Saturday 31 March 2012

Charonne - the last authentic village in Paris

In 1860, the city of Paris extended its boundaries by annexing eleven surrounding communities. Only one of these, Charonne, has truly kept the soul of a village.

Anyone who has visited Paris's Père Lachaise cemetery has already visited the village of Charonne. The best known of the city's graveyards was opened in 1804, technically within the limits of Charonne, but officially to serve the needs of Paris. Beyond this megalopolis of the dead though is the true village cemetery, a pocket-sized burial ground situated - curiously for Paris -behind the Saint Germain de Charonne church.

This church, sitting on a plateau above what was the heart of the village, can date its origins back to at least the 12th century, and its solid Romanesque tower has always provided the village's main focal point. Directly opposite is the ancient village high street, the still cobbled Rue Saint Blaise. The combination of these two elements give this area a quaint, provincial atmosphere, and it is easy to forget that the old boundaries of the Charonne village now form the eastern half of the city's densely populated 20th arrondissement. Walk a few hundred metres further east and you'll find high-rise tower blocks and the city's periphérique motorway.  

For most of its existence, Charonne was a quiet and bucolic place, where rich Parisians had country houses and sent their children to be brought up by nannies. It is perhaps the fact that it has always been a residential place with little or no industry that has helped preserve its charm, with the medieval street layouts still resisting urban planners. However, it is far from being a sleepy place today. It may still have a village feel, but it is that of a village that could be situated equally in France, Algeria or Mali. 

It is this point which really differentiates it from the other ancient communities - such as Montmartre, Vaugirard and Batignolles - that were annexed by Paris at the same time. Although undoubtedly more touristic and superficially more attractive, the soul of these places was long ago sold to gentrification. Charonne is not a village of luxury food stores and antique shops, but rather a place that provides a home to those excluded from the city centre.

Walking along the Rue Saint Blaise you can see that in comparison to the city's other ancient villages, Charonne is a scruffy place. On the Passage des Deux Portes, an alleyway leading off from the Rue Saint Blaise, a recent survey found 35 different species of wild plants growing through the cracks in the pavement - the highest number of any street in the Paris region! This discovery seems completely appropriate in an area which mixes cobblestones and concrete, ancient lowrises and 1970s highrises.

It is though the scruffiness and disorganisation of this district that gives it its authenticity. On suntrap squares you won't find the terraces of chic bars or restaurants, but instead groups of kids playing football. 

These are the city backstreets, where narrow winding roads and alleyways are barriers to motor traffic. It is the kingdom of the pedestrian, with the kind of small community aspect that would be impossible along the broad Avenues and Boulevards of the rest of Paris. Charonne has no particular sites to see, but many surprises, such as the old Petite Ceinture railway line which appears overhead near the busy Rue des Pyrenées. Still technically operational today - and therefore forbidden to visitors - it offers an urban wilderness for the adventurous.

The Rue des Haies on the opposite side of the Rue des Pyrenées is the microcosm of today's village. The name itself was taken from the bushes that were situated on either side of the road in a more rural past, and although it has kept its crooked and winding form, it now mixes bright modern developments amongst its more ancient and crumbling housing stock. It is a street buzzing with movement, where people seem to live outside. On one corner, children on scooters whizz past elderly North African men sipping glasses of coffee outside a small bar. Further along, groups of young girls laugh and shout to each other across the street.

It is a timeless scene, and one typical of this unashamedly working class district. This is election time in France, and the walls are decorated with posters of the candidates. There are though no posters in support of Nicolas Sarkozy, but perhaps more importantly in this multi-cultural quarter, not a single poster for Marine Le Pen and the Front National either.

It is an area that supports the left-wing radicals, and it is no surprise to find a smart new library on the Rue des Haies named after the revolutionary Louise Michel. Typically, this impressive new facility is situated alongside a brick building housing a still operational - and judging by the numbers of people coming in and out - still clearly needed public baths. 

The Place de la Réunion
If there is a village square today it is most certainly the Place de la Réunion. It has been recently smartened up, and now provides miniature gardens with wild grasses and even a small stream. Picnic tables have been installed, offering views across what remains a roundabout bordered by concrete, but it has definitely been adopted by the local population. Small children run around, between men playing chess and old couples discussing how the district has - and hasn't - changed over the years.

The centre of the Place is also home to a market twice a week (on Thursdays and Saturdays), and this is the ideal time to visit. As you walk around the stalls under the recently planted Ginkgo and Stone Pine trees, you can easily question what continent you are in.

From the Place de la Réunion, take the Rue Alexandre Dumas for a final surprise - perhaps the city's best preserved art deco monument, the Saint Jean Bosco church. Although built 60 years after Charonne was absorbed into Paris, it was still designed with the local community in mind. The proof of it success? It's distinctive spire is known as the phare du quartier - the neighbourhood lighthouse!

Where to sleep

The Philippe Starck designed Mama Shelter hotel is mostly used by visitors to Paris as an economical base for exploring the traditional city sites, but as this converted car park is in fact situated in the heart of the old village, why not use it to explore Charonne itself?

Where to drink
There are any number of scruffy bars in Charonne, but the two that stand out are La Fleche d'Or and the Piston Pelican. La Fleche d'Or is situated in the old Charonne train station on the now unused Petite Ceinture line. It has undergone numerous refits over the years, but it is currently operating mostly as a concert venue for up and coming bands. Tickets are cheap, drinks slightly less so. The Piston Pelican, further down the Rue de Bagnolet near the Alexandre Dumas Metro station, has more of a pub atmosphere and frequent live bands.

Where to eat
The Mama Shelter hotel offers reasonable food, but it would be a shame not to venture out into the village. La Magnolia, on of several restaurants on the Rue Saint Blaise, sits in sight of a high-rise tower and - strangely enough - under the shade of a large Magnolia tree. On warm evenings the terrace provides an off-beat charm that feels a million miles away from the centre of Paris.


norman said...

What a delightful piece of writing and vision of Paris. Thanks so much; I think it is time to go there.

ParisMaddy said...

Wonderful walk through my favorite city. Merci.

Terence said...

Great destination indeed.

Anonymous said...

It is a lovely, genuine place indeed. Though I have a preference for La Butte aux Cailles area !

Anonymous said...

Zindem's café nera Porte de Bangnolet is also a great cafe/bar in the area

gee said...

sounds like a real dump to be honest especially the awfully named mama shelter hotel, the impression I get from you excllent writing is that instead of a socialist island in the stream its a kinda look at me socialist wannabe place, bourgeois is my guess as in karl

gee said...

Im not alover of paris either as in walking around it,last time there I had to have a fight in the metro with a pickpocket,I prefer London but your blog is brilliant and its nice reading about something without having to go there

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Twitter Instagram Write Bookmark this page More

Design by Free WordPress Themes | Bloggerized by Lasantha - Premium Blogger Themes | Premium Wordpress Themes