Friday 28 February 2014

'La Révolution de Paris': walking as a revolutionary act

Around 27 million tourists visit Paris each year, but only a small percentage of these people step outside of the city limits. A specially drawn footpath around Paris – and a new book detailing the route - aims to change this situation. Here I discuss the path and the Paris suburbs with its creator, Paul-Hervé Lavessiere, and with Baptiste Lanaspeze, the book's editor and the publisher of a wider series of urban walks.

The idea for a metropolitan trail winding around Paris through its suburbs began two years ago…in Marseille! Baptiste Lanaspeze, owner of Wildproject, a militant publisher of environmental texts, had based the first of his urban walks around France’s second-largest city (where he is also based). Paul-Hervé Lavessiere, a young urbanist, was one of the first to follow the path. After meeting Baptiste, the idea of creating something similar around Paris began to germinate.

Paul-Hervé readily admits that he knew very little about the Paris suburbs before plotting his walk, and was actually based in Brussels as he drew out the route. As an urbanist and cartographer though, what he did know about is cities and maps. Using a combination of free mapping software, historical maps and online resources, Paul-Hervé designed a trail that he believed told the story of the suburbs and would provide numerous points of interest to walkers.

Talking 'bout a revolution
One word immediately jumped out at Paul-Hervé and Baptiste when discussing this walk; revolution. The walk circles the city, but as the two men point out, it also aims to reunite Paris with its suburbs…and with its head! The walk starts and ends in Saint Denis, a city named after a 'saint' who legend has it walked from Paris to this spot carrying his head under his arm. It was once the final resting place of the country’s kings and queens, but became a city that was chopped away from Paris after the French revolution.

After drawing the walk, the next act was to test the route – and to write about the experience! Paul-Hervé and Baptiste followed the 130 kilometre path through 37 towns and across the four administrative districts that surround Paris. The walk was spread across three weekends, with the six days of walking punctuated by three nights in the distinctly ordinary chain hotels that are a feature of such suburban environments. The choice to break up the walk in this way was a deliberate one, primarily to avoid a kind of sensory overload.

The experience exceeded their expectations and convinced them of the importance of such urban pathways. The published account of the walk is a charming and cheery look at an environment more accustomed to negative publicity, and should inspire many others to follow their footsteps. The route can be found here, and will also shortly be available as an application.

Buy the book:

The interview
I recently met with Paul-Hervé and Baptiste and discussed this walk and future projects with them.

What is the idea behind the 'sentier métropolitain' series of walks? Do you plan to create others?

Baptiste: The idea is that they should represent a contemporary form of rambling in a world that has changed immeasurably since the 19th century when the discipline first appeared. The most spectacular change has been the peri-urbanisation of our landscapes, and the explosion of urban spaces around our cities. After the GR2013 around Marseille, the Révolution de Paris, and the Broadway Transect in New York, we are investigating other tracks through the metropolitan areas of Venice, Glasgow and Rome…and we hope around other French cities soon. We believe that urban rambling can deeply change the way we live in metropolitan areas, and also – in the longer term – the way we design these areas.

How did you design this particular route around Paris? Was it an easy task to pick out the route?

Paul-Hervé:  I began by researching possible routes using Wikipedia and the websites of the towns around Paris and their tourist information services. I needed to find out as much as possible about this complex territory and pick out its attractions. At the beginning I didn’t really know where to start, but after pinning my various points of interest I started to feel more at ease, and the path became clearer. There were different possibilities, but it was the Saint-Denis – Créteil – Versailles triangle that jumped out at me quite quickly as it meant I could forget about Paris without turning my back on it completely. 

As I drew the path I thought about the act of walking and the rhythm of a day. I wanted something that would be comfortable, varied, with the picturesque and the spectacular, but also with a little bit of dirt and danger. However, even the things that I thought might be a bit grungy turned out to be very calm and quiet during the walk (the Carrefour Pompadour in Créteil for example). I also wanted to include as many pedestrian bridges and tunnels as possible (there are 60 in total in the walk) which enable the walker to cross motorways, rivers and canals and train tracks. Using these crossings enables you to feel agile in the city. It’s as if you know all the shortcuts even if you’ve never visited the place before. I like that idea a lot.

All of that I learned during my walk on Baptiste’s GR2013 around Marseille in October 2012. In many ways I’m a graduate of the GR2013! I discovered many of the ‘things’ that make a good urban walk.

During the walk, did you always respect the path you had drawn?

