Friday, 30 July 2010

The Best Ghost Sign in Paris?

On the corner of the Rue de Belleville and the Avenue Simon Bolivar is perhaps the best example of a ghost sign in Paris today. Ghost signs are the traces of hand-painted wall adverts which are fairly common in rural France but comparatively rare in Paris, but this one for the St Raphael quinquina drink is an excellent model.

Saint Raphael was one of the most popular apéritif drinks in France a generation or so ago, but is very difficult to find today (although you can still buy it here). It is a kind bitter vermouths based on partially fermented grape juice (mistelles) and quinine, with orange, vanilla, cocoa and aromatic plants. It was invented in 1830 by a certain Docteur Juppet, with, as usual, proclaimed medicinal properties!

As this website shows, it was a brand that often used this kind of wall advertising. This site also explains why this sign in Paris must have dated from before 1940. By briefly reading up on the evolution of laws relating to alcoholic drinks, we can probably conclude that the sign here was added after the 1920s.

The sign here is also signed Affiches F.Hamet, not the artist, but surely the purchaser of the space - a kind of JC Decaux of the epoque!

In the UK, Sam Roberts is the co-ordinator of a huge project - - seeking to document such adverts across the country. Nothing similar seems to exist in France, but the website does give a lot of details on the history of this style of advertising. What is perhaps missing though, and the question I ask myself when looking at this advert, is how long were such adverts supposed to last for? Were the owners of the building paid a certain amount of money for a certain period of time?

What is clear though is why there are so few examples in Paris. Hand painted adverts need brick to survive! Paris, with its the neat stone facades, limited blank wall space and the obligatory sandblasting of buildings could not expect to keep many traces. So this one is a true survivor, and an amusing anachronism today - adverts for alcohol now come with very strict warnings in the standard advertising spaces of the city!

Thursday, 29 July 2010

Something for the Weekend (30th July – 1st August)

What links an apéritif in a record shop and a midnight movie? As with my other recommendations this weekend, both activities are completely free!

Find the complete list on the Paris Weekends blog.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Death of a Hospital

I was sad to read recently that Saint Vincent de Paul, one of the oldest and most famous children’s hospitals in Paris, will shortly close its doors for the last time. Last year I wandered around the already crumbling site and found it to be full of charm, but consolidation and rationalisation have proven to be more powerful words.

On a hot day almost exactly one year ago I walked past the entrance to the Hopital Saint Vincent de Paul, and felt compelled to stop and take a look around. Hospitals are always quiet places, but Saint Vincent de Paul was particularly calm that afternoon. I was attracted by the shady spaces and silent pathways, a respite from the noisy Avenue Denfert Rochereau I was walking along.

Entire buildings seemed to be empty, although doors remained wide open. I walked up steps and down staircases, along corridors and into deserted lecture theatres. I found a neat concrete war memorial, heroically symmetrical. On the main passageway, a spirited wall protest, messages scribbled from patients and families imploring authorities to keep the hospital open.

But nobody was around to hear those voices. Even the hospital chapel was closed. Alongside, a twisting staircase heading heavenwards. This was the hospice des Enfants-Assistés, a site dedicated to the safekeeping of children, but one that had confused its calling. In 2005, 351 foetuses were discovered here in a laboratory. No one knows who and no one knows why.

A place nevertheless where generations of children were born, their birth screams staining the floors and walls. Soon these will be torn down, leaving these children orphans of a birthplace. The services will move down the road to the Hopital Cochin and the Hopital Necker. Boxes will be filled with memories, but many others will be judged redundant and burned.

What happens to hospitals when they die? Saint Vincent de Paul is a 3.2 hectare zone of prime left-bank real estate. The site will be reborn but the name will be sent to the archives. The site will be bought, buildings raised to the ground and new developments forced upwards. Perhaps a new écoquartier in 2016, a ghetto for the rich, if the city of Paris has its way.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Invisible Paris Walks – download the iPhone App!

