M° Belleville, Ménilmontant, and Pyrénées
Belleville’s narrow streets, ateliers, and garden passages recall the neighborhood’s rural and working class roots. Once a wine-making village well outside the city walls, Belleville became known in the 18th century for its countryside guiguettes, where Parisians would come on Sundays to let their hair down a bit with the help of the plentiful tax-free wine. By the time it was annexed to Paris in the 1860s, Belleville was already heavily populated by the working classes pushed out of their homes by Haussmann’s wrecking ball. During the Paris Commune of 1871, the barriers in Belleville were the last in the city to fall to the Versailles troops. Almost half of the devastated neighborhood’s 50,000 inhabitants lost their lives.
In the 1900s, Belleville’s population grew with the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and North Africa. The government started bulldozing the most dilapidated quarters in the 1960s, replacing them with ugly housing projects. Despite these changes, the neighborhood has retained its traditional atmosphere and hidden pockets of history. By the 1990s, the cosmopolitan Belleville attracted a new wave of young artists who set up their ateliers in the old factories and workshops, and middle-class French families looking for inexpensive housing. Today Belleville is once again defined by its strong neighborhood solidarity, as well as one of the most lively alternative nightlife scenes in Paris.
Begin at Métro Belleville, the heart of the local Chinese community, and walk up the Rue de Belleville (not to be confused with the larger Boulevard de Belleville). This street is lined with Chinese grocers, restaurants and shops selling hand-painted porcelain, Buddha statues and firecrackers. Stop into the Centre Hong Kong (at #29) to stock up on gifts of green tea, hand-sewn slippers, or colorful paper lanterns.
The Chinese New Year parades in Paris usually take place on the last week in January or the first week in February in the 13th and 3rd arrondissements.
Turn right onto Rue Piat, one last hill before the entrance to the Parc de Belleville. You’re rewarded for your efforts with extraordinary panoramic views over Paris. And considering the absence of tour buses and portrait artists, it certainly beats the view from Montmartre! The Parc de Belleville was created in the 1980s on the site of an old gypsum quarry. Its steep hillside is softened by vine-covered arbors, the longest cascading fountain in Paris, and even a mini-vineyard in reference to the neighborhood’s past. The wooden children’s village has unfortunately been indefinitely closed for safety reasons.
Parisian Park Lingo
Pelouse au Répos means the lawn is temporarily off-limits while it “rests”.
Continue along the Rue Piat to the Rue du Transversaal. At #16 is the Villa Castel passage, where Truffaut filmed several scenes of the 1961 film Jules et Jim. Take the next right onto the Passage Plantin, made up of little cottages originally built for nearby factory workers. Turn left at the Rue de la Mare, to the Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville (32 Rue de la Mare, 20th M° Jourdain). This community art gallery represents over 150 local artists, and organizes an annual Portes Ouvertes in May. Continue via the Rue de Savies to the Rue des Cascades, where one of the city’s old water points from a Roman aqueduct still stands. This street was the location for another classic French film, Casque d’Or, a drama about Belleville’s guinguette days of cheap wine bars, dance halls and the local gangsters known as Apaches. Follow this street to the Rue de Ménilmontant. The colorful building at the intersection is an artists’ squat known as Le Miroirterie and its free used clothing boutique. Have a peek in if the door’s open (assuming they haven’t been booted out by the time you read this
Keep an eye out for the whimsical stencils of Belleville, created by a local artist named Nemo. His silhouette-man, red umbrella caught in the wind, has been chasing after bouquets of multicolored flowers, birds, butterflies and balloons throughout the neighborhood for over two decades.
Head down the Rue de Ménilmontant, where, on a clear day, you can see the toy-like Pompidou Center in the distance. Turn right at the Rue Julien Lacroix. On the corner is Ménilmontant’s local church Eglise Notre-Dame de la Croix. It was here that rebellious soldiers of the 1871 Paris Commune, who had taken over the church as their meeting hall, voted to kill their hostages, including the archbishop of Paris.
Cross the street to the Place Maurice Chevalier and follow the Rue Etienne Dolet to the Boulevard de Belleville. The colorful Marché Belleville, one of the city’s largest outdoor markets, spreads out along the boulevard every Tuesday and Friday morning with fruits and spices from around the world. Just below is the Rue Oberkampf, famous for its lively strip of gritty bars and wild clubs stretching from the Métro Ménilmontant to Métro Parmentier. But it’s also an interesting street to visit during the day, with its mix of typically Parisian food shops, ethnic cafés and quirky boutiques.