Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Paris Greeters - Belleville

Graffiti, rue Dénoyez, Paris

Parisien d'un Jour, Parisien toujours. I came across this phrase (Parisian for a day, Parisian forever) on the City of Paris tourist information page. The slogan belongs to the Paris Greeters, a group of volunteers that offers free tours of Paris and nearby areas. The volunteers are not professional guides, just friendly Parisians who love their  their city and want to share it with visitors by showing them the places and the faces beyond the city's famous tourist attractions. 

Intrigued, I decided to investigate. I went to the Paris Greeters web site and filled out the form, requesting a tour for the following week.  Normally, you have to register a month in advance, but I got a message back saying my request would be posted and if someone was free, I would be contacted.  A couple of hours later, an email arrived from Annie Siauve, a third-generation Parisian, who lives in Belleville, a neighborhood in the northeast of Paris that most tourists never visit.

Once a small hilltop village, Belleville was a thriving town by the time it was incorporated into Paris in 1860. It was most famous as a destination for nighttime revelers, who crowded its huge drinking establishments, known as  guingettes (To read Travel Oyster on other Paris guingettes, click here.) Because mining caverns under Belleville made the land unstable, many of its buildings are only two or three stories high, which gives the area even today a village feel. The gentrification of Belleville is in full swing, but it remains a diverse, working-class neighborhood. Although best known for its Chinatown, its streets are lined with a United Nations of stores catering to the many different ethnic groups that call Belleville home.

This diversity was obvious as I waited for Annie outside the cafe La Vieilleuse. In spite of the grey weather, North African men stood talking in groups on the busy street corners - a custom more appropriate to the sunny climes of their homelands, but one that is obviously hard to break. Up the hill, decorations were being put up for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration and across the street, Belleville's huge outdoor French market was in full swing.

Annie found me easily in the crowd of men. Our first stop was the Belleville Market, which runs for blocks along the rue du Belleville. It's a big market with a reputation for some of the best prices in Paris.  Annie pointed out the various ethnic food, clothing and jewelry stands while merchants sang out their wares in several different languages. Everything looked tempting, but with a two-hour walk ahead of us, I decided to leave shopping for another day.

Next stop was Belleville's famous rue Dénoyez, one of the only streets in Paris where graffiti is not only legal, but encouraged. The street is a lively, ever-changing outdoor art gallery, where, as Annie pointed out, almost all the graffiti I photographed would be gone by the next day. 

From there, we walked up and down the streets of Belleville. Annie seems to know what is behind every ordinary door, opening them to reveal a world of small countrylike houses, beautiful little gardens, thriving artists' studios, and the remnants of the long-disappeared forest of Belleville. We also passed the house on whose steps legend says the famous French singer Edith Piaf was born. Reality is less romantic according to Annie, who tells me that Piaf was born in the nearby Tenon Hospital.

We hiked up to the Parc de Belleville, the highest park in Paris. Along the way, we passed several fountains that once supplied all of Belleville's water. In summer, the Parc de Belleville is known for its massive flower displays and its 100 meter-long waterfall fountain. In every season, it has an incredible view of Paris, which rivals that of the more famous Montmartre hill. At one time, Annie tells me, Belleville hoped to follow Montmartre's lead and fill the park with artists selling their wares and crepes stands on every corner. Unfortunately, or fortunately for local residents, the idea did not catch on. Instead, it remains a neighborhood park with winding walkways, lovely gardens and children playing.

Art, however, is ever present in Belleville. As we walked about, Annie, herself an artist, was constantly on the lookout for discarded objects that could be incorporated into her multi-matieral pieces. She, along with 250 other artists, participates every year  in the Portes Ouvertes de Belleville. The event, which has been running for 25 years, attracts more than 50,000 visitors. For information on this year's event, click here

With still lots to talk about, I invited Annie to lunch and asked her to choose a local restaurant that she particularly likes. She suggested La Queue de Boeuf. Open for lunch and dinner, the restaurant is a perfect example of the diversity of Belleville. The chef Didier, a Frenchman from the Antilles, cooks up wonderful French food with a Creole touch, using only fresh products from the market.

