Or, how to pretend you live in Paris
On previous visits to Paris I have rushed around seeing the sights, walked miles and spent hours in queues. I’ve loved Paris yet come away thinking I have seen many undoubtedly un-missable attractions but somehow missed out on seeing Paris itself.
Many of us harbour a dream of living in Paris, that most romantic of cities. The fantasy where you rent a bijoux apartment in a chic neighbourhood to come home to after that Eiffel Tower dinner. Where you get to know the local commercants, and fill said apartment with finds from the Paris flea markets.
Well I indulged in that fantasy recently on a long weekend in Paris. From the windows of our Paris apartment I looked out onto the silky grey rooftops, walked pass the bookcase full of Amistead Maupin novels, and prepared to really experience the city.
Or rather one small area of the city. But how to choose an area of Paris in which to stay?
My choice was the Bastille district, which spreads out into three Paris arrondissements (the 4th, the 11th and the 12th) and it has centuries of history and decades of trendsetting to recommend it.
In the Place de la Bastille, just around the corner, the outline of the infamous medieval prison is marked out across the pavements. This hell of incarceration for political prisoners was utterly destroyed during the 1979 French Revolution.
A mighty column – the Colonne de Juillet – has been erected in the Place to commemorate another, less successful revolution. The July Revolution of 1830 saw the replacement of a Bourbon king with the Duke of Orleans.
Just 18 years later the 1848 barricade made famous in Victor Hugo’s novel Les Miserables was here at the entrance to rue de Charenton. This ‘third’ French revolution was an uprising of the working classes against a conservative regime.
All this political history means that the Place de Bastille is frequently the focus for demonstrations and there was even one parading through the streets when I was there.
I frequented a boulangerie on Rue Saint Antoine. Maison Hilaire sells the best croissants I have every tasted and is a good spot to see the unusual sight of Parisiennes waiting patiently and expectantly in a queue.
Bastille also boasts one of Paris’ most celebrated markets – on Thursday and Sunday mornings all along Boulevard Richard Lenoir you will find stacks of magnificent fruit and vegetables, delicate champignons, shining seafood and slabs of smelly cheese. The chickens still have their and heads.
Another market runs mornings and evenings Tuesday to Sunday in the Place d’Aligre. This racially diverse area of covered and open-air markets has high quality food stalls, a huge selection of specialist stalls and a treasure trove of bric a brac.
Once a strictly working class district, over the past 30 years Bastille has become increasingly fashionable, as young people seeking cheaper rents ‘gentrify’ the area. Now it is a magnet for young Parisians who come for the nightlife.
And the crowded bars of Bastille are nothing new. In a memoir of her young life in Paris – The Prime of Life – Simone de Beauvoir reminisces about going to the dance halls on the Rue de Lappe in the 1930s: “It was seldom I got to bed before two in the morning.”
The area’s cafes and wine shops are no less historically notorious, with Victor Hugo describing the “intoxicating words” and “prophetic spirit” of those on the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.
Today Barrio Latino on that same street is a perfect example of Bastille nightlife and on Boulevard Henri IV a Brazilian bar called Wake Up Paris captures something of that same atmosphere; it is full of young people deep in conversation, as well as offering an extensive range of caipirinhas. Bastille has many excellent bistros, including the cosy Vins des Pyrenees on Rue Castex.
In the Viaduc des Arts on Avenue Daumesnil you can watch artisans at work as you browse through the galleries and studios. Nearby the Promenade Plantee is a green space in the city with roses and fruit trees.
This non-touristy neighbourhood is a good base for seeing anything and everything in Paris whether you have three days in Paris or a whole month. Bastille has good transport connections and many sights within walking distance. For example it’s a five minute walk to the Ile St Louis and its boutiques, restaurants and galleries which remain surprisingly authentic.
French-born novelist Julian Green once reflected that “until you have wasted time in a city you cannot pretend to know it well”. People watching in the cafes and bars or browsing through the markets, I can’t think of a better neighbourhood or city to ‘waste’ time.
By Natasha von Geldern
What is your favourite area of Paris?