An Abridged History
Once upon a time, the east end of Paris was considered to be of a lower class than that of the west end. So while beautiful boulevards and parks were built around the Louvre and Trocadero, the east end got stuck with industrial factories and vast expanses of railroad tracks. One of the most prosperous industries was the wine industry, which had prospered in the Bercy Commune before it was an official part of Paris back in the 1800s. Because there was a heavy toll to pay for bringing goods, especially wine, into the city, many wine growers simply sold their wine outside the city walls. Parisians flocked to the bistros and floating barges called guingettes in Bercy to profit from the inexpensive tipple.
Even after Bercy had to adhere to the Parisian laws, it still prospered as the top market for French wine. During the 1900s, this industrial center slowly died out, leaving wasteland and abandoned buildings full of squatters. The neighborhoods surrounding the industrial sites were filled mostly with blue-collar workers, immigrants, and artists. In the 1980s, the Paris government, along with a few other interested parties such as the RATP (those nice people who run the Metro when they feel like it), began working on redeveloping this area, with two separate but linked projects: Bercy on the right bank and Rive Gauche on the left bank. Hop on the new Meteor line 14 (sit in front, there’s no driver) and spend a day exploring!
Bercy, Land of Wine and Grass
Get off at the Bercy stop on line14, and you’ll be at the Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy, a strange looking molehill covered in grass, built in 1983. Really, it’s a stadium used for everything from music concerts to sporting events. I’d like to see how they mow the grass on the almost vertical walls outside. From here you should also be able to see a monstrous, important looking building. This is the Ministre de Finances, which was formerly housed in one of the Louvre wings from the 1700s until the late 1980s when the museum was refurbished with the Pyramid and whatnot. Heading east, upriver, you’ll find the Parc de Bercy. Sometimes it’s referred to as Les Jardins de Bercy. I’m not sure why it’s called a ‘parc’ at all, since that word in French typically means car park. I’m sure there’s an expert out there who can clear this up for me.
Anyway, the park is also new, built on the former wine market. They left some of the old cobblestones and transport rails intact, as well as restored storage houses, called chais. For nostalgic reasons, they’ve even planted a small vineyard in the park. It’s pretty large, with many different sections, some open, some intimate. The park crosses over a major road with two foot bridges. The eastern side has a small lake and a tall lookout point with good views. Perhaps because the park is relatively new, it’s very quiet, with plenty of places to relax in peace.
At the far eastern end of the park you’ll see another metro stop, Cour St. Emillion, and a row of modern glass and steel pointed rooftops. This is the back of Bercy Village, two rows of white stone chais, renovated to house an entertainment complex. At the far end is a new UGC Ciné Cité for movies on the big screen. In the chais are wine bars, restaurants, a few nature and outdoors shops, cosmetics store, pet shop, a FNAC Junior, a Frog & Rosbif pub, and Club Med World.
The best time to come here is for Sunday brunch. Especially at the Frog. Weekend nights are starting to fell up, especially with Club Med, but if you find it to be on the empty side, there’s always the many nearby floating guinguettes.
Don’t forget to check back here next month for Part 2, Rive Gauche! Description and photos of the floating bars, the new national library, and the planned hiding spot for all those ugly railroad tracks.
This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.