NOTE: This description was first published in a print travel guide by Heather in 2005; much has changed in the following decade! Until this is updated enjoy the historic snapshot. 😉
The 13th Arrondissement
M° Gobelins, Place d’Italie, Corvisart, Tolbiac, Porte d’Ivry, Porte de Choisy, Quai de la Gare, Bibliothèque.
Up until the late 1990s, the 13th arrondissement was known only for its 1960s tower blocks and exotic Chinatown district. But as the formerly industrial riverside district is transformed with a stylish, contemporary makeover, visitors are also rediscovering the many historic buildings and hidden village streets which have escaped modernization.
Begin at the Métro Gobelins, right outside the Manufacture des Gobelins (42 Avenue des Gobelins, 13th Tel 01 44 54 19 33). Originally set up in the mid- 1500s as a fabric dying workshop by the artisan Jean Gobelin, it was converted into the royal tapestry manufacturers by King Louis XIV’s minister Colbert in 1662. By the 18th century the Gobelins was famous throughout Europe, and today its tapestries can be found in museums around the world. Tour the workshops, which still operate using 17th-century weaving techniques, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday at 2pm and 2:45pm, entry €8 (€6 for visitors 7-25, kids under 7 free).
Cut around the back of the Gobelins workshops via the Rue Gustave Geoffroy. On the right is the visitor’s entrance to the Château de la Reine Blanche (18bis Rue Berbier du Mets, 13th M° Gobelins), the hôtel particulier built between the 15th and 16th centuries for the Gobelins family, with Medieval and Renaissance architectural details such as its twin turrets. Completely renovated in 2002, the listed residence is supposedly named after Philippe VI’s widow Blanche d’Evreux, who lived in this location in the 14th century. Tours are possible on Wednesday and Sunday afternoons, April through September. Continue up the Rue Berbier du Mets to the Square Réné Le Gall (at Rue Croulebarbe), a quiet sunken park with rose gardens, tall shade trees and kids’ playgrounds. Turn left onto Rue Corvisart and cross under the metro tunnel to the Boulevard Auguste Blanqui. The local produce market takes place every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. Cross the street to the steps of the Rue Eugène Atget, which cuts through a tiny square before becoming Rue Jonas. At the top of this street is the heart of the Butte aux Cailles neighborhood.
Butte aux Cailles
At an altitude of just over 200 feet, there’s hardly a view to speak of (aside from the tower blocks a few blocks away), but the Butte aux Cailles has managed to escape developers’ bulldozers, maintaining its authentic village charm. Named after the Cailles family that once farmed on the hillside, the Butte aux Cailles was covered in windmills until the late 19th century, and was one of the last corners of the city connected to the electric grid. Like many of the working-class hilltop villages annexed to Paris in 1860, it’s remembered as one of the strongholds of the Paris Commune of 1871. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that the Butte was surrounded by the ugly residential towers that plague most of the 13th (it escaped the same fate because centuries of tunneling into the hillside to excavate stone left the Butte-aux-Cailles too fragile for buildings more than a few stories tall). Rising prices elsewhere in Paris made the Butte popular with artists, intellectuals, and Soixant-Huitards (those involved in the May 1968 strikes). The neighborhood still shows its populaire roots, with co-op owned restaurants and a Socialist mayor, but there are also a number of trendy new bars and bistros, attracting bourgeois executive types eager to buy and “do up” local properties. Only time will tell if the Butte suffers the same Disneyfication of Montmartre.
The Rue des Cinq-Diamants and Rue de la Butte aux Cailles are 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 to see the Alsace-style cottages of the Cité Daviel (#7), built to house working-class families in the early 1900s, and the mini gardens of the Villa Daviel. Just around the corner and to the left is the virtually undiscovered indoor flea market (31 Rue Vergniaud, 13th) which opened in 2003.
Cross back over the hill via Rue des Buttes aux Cailles to the Place Paul Verlaine, where you can see the listed façade of the Piscine de la Butte aux Cailles (see the Activities link for information on this swimming pool). Cross Rue Bobillot and turn right down the pedestrian-only Rue Vendrezanne and Rue Passage du Moulinet. To see more of the little garden villas and interesting architecture, continue across the Rue de Tolbiac to explore the streets around the Place de l’Abbé Henocque. Otherwise turn left onto Rue de Tolbiac, which leads straight to the Chinatown district.
