipster havens around the Oberkampf Metro station and developing areas like that around the Parmentier station.
One droll indication of the direction the 11th is taking is the recent installation of the design-heavy Hotel Murano (13 Blvd. du Temple), which is technically in the third arrondissement but is across the street from (and somehow still in the heart of) the 11th. Residents of the neighborhood were somewhat surprised to see this stark white building erected on a rather commonplace boulevard not far from the bustling and banal Place de la Republique.
The hotel, which bills itself as an "urban resort," features a vodka bar off the lobby and primary-colored light schemes in the rooms. This tribute to luxe modernity is ironically packed between some of the quaintest artifacts of the old neighborhood: a delicious but dismally slow Tibetan restaurant and a model train store. The juxtaposition of old and new is part of the 11th's idiosyncratic charm: hyped-up trends coexisting with the district's original commerce and character.
The trendification of the 11th is said to have been kindled in part by the restaurant-cum-nightclub Cafe Charbon (109 Rue Oberkampf), a cavernous dining room and bar that has pulled in the crowds for the past 15 years as well as inspiring a slew of like-minded bars and cafes in the vicinity. Unfortunately, the Cafe Charbon has since fallen prey to its own hype, with tourists heading in to check out the reputed artistic scene. However, its basement spinoff in the same building, the Nouveau Casino, is known for its excellent nighttime offerings, including cutting-edge rock, electronic and rap music, as well as performance art and occasional fashion shows.
The Nouveau Casino is somewhat of an insider's secret, hidden as it is through an unmarked door at the back of the Charbon. You can beat the crowds at the cafe by slipping downstairs to one of the 11th's most consistently hype (pronounced "ipe," rhymes with "pipe") venues. Dependably dark and mind-blowingly loud, the Nouveau Casino is the perfect spot for a racy rendezvous. There are two levels, the main stage with its dance floor and a loungelike upper level with intimate little tables. Despite its secret-basement allure, the Casino is one of the few Parisian boites that remains cool and airy even when jampacked with dancers.
There are many heirs to the Charbon in the bar/restaurant/cafe combination category. In fact, one of the 11th's most charming qualities is its abundance of delightful spots that are just as lively at 1 p.m. as at 1 a.m. These are neighborhood canteens frequented by locals seeking anything from a morning espresso to a business lunch to an evening birthday party. They're a step beyond the classic Parisian all-hours cafes, with a more evolved cuisine and decor.
One such joint is the Pure Cafe (14 Rue Jean Mace), a stripped-down, burnished-mirror kind of place decorated in shabby-chic style. You may recognize it as the unnamed cafe where Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke's characters catch up in the 2004 film "Before Sunset." However, there is no hint of Hollywood in this backwater of the Bastille, the traditional craftsman's district of Faidherbe-Chaligny. The Pure is the kind of authentic city cafe that morphs from a sleepy newspaper-reading daytime hangout to a bustling bar and restaurant at night. One of its most appealing aspects is the melange of grizzled furniture makers seated at the zinc bar alongside young families from the neighborhood and international students from the nearby photography school.
The Pure is only one in a string of these all-encompassing neighborhood spots. Another all-day cafe, closer to the hub of the Bastille, is La Fee Verte (the Green Fairy, 108 Rue de la Roquette), a light and airy alternative with some of the most delicious and affordable food in Paris. The menu changes seasonally, with one option being a sumptuous entree of pasta with baby squid in a crustacean sauce for about $17. La Fee Verte is named for the symbolist poet's beverage choice, absinthe, of which a watered-down, non-hallucinogenic version is available for the nostalgic drinker. The absinthe, which may not be as potent as Rimbaud's but lacks none of the distinctive emerald greenness, is served in a glass contraption complete with multiple silver faucets that trickle the liquid onto a strainer fitted with sugar cubes.
Even farther flung is La Caravane (35 Rue de la Fontaine au Roi), a funky corner bar and restaurant near the Place de la Republique (which separates the second, third and 11th arrondissements). If you are able to withstand a bit of scruffiness at the edges, La Caravane is a perfect introduction to the low-key world of 11th-dwellers. This is one of those rare neighborhood cafes that feels like a good friend's apartment, with its dilapidated couches, chatty waiters and living room-esque back room, complete with a window onto a private courtyard. Come for dinner with friends (don't miss the homemade desserts, always scrumptious), the revolving exhibitions of local artists (the most recent featured striking black-and-white photography of Morocco) and the giant bowl of punch that serves 10 and creates an instant party.
Should you feel like dancing to work off that creme brulee, one of Paris's most down-to-earth nightclubs makes its home in the 11th. Le Pop In (105 Rue Amelot) is a haven for rock and pop music fans who love to drink cheap beer while dancing to an inspired mix of music. It offers an interesting alternative to those who are allergic to cover charges, Eurotrash house music and crowds of American exchange students. Le Pop In is cramped and airless, to be sure (all dancing takes place in a minuscule windowless basement), but it remains an excellent bet in a city that is unfortunately lacking in that age-old hipster recipe: good music and cheap drinks.
Despite possible appearances, especially on a sunny Sunday afternoon, the 11th is great for more than just eating and drinking. Fashion has trickled in but remains a low-key, downtown affair, thankfully devoid of most of the big names that occupy the more established shopping districts. The best shopping in the 11th is still the territory of original designers who have chosen to strike out on their own.
One of the most exciting of these innovators is Sissi Holleis, an Austrian who has chosen a nondescript side street off of Rue Oberkampf for her namesake boutique (3 Rue de Nemours). Holleis's store features her own line, an impish, modern take on women's and kids' wear, alongside vintage clothing, shoes and jewelry. You can pick up a black lacy top with Liberty print edging for about $120, the perfect mixture of punk and pretty. You may even catch sight of Holleis herself, svelte and blond on a retro bicycle with a child seat toting one of her offspring.
Another 11th fashionista mainstay is the boutique Nuits de Satin (9 Rue Oberkampf). The main floor features a charming hodgepodge of vintage designer goods, including scores of dresses, shoes and purses and a notable collection of fur.
The basement, however, is a Parisian coquette's real delight: a trove of vintage lingerie, all in amazingly good condition. There are lacy bustiers, corsets and snappy garter belts in a rainbow of sherbet shades, along with enough trailing nighties, bare negligees and elegant dressing gowns to make you feel like Catherine Deneuve circa 1959. The owner, Anna, a black-haired vamp straight out of Tim Burton's imagination, may just invite you to one of her completely authentic '60s soirees.
The "concept store," combining all you could theoretically need under one roof, has been a Paris shopping highlight since the uber-chic Colette opened its doors in the prime retail district of the first arrondissement. Now even the counterculture 11th has its own, the only branch outside Tokyo of the Japanese phenomenon No. 44. No. 44-II (59 Rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud) is in the developing nether-region bordered by Rue Oberkampf, Place de la Republique and Belleville, in a lovely little neighborhood grouped around the Parmentier Metro station.
Wth its red decor, soaring ceilings and knotty wood floors, No. 44-II seems more like an art gallery or performance space than a boutique. There is an inviting, casual vibe, perhaps stemming from the owner's wish for it to be a neighborhood meeting place. And should you choose to shop while hanging out, there are plenty of well-chosen products in the highly edited collection. There is drapy Japanese clothing for both men and women, cool sneakers by Vans and Adidas, and edgy unisex jewelry. The fact that this unassuming corner of the 11th was chosen as the locale for such a novel boutique is proof of the area's potential.
Rory Satran, a resident of the 11th, last wrote for Travel on where to find small extravagances in Paris.