In collaboration with New Zealand based, I have transformed my Invisible Paris walks into downloadable iPhone guides! The three tours currently available are the following:

  • From Sainte Rita to Saint Lazare
  • Contemporary architecture
  • Street art in Belleville
All information has been updated and new photos have been included. Best of all though, with the integrated GPS and the built-in maps, you can now be sure never to get lost en-route!
This time the walks are not free downloads, but for just a couple of dollars or euros you get all three walks. And if you don’t have an iPhone, don’t forget that PDF versions of the walks are still available at

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Something for the Weekend: 23 – 25 July

From now on, the Something for the Weekend posts will be published on a new dedicated blog - Paris Weekends - an official Invisible Paris spin-off!

See my suggestions for 23rd to 25th July.

I have been running this series for over a year now, and feel that it has outgrown its spot on Invisible Paris, and deserves a place of its own! What do I hope to achieve with it? Well, my objectives have always been to share my fascination with Paris, and to try and point out things that people may otherwise overlook. I will run the Something for the Weekend posts on the Paris Weekends blog, but I will also use the space to blog on anything else I come across that I think will help people to get the most from their time in Paris - even people who have lived in the city all their lives!

I have decided to seperate these subjects from my Invisible Paris themes because I have been getting large quantities of press releases that I simply could not use on this blog, as well as more and more offers for collaborations that I felt unable to honour. With Paris Weekends, I will be able to share more information with you, and hopefully pass on details of interesting offers and projects, whether you’re planning a trip to the city or just looking for something to do here.

Invisible Paris will therefore revert back to its obscure origins, and Paris Weekends will be its noisy younger brother! I will be relying on interaction from as many people as possible for this new project though, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch if any of the following apply to you:

  • You want advice on getting the best out of your time in Paris.
  • You have a service related to Paris that you would like me to promote.
  • You have a Paris related blog or website and you’d like to exchange links.
  • You have suggestions about how I could improve the blog!

Hope to hear from you soon!

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Victims of Fashion

On the Rue du Faubourg du Temple, an original shop sign stands witness to a period when men literally killed for a pair of shoes. These men were known as the Apaches, and they took their clothing very seriously!

Un Apache pouvait voler, truander, tuer si nécessaire, pour s'approprier la paire de chaussures qui le mettraient en valeur aux yeux de sa bande et de ses amoureuses. La moindre égratignure et la paire était jetée aux pauvres” (Pierre Drachline & Claude Petit-Castelli, ‘Casque d'or et les apaches’) – (An Apache could steal, cheat, or kill if necessary to get hold of a pair of shoes that would enhance his image in the eyes of his gang or his lovers. The littlest scratch and the pair were thrown to the poor).

The Apaches were the street gangs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, taking their name from American natives following a visit from Buffalo Bill to Paris in 1905. They haunted the eastern faubourgs of Paris, and were generally very young, partly because their life expectancy was so short. These were men who lived fast, drinking, partying and stealing, and they were immediately identifiable by the clothes they wore.

Each gang was dressed slightly differently, often wearing something such as a red scarf that would be both a sign of belonging and a means of identification in other territories. However, certain elements were the same in all gangs. All wore a certain type of trouser, tight at the knees and flared at the bottom, known as a Bénard. These were named after the tailor who made them, a certain Auguste Bénard, and the word is still used in Parisian slang today to designate a pair of trousers (bénard, ben’ or bénouze).

The Apache dance was often made to look like a physical attack.

On top, the men generally wore waistcoats or jackets. It was at this store on the Rue du Faubourg du Temple that the gang members in the Courtille (lower Belleville) came to shop.

On their heads there was always a hat of some description, generally something flat in the form of a sailor’s cap, but it was what was put on the feet that was the most important. Claude Dubois in his depiction of the Bastille area of Paris (La Bastoche, 1997) describes the ideal pair:

Le comble de la coquetterie apache étant les bottines jaunes à bouts pointus cirées de frais avec des boutons dorés”. (The height of Apache vanity was a pair of freshly polished pointed yellow boots with golden buttons).