Paul-Hervé: Nearly always – we were very disciplined! However, some of the first people to follow the route – old University friends of mine – immediately veered off the path towards Drancy, and they were absolutely right to do so!  A path is just a proposition, and you have to know how and when to leave it. The advantage of being situated in an urban area is that it’s simple to make endless variants. It’s different in the mountains. A detour I took in the Mercantour nearly cost me my life!

Are all the suburbs of large cities very similar, or do the Paris suburbs have any specific features that make them more interesting?

Baptiste: If all city suburbs share some characteristics, each metropole has enormous diversity, and the more we explore these landscapes, the more we become sensitive to these nuances. In other words, perhaps we can say that all suburbs are similar only in the fact that we project the same prejudices on them the world over! The places we discovered on our walk completely exploded the image we had of the Paris suburbs. We had in mind this image of huge tower blocks and fragmented, disadvantaged spaces. What we discovered were territories dominated by attractive, extremely fluid and well-equipped residential areas.  

Paul-Hervé: I don’t know too many other cities, but for example in Belgium it’s often the city centres that are disadvantaged with the rich inhabitants installing themselves in the green suburbs. A walk around Brussels would therefore be more like a Sunday stroll in the country. Looking more closely though, you’ll always find the same ‘behind the scenes’ elements, such as electricty pylons, train lines and, motorways. And it’s probably these things that unite all large cities. Wherever you are though, there is always something typically ‘local’. Houses in Blanc-Mesnil don’t look the same as those in Marseille or Lille.


You declare in the book that a ‘sentier métropolitain’ is the opposite of a Debordian drift, and a discipline that you need to impose on yourself. Is it not a little frustrating therefore to not explore away from the defined path?

Baptiste: Well, if it is on a drift or a defined itinerary, it’s never possible to walk in two different places at once! Walking means making choices! That said, we were often tempted to make some detours – or micro-drifts – and generally we allowed ourselves to do this! But you know, it can be exhilarating to follow a long path – to know that it is efficient and without dead-ends, with places to see. We never felt like we were stuck on defined tracks, we felt rather that we were on some kind of metropolitan fault line. In fact, we felt extremely free!

Paul-Hervé: Yes, following a defined path enables you to disconnect from material issues and just enjoy walking and discovering. The thing that really stands out in François Maspéro’s ‘Les Passagers du Roissy Express’ - a book that was very important for us during this adventure, is just how much they struggle with little things on their journey, such as finding their way and finding places to sleep. These things can be extremely stressful, but our six days were completely stress-free. Again, it was also the GR2013 that enabled me to discover the northern districts of Marseille (nb a zone with the reputation of being dangerous). I would probably never have gone there if I didn’t have a defined route to follow.

You describe the landscape of the suburbs as being ‘exotic in its incredible banality’. This refers, for example, to bridges, shunting stations, factories and residential areas. Why is it important to explore such areas, and how can we do so without being a kind of urban voyeur? In other words, how can we connect with such areas when we live outside of them?

Baptiste: One thing that does make me feel uncomfortable in guided urban walks is being in the middle of a group. It’s easy to feel a bit voyeuristic or just not in your place. In our case though, it was very different. We were just two or three people together, as simple pedestrians, friends and unguided walkers – so without any feeling of awkwardness at any moment. On top of that, we talked with the people we met, and told them about our adventure. We weren’t any more voyeuristic than them! We were just making encounters.

Paul-Hervé: Yes, that’s true. It was easy to imagine ourselves as locals, or people visiting friends. I can say that this question never even occurred to us. With a smile or a simple ‘bonjour’ we quickly and easily connect with people, and generally people appreciate having visitors in their town. Sometimes they have fascinating stories to tell!

The path you designed never touches Paris, but you give the impression that the city is always very close by. Can we – or should we – forget Paris when we are exploring the suburbs?

Baptiste: We never set foot inside the city of Paris, but we were always in the heart of the ‘grand Paris’. When you walk through a landscape that has been densely built for more than a century, with lots of shops and facilities, you always feel like you are in a city! Especially when you endlessly come across Metro stations!

Paul-Hervé: One of the interests of the Saint Denis – Créteil – Versailles triangle is that it doesn’t ignore Paris, but neither does it form a perfect circle around it. It just exists in its own way. If you decided to walk from Montmartre to Belleville, you wouldn’t apologise for not visiting Notre Dame. This walk has also increased the pleasure I now get from discovering Paris. Just the other day I walked from Stalingrad to Les Halles, and it was a real delight. I think these six days around the suburbs have helped me to also see Paris in a different light, and to be more relaxed in the city.

This ‘revolution’ took you six days and three nights. You also did the walk in a clockwise direction, starting and ending in Saint Denis at ‘12 o’clock’. Is this the way the walk should be done? If not, what advice would you give to people planning to follow the path?

