Monday, December 17, 2012

A Quiet Evening in Belleville, Paris

Cafe Cheri(e)
For thirteen years I had failed to return to Paris after a family holiday as a teenager in 1999. In fact it was the last time I stepped foot in the most-visited country in the world. It wasn’t that I really didn’t want to return to the City of Light. As a sixteen year old and to this day still an avid lover of history and architecture I was mesmerized by Paris, with its elegant uniformed Haussmann boulevards peppered with instantly recognizable sights such as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. However as I grew up, what I wanted from a holiday changed and with it my perception of the city. In my 20s I began to see Paris as a desiccated museum, scrubbed clean of the grime and proletarian fervour that shaped its history. In my mind it didn’t have the creativity of London or underground excitement of Berlin. It was an overpriced confectionary for American and Japanese tourists to excitedly digest.

If it wasn’t for a chance to go to a music festival and stay for free in the city, it could have been another thirteen years before I returned. Having already ticked off the major sights all those years ago and now an adult, I decided to branch out. On the one evening I had free I took the opportunity with a Parisian friend to visit Belleville. Historically a working-class district whose residents were fervent but tragic supporters of the Paris Commune of 1871, the area has become more heterogenous, home to artists, hipsters and a large ethnic community. It is a refreshing break from the sterilized central arrondisements of the city.

Being France I had to start my little wander with a late afternoon glass of wine in Le Chapeau Melon. During the afternoon it is a wine shop and a place to quietly drink a glass. The selection was decent but at night the place switches over in to a restaurant with a delightfully eclectic four course menu which at €32.50 is a steal for pricey Paris. Booking is essential as it is popular and there is only one sitting.
Le Chapeau Melon

Upon finishing my glass of wine it was time to meet my Parisian friend. A wander around the streets we encountered a constellation of characters, from immigrants in their phone shops that doubled up as local meeting places, hipsters, young families and prostitutes. The architecture is bland bar the random flourish of graffiti, some of which was pretty good. However for architecture fans there is one little gem to be found. It only seems right that the Communist party of France would have its headquarters in this traditionally working class district. Commissioned by lifetime Communist and at the time living in exile in Paris Oscar Niemeyer, it displays his characteristic brutalism with flourishes of pure beauty, especially in the glistening auditorium whose bright ceiling is as inviting as the gates of heaven. One can make an appointment to visit the inside but alas my time was constrained and I could not visit. With the recent passing away of Niemeyer this month, my lost opportunity now has an added poignance to it.

Communist Party Headquarters by Oscar Niemeyer
In Paris it can be at times hard to find a decent bistro. They are either good quality but expensive or tourist tosh. There appears to be very few middle ground places and certainly so with a bit of character. Le Sainte Marthe on the street with the same name is an exception. Located on a part of the street where it  recedes to create a quaint little square covered by trees, in the summer I heard it is one of the most pleasurable places in Belleville to eat and drink. Since it was early November the weather was not exactly conducive to sit outside so we dived in to the bosom of this red-painted bistro. It felt like a truly local place where young twenty-somethings drank wine while on another table a gaggle of grannies ate traditional French food while their grandchildren scribbled on paper. Indeed it felt very cozy and we were willing to stay for it not for the pangs of hunger emanating from us. While we could have enjoyed the food here we felt that it was only fair that in this home for multitudes of immigrants that we try something ethnic.

Le Sainte Marthe
“You see the person behind me” whispered my friend Antoine as we were about to dive in to a noodle soup in Pho Dong-Huong, the lively Vietnamese restaurant on Rue Louis Bonnet; “he’s in gay porn”. Not the typical conversational topic you would have over food but it was an example of the eclectic crowd to be found in this delicious restaurant. All the kinds of people you would expect to find in Belleville were devouring freshly-cooked food in this lively place, plus your local porn star. The food was very reasonably-priced where a big bowl of noodles, a side dish and a beer left change from a €20 note. The beauty of Vietnamese food is that it always fills you while making you feel refreshed and it certainly perked us up for the five minute walk to a bar in the night where the temperature bobbed just over freezing.

Our destination was a low-key local bar called Café Cheri(e). Situated on the corner of Boulevard de la Villette, it seems to be a mash-up of a typical contemporary Parisian café and a dive bar and for that reason seems to attract a crowd of artists and students. It was a Thursday night at 10pm and the place was busy but not full, however Antoine had informed me that on Friday and Saturday nights it can get quite rammed. To take the opportunity to see my friend I had decided to skip the first night of the music festival but was happy to be here where the DJ was playing music by the bands I could have be seeing at the festival such as the Chromatics and Twin Shadow. The crowd was decidedly mixed with a smattering of artists, gays and hipsters. It nevertheless felt warm and welcoming and conversation flowed as easily as the beer that was cheap for Paris. However it was a school night and by 1am we were beat and time to sadly leave this great bar.

On my first night in Paris in thirteen years I had finally seen another side of Paris that felt a world away from the romantic film-set ideal that most tourists seem reluctant to leave. Venturing to Belleville was a refreshing and rewarding experience that defied the stereotype of Paris being an expensive and unimaginative city while showing hints of the old city of past. 

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