The Apache gangs ceased to exist after the First World War, with many members killed off in the conflict. The shop survived for longer though, and until recently it was still selling men’s clothes and had retained much of its interior. Like much of the rest of the street though it was converted into a Chinese-run store, catering this time for teenage girls rather than teenage boys.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Paris Polaroids: Le Temps des Cerises

For the fourth in the series of Paris Polaroids guest posts, Ben Doyle remembers a day he got lost - and found something unexpected!

As I lost my footing on the worn cobbles, transfixed by the ornate murals that adorned many of the nearby walls, I stumbled upon one of the hidden gems of Paris.

It was a cold November day and I had been in Paris for a few days with a group of friends. We were coming to the end of a fabulous trip but we were all quite tired and no-one was particularly motivated to do anything, so I had decided to go exploring on my own and had ended up in the 13eme arrondissement.

After walking round the Chinatown district near the Tolbiac Metro station and perusing the stores at the shopping centre at the Place d’Italie, I found myself wandering slightly aimlessly uphill as the sun began to set. Almost immediately, I began to notice that I was in a very different part of Paris. There were none of the stark tower blocks, no modern chain stores or restaurants. There was a feeling of separation, of solidarity.

I meandered slowly through sleepy cobbled streets, mesmerised by verdant passages and colourful houses. A striking drinking fountain caught my attention on the Place Paul Verlaine. Art-deco architecture abounded. Passers-by wore bohemian – sometimes almost anarchic – clothing and a casual air. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a remarkably black cat, gone as soon as it appeared. The mist that had descended simply added to the slightly surreal air.

I stopped for a drink in one of the handful of bars on the Rue de la Butte aux Cailles and struck up a conversation with a local. This, I discovered, was an area known as the Butte aux Cailles, an erstwhile working class village that was annexed into Paris in the nineteenth century and which is now home to a trendy artistic community.

My companion suggested that I eat in Le Temps des Cerises, an unassuming restaurant just down the Rue de la Butte aux Cailles. I had a delicious meal in wonderfully quaint surroundings, the proximity to fellow diners (and excellent wine) leading to a highly convivial atmosphere! I later discovered that the restaurant’s name pays tribute to the importance of the Butte aux Cailles in the Paris Commune battle of 1871. Even more to my interest, the service was remarkably friendly!

Ben Doyle

Ben Doyle is a British travel enthusiast and entrepreneur currently living in Lausanne, Switzerland. He is one of the co-founders of, an online marketplace offering easy instant bookings for holiday apartments in Paris and other top European cities.

Send your Paris Polaroid! The beauty of the Polaroid was that it captured an instant. Such pictures were celebrations of the emotion of a moment, but like memories, Polaroids faded over time. In this series I am aiming to compile a selection of these Paris instants for posterity. If you have a memory of a Paris instant you would like to share, please send it to me and I will publish it here. A photo (which I will transform into Polaroid form) would be a bonus but is not a necessity (I can find one!). If you have a site, a project, a business, or just yourself to promote, send me the link and I will add a mention to your post!

Monday, 12 July 2010

Some new Street Art

Belleville was the scene of recent protests by the Chinese community against a perceived increase in attacks on its members, but this time it is the unity of the neighbourhood that is celebrated in a mural on the Rue du Faubourg du Temple. I don't know if this an officially senctioned piece or not, but it is clearly something that would have taken the artist a great deal of time.

In the creation you can see some of the sights of the city as well as representations of some of the ethnic groups of Belleville. There is also some text in both Chinese and Hebrew, and if anyone could tell me what it says I'd be very interested!

On the Rue Sainte Marthe, another labour intensive creation. This time, the collage of torn up magazines is reminiscent of the works of Jacques Villeglé.

A little further along on the Rue du Chalet, a simple but enigmatic message. It's not clear who or what this person is apologising for!

Sunday, 11 July 2010


Rue des Goncourt, Sunday 11th July.
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