Baptiste: There is no one way to do this walk, but we were definitely in agreement between ourselves that that was the way we should do it. Starting and ending in Saint-Denis seemed completely logical to us, and moving toward the 93 department, towards Bobigny, seemed natural, then on to Créteil, and to Versailles. The metaphor of this walk as the face of a clock also spoke to us in a poetic manner, because a clock is time…and space! Inversely…and the ‘sentiers métropolitains’ are very conscient of this…this is a post-relativity project! Walking through our cities means travelling through time…

Paul-Hervé: Yes, we did it that way, but it could have been different and it wouldn’t have made much difference. If we lived in Suresnes or Bondy for example, there would be no reason to begin in Saint Denis. Saint-Denis though turned out to be an excellent start point and a magical destination. It’s a very powerful place with lots of life and significance.
If you had to recommend only place on this path to visit, which one would it be?

Baptiste: Just one? That’s cruel…We walked for 130 km and for 6 days. Ok then, I’d say the Parc des Lilas in Thiais.

Paul-Hervé: Damn…mine would be just off the path, but it’s a place I love too much! It’s an immense footbridge over the railway lines near the Drancy train station. Go and listen to the music of train shunting, under huge skies. You can even see a small Sacré Cœur in the distance.


Coming soon: a New York walk
Following the publication of ‘La Revolution de Paris’, Baptiste Lanaspeze is now putting the finishing touches to a similar urban route through New York. Named ‘A New Broadway Guide’, this electronic publication plots a 33 mile transect from Sleepy Hollow to Battery Park. Rather than being a single route seen by one person, it is instead divided into eight chapters, with each portion of the route being followed and described by specialists from various disciplines, including urban planning, philosophy, history and anthropology (the excellent Hugh Raffles). 

Win a copy of the guide!
To win a copy of this walk/book/guide, simply leave a comment below telling me about your favourite suburban location in the world. The most interesting suggestion will win the guide! Update: ParisGrrl's Newfoundland comment is the winner!


Thérèse said...

Excellent post (as always)

ParisGrrl said...

What a cool idea! I think my favorite suburban haunts were in Newfoundland--even the cities aren't terribly large, so it's easy to wander off the main tracks. There's a lot of Victorian influence there, so it often feels like wandering through a more rustic version of San Francisco.

Anonymous said...

I love the idea of a path as a proposition. Interesting article and I totally agree that behind-the-scenes often looks the same all over the world, and then you spot something particular to that area and that's the treasure.

Chickenhom said...

Great post.

Trouble with nyc is there's no periph. The "suburbs" really start in South Brooklyn, central Queens and somewhere North of Harlem, all part of nyc. Westchester is more similar to a big chunk of Yvelines than the petit couronne.

DavyJones said...

Excellent idea, and one that makes me think of Iain Sinclair's London Orbital. Actually, my favourite suburban place is in the outskirts of London, even if in that city it is more difficult to say what is the London and what is the suburbs. I love the Rainham marshes nature reserve, a pretty wild place that sits alongside a tidal Thames and some pretty heavy industry.

Anonymous said...

Wish that, as was done with Versailles, Rueil-Malmaison and Ile des Impressionistes had been included in a detour. But then that would have shown some older architecture much like paris.

Mitch said...

Interesting conversation. It's a bit hard to tell on that map but it looks like the path might meander through Boulogne-Billancourt, which contains one of my favorite suburban destinations, the Musée Albert Kahn.

William Nuttle said...

I have enjoyed reading this blog for the past couple years, and so it is a pleasure for me to be able to contribute something in return. The city of Paris owes its existence to its geography, which made it a critical node in a network of footpaths that spanned Europe in ancient times. These pathways have left their impression on modern-day transportation systems.

Janet said...

Bravo et merci d'avoir transcrit " noir sur blanc " les propos des deux comparses entendus -puis vite oubliés- sur France Inter lors de la parution de leur épopée... Je pars de ce pas voir si ma librairie va pouvoir assurer ma lecture de fin de semaine.
Une fois encore,un très très grand merci !

public squares said...

I am over and over again pleasanly surpised with the new/old idea of exploring the cities. Excelent post.
My favorite suburban stroll in recent years was true the city of Gracia swallowed by the much more famous Barcelona.

Adam said...

Thanks for all your comments. I'm not sure who you are ParisGrrl, but I declare you the winner of the New York guide! We generally associate suburbs with large cities, so it's interesting to also imagine them in more remote locations...and to know that these suburbs look like San Francisco!

If you read this, contact me (adam @ invisibleparis (dot) net) for details on how to claim the guide!

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