In her internationally acclaimed series Around and About Paris, author Thirza Vallois takes you on numerous walks to the hidden villages of Paris. Following is a visit to a couple of those that lie in eastern Paris. You will find the full story of the area in Around and About Paris/ Volume III, in the chapter on the 20th arrondissement.
Spring is a good time to explore the lesser known “villages” of Paris, all of which lie blissfully beyond the tourist track. They come in different shapes and sizes and were often humble working-class or artists’ quarters. Today, when a patch of greenery is viewed as an item of luxury, they are highly coveted by Parisians, and provide a delightful destination for the adventurous among you.
Start from Place de la Porte de Bagnolet on the eastern edge of the circular Boulevard Extérieurs, also known as the Boulevards des Maréchaux after the twenty military heroes they commemorate. This is a busy junction dense with traffic, but it is also a pleasant spot of greenery, especially if you look north and ignore the unsightly blocks of flats behind you. On the left-hand side, a charming row of terrace houses, standing on a ridge, their pocket-size gardens lush with bushy vegetation, belies the stereotyped image of all you have been told about the infamous arrondissement. A substantial flight of steps leads you to a compound of 89 houses called “La Campagne à Paris”, one of the rare examples of successful council housing in Paris, where aesthetics and the environment were given careful thought.
Although Napoleon III was the first to grasp the importance of environment as a weapon to defuse social discontent, and contributed greatly to the embellishment of Paris by way of gardens and tree-lines avenues, he failed to solve the proletarian housing problem and swept it under the carpet, pushing the poor further and further away from the centre of the city, and out of his sight. But some 50 years later, Paul Strauss took the bull by the horns and set out to prove that the labourer of eastern Paris was not an unbridled murderous brute bent on terrorising his social betters, but an honest citizen – provided he was allotted decent housing.
The hill on which the houses were built is actually artificial, for until 1875 this had been the gaping hole of a gypsum quarry, possibly the last
 one in Paris. Its owner, unable to find a buyer, filled it up with rubble from the newly opened eastern section of the Avenue de la République, Avenue Gambetta, rue Belgrand and rue des Pyrénées. He planted acacia and plane trees to retain the soil of the new hillock and gave it the pretty name of l’Ermitage Gambetta. In 1907 the newly formed philanthropic society “La Campagne à Paris”, a subsidiary of a charity founded to combat tuberculosis, took over the tree-shaded hill and built on it houses. However, work came to a halt with the outbreak of World War I, which delayed the completion of the project until 1926.
The official inauguration ceremony on 20 June was honoured with the presence of the Mayor as well as Paul Strauss, Irénée Blanc and Jules Siegfried, the three promoters of this happy initiative who are commemorated in the three street names of this housing estate. Monsieur Sully Lombard, chairman of the society, gave an address in which he said the site was “worthy of being sung of by a Virgil or a Ronsard. It is enough for us,” he went on, “to look at these 89 houses, to contemplate this little village, in the heart of Paris, this village where we feel good, despite some of the inconveniences of the countryside, despite the early morning crowing of the cock, the inordinate barking of the dogs, the nasal sound of phonographs which can be heard from the very first summer evenings. It is enough for us to see this string of houses with their gardens and flowers, to note the considerable progress achieved in France in the field of hygiene and social welfare.” Looking towards the future he continued: “May the whole of France be covered with low-cost houses and we shall have no cause to envy those ancient times when, it is said, simplicity of manner reigned, when neither the unwholesome thirst for pleasure nor greed had yet consumed the hearts of men. Isn’t the family “cottage” a guarantee of health, temperance and morality just as the hovel is a cause of disease, wretchedness and all the shame that comes from lack of willpower?”
Their example was not followed and France was not covered with little cottages surrounded by pretty gardens. Instead, from the 1950s on, a new generation of town planners set out to wreck Paris, and indeed France at large, by creating dehumanised urban and suburban ghettos, edgy and ready to explode. But here, as you stroll through these quiet streets, you will be enchanted by the unaffected good taste of the houses, where Art Nouveau and Art Deco have left their subtle mark.