After a full day of fun and good food, Annie and I said goodbye at the Belleville metro station, with plans to meet again - this time as friends.

If you are coming to Paris, Greeters is a great way to meet a Parisian and see  a part of the city behind the big monuments and museums.  Groups can be anywhere from one to six people. Annie and I spoke French, but tours are given in many different languages, which you can choose when you sign up.  Be sure to make your request at least a month before your trip.  To go to the Paris Greeters web site, click here.

To see more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Friday, February 7, 2014

Paris Sunday on the Seine

Le Pont-Neuf et la Cité by Giuseppe Canella, 1832, Carnavalet Museum, Paris

Last week, the Midwest and the South of the United States shivered under the frigid winds and snows of a Polar Vortex while California withered in the throes of an unrelenting drought. At the same time, the good citizens in the Italian towns of Pisa and Florence prayed for the rain to stop before the rising waters of the Arno River engulfed their towns. 

In Paris, however, Parisians awoke to a sunny, mild Sunday. It was a day lovely enough to make all the church bells of Paris peal. And they were doing just  that as JR and I left our apartment headed for a walk along the banks of the Seine. It's true that it was exactly eleven o'clock when the bells began to ring, but I'm sure that was just a coincidence.

The entire walk along the Seine, which is open to the public on Sunday only, runs for miles, and most of it is classed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And no wonder since both sides of the river are lined with some the city's greatest buildings and monuments, including Notre Dame Cathedral, Sainte Chapelle, the Conciergerie, the Louvre, the Tuileries, the Place de la Concorde, the Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower. Through it all flows the Seine with its constant traffic of barges and tourist boats, its islands, and 23 of the 37 historic bridges of Paris. 

Parisians of all stripes have been drawn to the riverbanks of the Seine since the founding of Paris centuries ago. Over time, however, the scene has changed considerably. In the middle ages, buildings lined the river, built up against the naturally rising banks. Paris was a bustling port and every bridge in the city was covered with houses, much like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The Pont Neuf (New Bridge), now the oldest bridge in Paris, was built in 1578 and was the first bridge without construction on it. 

In the mid-1700s, a huge campaign to make Paris cleaner and healthier was begun. Against the wishes of the inhabitants, as can well be imagined, the order came down to demolish all the houses on all the bridges of Paris - each one of which contained up to 60 tall structures. Throughout the years, several had collapsed and city official feared for their structural integrity. It took more than half a century to accomplish this feat with the houses on the St. Michel bridge being the last to fall in the years between 1807 and 1811.

The only structural concerns to today's bridges are the "love locks." Several bridges, including the Pont des Arts and the Pont des Archevêché are weighed down with thousands and thousands of these testaments to everlasting love.  While the bridges are strong enough to support the weight, the railings and fences are not. On the Pont des Arts, whole sections of the railings are collapsing and are blocked off with barriers and red police tape. Still, on this beautiful Sunday, the bridges were lined with lovers searching for a spot where they could attach their lock and declare their love.   (To read Travel Oyster's "Locks of Love in Paris," click here.)

Once the old bridges were cleared of buildings, Paris began building new ones in the 19th century. In 1870 alone, 15 bridges were built in Paris - more than in all the previous centuries. The quays were restructured, creating today's upper and lower quays, and in the 1960s, many miles of the lower quay were turned into an expressway open to vehicle traffic only. Parisians, used to walking the whole length of the river, were restricted to a much shorter portion and - like the homeowners of the bridge houses two centuries  earlier - they were not happy. 

Now in the 21st century, the city is making a huge effort to once again make the Seine accessible to le peuple. And the people were all there when we arrived -- walkers, runners, skaters, cyclists. Others sat on benches with their faces turned up to the sun. There were babies laughing and crying; dogs barking; lovers embracing and lovers arguing; men and women (and dogs) in everything from furs to ultra chic exercise duds. There were artists painting and tourists snapping photos. 

And there we were among them, on a sunny Sunday morning in Paris, hand in hand, taking one of the most beautiful walks in the world.

To see more photos past and present, click here.

A bientôt,

Photo by JR 

Photos unless otherwise noted by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor