Shabby-Chic In Paris' Own East End

13 October 2015
Read Time: 2.4 mins

Back in the day - well, before it was absorbed into Paris' metropolitan sprawl in the 1860s - Belleville was a hilltop village, characterised by farms, windmills and wineries. Located in the 20th arrondissement, in the French capital's gritty, working-class 'east end', it has long been overshadowed by more glamorous Parisian districts like Montmartre and Montparnasse.

But Belleville has emerged as one of the city's most hip, happening and artistic areas - and this year, there's added spotlight here as it's the centenary of the birth of Belleville's most famous daughter, Edith Piaf.

 A typical street scene (Image: Steve McKenna)

You'll see black and white photographs of the 'Little Sparrow', as the songstress was known, on the walls of some of Belleville's bars and tabacs (tobacco stores) - while her legendarily throaty tunes, such as ''No je ne regrette rien' and 'La vie en rose', occasionally drift from speakers.

One notable Piaf-tinged joint in Belleville is Cafe Aux Folies (a 30-second walk from the metro station at rue de Belleville, 8). Apparently, a young Piaf did cabaret here.

It may have spawned one of France's most iconic figures, but Belleville isn't your quintessential Parisian neighbourhood. Incredibly cosmopolitan, it's been a magnet for immigrants since the late 19th century; firstly Armenians, Greeks and Ashkenazi Jews, then later those from former French colonies, and beyond.

 Cosmopolitan Belleville (Image: Steve McKenna)

Amble along its winding rues and bustling boulevards, and you'll see bazaars and market stalls helmed by vendors of North and Sub-Saharan African origin, and shops, halal butchers and restaurants etched with signs in Mandarin, Vietnamese and Arabic. Myriad languages waft through air, though French is definitely the most audible.

Listen out for 'le accent de Belleville', supposedly the Parisian equivalent of east London's cockney dialect.

Attracted by its relatively affordable rents, more and more artists and creatives have gravitated to Belleville. Sometimes labelled Bobos - bourgeois bohemians - they're behind many of the new galleries, salons, boutiques, shabby-chic bistros and gourmet bakeries to mushroom in the district.

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One of Belleville's hippest areas is Place Frenel, at the corner of rue de Belleville and rue Julien Lacroix. A giant mural lords over this little square next to Cream Cafe (which serves craft-roasted coffee from the widely-acclaimed Belleville Brulerie).

 Wall art in a bar near Canal St Martin (Image: Steve McKenna)

Street art also peppers perhaps the most captivating spot in Belleville: the spacious, column-studded terrace that sits atop Parc de Belleville. You can enjoy superb views of Paris, with the Eiffel Tower soaring gloriously in the distance.

Belleville is within pretty easy reach of other intriguing Parisian neighbourhoods, such as Menilmontant in the adjoining 11th arrondissement. Here, you'll find rue Oberkampf, a vibrant street lined with raffish establishments, many spilling out on to the pavements, especially during happy hour.

The eclectically-furnished Le Cafe Charbon (at rue Oberkampf 109) is a particularly enchanting spot for a coffee or cocktail. Incidentally, at nearby 5 rue Crespin du Gast - Edith Piaf's former apartment - a small museum houses her old personal objects, including a black dress that she often performed in.

 The city from Parc de Belleville (Image: Steve McKenna)

North of Belleville, in the 19th arrondissement, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is a bit of a hidden gem. Conceived by Emperor Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann, the architect who remodelled Paris in the mid 19th century, this family-friendly park - a less-crowded alternative to the city centre's Jardin du Luxembourg - was built on what had been the site of medieval gallows, a sewage dump and a horses' knackers' yard.

For half of the year, it's perfect for a wine-fuelled picnic.

East of Buttes-Chaumont is Paris' often overlooked canal network. You can take cruises on Canal Saint-Martin and Canal de l'Ourcq, but they are, I find, a treat to walk along (at least when it's not raining).

Their tree-fringed banks are dotted with cool places in which to eat, drink and shop - and unlike other parts of Paris, you're unlikely to be bothered by tourist hordes, touts and pick pockets.

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Steve McKenna

A regular contributor to some of Australia's leading newspapers and travel magazines, Steve McKenna has visited, written about and photographed more than 80 countries on six different continents. He fears he has an incurable case of wanderlust and is particularly fond of Europe, Asia and South America.