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Paris Neighborhoods III: Butte aux Cailles

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The Low-down The Butte-aux-Cailles doesn’t make it into too many mainstream guidebooks. Even Parisians, who may be able to point out its location on a map, rarely make the trek up to the small hill.

After all, there are no museums, no clubs, no trendy clothing shops or cinemas with enormous screens (like at Italie 2, down the road). At an altitude of just under 65 meters, there’s hardly a view to speak of, unless you find the modern tower blocks at the neighboring Tolbiac interesting in a post-modern kind of way. So why is it that each time you meet someone from the Butte, they gush on endlessly about the “charm” and “authenticity” of the neighborhood? Namely, because it is charming, in an authentic kind of way, of course. Named after the family Cailles that once farmed on the hillside, the Butte-aux-Cailles was covered in windmills up until the late 19th century, and was one of the last corners of the city connected to the EDF’s grid. It has been forgotten as the place where Pilâtre du Rozier landed the first manned hot-air balloon in 1783.

It’s usually remembered as one of the strongholds of the Paris Commune of 1871, where the communards resisted the Versaillais troops until the bitter end (memorialized only by the Place de la Commune de Paris at the centre of the Butte). Afterwards, the neighbourhood remained a working-class village. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the Butte was surrounded by the ugly residential towers that plague most of the 13th (fortunately, the centuries of tunnelling into the hillside to excavate stone left the Butte-aux-Cailles too fragile for anything more than a few stories tall). Rising prices elsewhere in Paris made the Butte popular with artists, intellectuals, and eventually bourgeois executives looking for a “loft”.

The Butte-aux-Cailles today remains “populaire” in the French sense, with co-op owned restaurants and a Socialist mayor, but there are also trendy bars (one with free WIFI access) attracting the type of people who wear sunglasses at night. The local business owners are quite happy about this, although some of the residents are getting a bit cranky about the noisy sidewalk cafés that stay open well past midnight. As this goes to press, people on the Butte are taking sides on the issue…still a feisty neighborhood, indeed!

Visiting the Butte-aux-Cailles Get off at Metro Corvisart and head up the Rue des Cinq-Diamants to the intersection at Rue de la Butte aux Cailles. This is pretty much the centre of the action after dark. During the day things are a bit quieter, and it’s a good time to explore the little streets and their hidden gardens. Turn right at the Place de la Commune de Paris and head down to the Rue Daviel, with its Alsace-styled public housing from the early 1900s, and the adorable houses with mini gardens on the Villa Daviel. Just around the corner to the left, at 31 rue Vergniaud, is a newly-opened Antiquités flea market (Tues-Sat 11am-7pm). Anyone with a sweet tooth should stop into Les Abeilles (21 rue de la Butte aux Cailles) for locally-made honies and honey-based products, or L’Osive Thé (5 rue de la Butte aux Cailles; also a tearoom by the same name across the street) for teas and dainty home decorations. On the other side of the Butte, the art-deco style Piscine de la Butte aux Cailles (5 place Paul Verlaine; don’t forget your Speedos, boys) is one of the nicest public pools in Paris, supplied by a natural hot spring that keeps the waters a constant 28°C. Fans of French theatre can find the program of the Théâtre des Cinq Diamants at http://www.theatreonline.com. This fall they have a bit of vaudeville and Jean Racine (not together, of course).

Eating and Drinking You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to eating and drinking on the Butte-aux-Cailles, from real Breton crepes at the Des Crêpes & Des Cailles (13 rue de la Butte aux Cailles) to authentic boudin à la Normande at the budget-priced co-op restaurant Les Temps des Cerises (18-20, rue de la Butte aux Cailles, closed weekends). Gourmet foodies can try the Italian trattoria Les Cailloux (58, rue des Cinq Diamants) and L’Avant Goût (26, rue Bobillot), both packed full for lunch and dinner. Happy Hour starts at many of the neighbourhood’s bars at 6pm, including the tropical Papagallo (25 rue des Cinq Diamants) and the internet bar Sputnik (14-16, rue de la Butte aux Cailles). Le Ménestrel (10, rue de l’Espérance) specialises in feu de bois pizzas, and has Brazilian soirées every Sunday night, and the Folie en Tête (33, rue de la Butte aux Cailles), with African percussion instruments decorating the bar, is known for its friendly reggae and jazz atmosphere, from 5pm until 2am.

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. 

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