After meandering through rues Irénée Blanc, Jules Siegfried and Paul Strauss, walk down the steps towards the Place Chanute and left into rue du Capitaine Ferber to Place Edith Piaf, one of those shaded refreshing spots, somewhat provincial yet so Parisian, graced with one of Sir Richard Wallace’s fountains, one of Paris’s trademarks. There is also a sculpture of Edith Piaf here, but it is stuck to a drab slab of concrete and does justice neither to the square nor to Piaf, despite its attempt to convey the extraordinary expressiveness of her tiny face and hands. Only the faded flower, laid in the singer’s vibrating hands by an anonymous admirer, redeems the sight. Place Edith Piaf is situated next to the Hôpital Tenon, where Edith was probably born (although some claim she was born on the threshold of 72 rue de Belleville, as reported earlier).
Walk down rue Belleport, past rue des Lyanes. Ahead, at 148 rue de Bagnolet, lies the lovely garden of the Hospice Debrousse, a home for the elderly and the blind opened in 1892, a shrunken remnant of the Orléans’s Château de Bagnolet, which, in 1719, became the property of Marie-Bourbon, Duchesse d’Orléans, wife of the Régent and the legitimised daughter of Louis XIV and of Madame de Montespan.
Having extended the estate, in 1734 she proceeded to build the gemlike Pavillon de l’Ermitage in front of you, to which one had access through a regal gate. The Duchess, however, entered her estate through another gate, which was located beyond the present Boulevard Davout and was reached by way of the tree-lined Allée de Madame (now rue des Orteaux). Her grandson, Louis-Philippe d’Orléans, inherited the property in 1763. Louis-Philippe was a devout man, deridingly nicknamed “le pieux”. Offended by the delicate murals that decorated the oval vestibule of the pavilion, representing the Temptations of Saint Antoine, he had them all washed out, except for the hermit, who was left intact!
Turn left into rue des Balkans. Behind the arcades at no 19 looms the old church tower of Charonne. At no 13, the old branches of wisteria, burdened with purple blossoms in early spring, have become one with the iron railing of the fence and add pleasantly to the weight of time.
Rue Victor Segalen has to date preserved its old shacks – a humble spot yet not devoid of charm with its bits of ceramic decoration on the corner house of rue Riblette. Rue Vitruve, at the end of rue des Balkans to your right, borders a unique enclave, the Village Saint-Blaise, shining white with the gentrified farmhouses of the former village of Charonne (the surrounding high-rises must, of course, be ignored). A charming garden lies at the back of the houses, boasting bright rosebushes, a soothing fountain and one ancient tree.
Rue Vitruve leads to Place des Grès, once the old village square. As such this was where justice was dispensed by the lords of Charonne (except for hangings and beheadings, which took place on rue de la Justice further north, just south of the reservoir of Ménilmontant). A post was set up here to which the condemned would be tied with an iron collar, his offence billed on his chest and back as a deterrent for all to see. Thus the square was previously known as Place du Carcan (“iron collar”) and Place du Poteau (“post”). The lords of Charonne were hardly tender-hearted: in 1770, for having stolen some seeds one night, Louis-Claude Milcent, a poor vine grower, was brought here after mass and tied to the post until 2 in the afternoon. He was then birched and branded on his right shoulder with the letter GAL, which stood for galley. The poor wretch was condemned to the King’s galleys for three entire years, while his wife was made to watch her husband being chastised and to pay a fine of three pounds, following which she was banished from her village for the three years he was away. Two decades later, the relentless overlords of France’s downtrodden peasantry would pay heavily for their historical short-sightedness. Today a modern sculpture of a couple stands on the old square. Could the artist have had in mind poor Milcent, the vine grower, and his wife from the village of La Petite Charonne?
Around and About Paris by Thirza Vallois is published by Iliad Books, UK.
To order a copy of the books and for more information: http://www.thirzavallois.com