Up until the 1950s, this was the least developed part of Paris, with nothing more than makeshift housing surrounded by fields. Desperate to improve living conditions for the post war baby boom population, the city hastily erected over a dozen residential tower blocks, up to thirty floors tall, in the late 1960s. In the 1970s a wave of refugees and immigrants from Southeast Asia settled in the “Triangle de Choisy”, made up of the Avenue de Choisy, Avenue d’Ivry and the Boulevard Masséna. Although the district is known as Chinatown, many of the residents are actually from Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Thailand, and speak a different dialect from the Chinese populations in the Arts-et-Métiers and Belleville districts.
Turn right onto Avenue de Choisy, with its many Asian restaurants and grocery stores, and turn left onto the pedestrian Rue C. Bertheau. Early in the mornings you can see the elderly residents practicing Tai Chi in the Square Baudricourt. Continue through the passage to the Avenue d’Ivry, where you’ll see the most famous Chinatown store, Frères Tang (# 48). Across from the Rue des Frères d’Astier de la Vigerie is the entrance to the vast maze of shops of Les Olympiades, with everything from discount electronics to Asian and Vietnamese fabrics. A bit tacky, but fun to browse! Leave the commercial center by the elevators in the left wing of the Galerie d’Oslo to reach the entrance to the Buddhist temple and cultural center, L’Amicale des Teochews de France ( 44 Avenue d’Ivry, 13th M° Porte d’Ivry Tel 01 45 82 06 01). Be sure to remove your shoes before entering. There are regular free music concerts here on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons. Around the corner is the superbly decorated pagoda of the Temple de l’Association des Résidents d’Origine Indochinoise (37 Rue du Disque, 13th), hidden in an underground passage that looks like a parking garage entrance (right off 66 Avenue d’Ivry). Continue up the Avenue d’Ivry, with one last stop for tea and pastries at L’Empire des Thés (101 Avenue d’Ivry, 13th).
Look for Bus 62 (direction Cours de Vincennes) at the corner of Rue de Tolbiac and Avenue de Choisy, and take this about five stops to the Bibliothèque National de France. You know you’re in the right place if it looks like a giant construction site. The Rive Gauche Project started in 1988 to renovate 320 acres of industrial wasteland along the Seine between the Gare d’Austerlitz and the Boulevard Masséna. Turn left after the railroad tracks onto the Avenue de France, with its neat rows of newly planted trees and central pedestrian and cycle paths. Here you’ll find a few cafés with wide sidewalk terraces and the Cité de l’Image et du Son MK2, a cineplex with two restaurants, a café and nightclub. Just behind, in case you didn’t notice, was the first new building in the Rive Gauche project, the monumental mouthful of a library, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France – site François Mitterrand/Tolbiac (aka BnF, aka TGB for très grand bibliothèque). Opened in 1997, its four towers overlooking the Quai François-Mauriac are supposed to resemble four open books, with facades made entirely of glass (revolving wooden shelves inside can be moved to block the sun). There are some great views from the wooden terrace connecting the buildings, but watch out — those steps are slippery when wet! To go inside you either have to pay the day fee (€3), take a guided tour (in French, call in advance to sign up Tel 01 53 79 40 63), or visit the latest cultural exposition in the Grande Galerie (entry €5, Tel 01 53 79 49 49).
Cross over to the banks of the Seine from the library to the Quai François Mauriac, home to many popular floating nightclubs and cafés known as péniches. Across the Seine is the Parc de Bercy. By 2006 there is supposed to be a new footbridge connecting the park to the library . Continue back towards the Pont de Tolbiac, and turn right onto the Rue de Neuve Tolbiac. Here you can see, surrounded by construction cranes, the only three historical buildings which haven’t been torn down. The Sudac compressed air factory (1891) and the Grands Moulins (1920) flour mills are under renovation to house the library and auditoriums of the new Université de Paris VII (due to open in 2005). After much debate, the graffiti-covered Les Frigos (1919) are going to be pretty much left as they are. Originally used as meat lockers, Les Frigos (aka 91 Quai de la Gare) is one of the city’s famous legalized squats, with over 250 artists in residence. They hold two open houses a year, check the website for dates. Stop by to check out the schedule of regular artistic and musical events in their cultural center, Les Voûtes (enter by the gardens of Les Frigos).
End your visit to this modern district with a ride back to central Paris on the sleek, driverless Météor (line 14; take the steps down from the corner of Rue de Tolbiac and Rue du Chevaleret).