A wonderful way to discover Paris is simply to wander -- the word in French is flaner. Pick a different neighborhood each day and spend a morning, afternoon and/or evening exploring it in depth.
Every corner of Paris has its charms, but the Parisian neighborhood of Butte aux Cailles, in the 13th arrondissement, is unique because it retains a small village ambiance in the midst of this bustling metropolis. The houses are petite. There's a smattering of bakeries, boutiques and quaint bistros, several pretty little plazas, and a handful of interesting landmarks.
The Butte aux Cailles area was named after the family Cailles that once farmed on the hillside (butte). Until the 19th century, two hundred watermills turned on the Bièvre, a river that flowed through the neighborhood, long since covered over. Perhaps the locale preserves its charm because the Butte remained a working-class village until it was incorporated into Paris in the late 1880s.
To explore this distinctive neighborhood (quartier), be sure to have a very detailed Paris street map or activate the GPS function on your smartphone. Get off at the Metro stop Corvisart or Place d'Italie.
The main streets of the quartier are the Rue des Cinq Diamants which intersects the Rue de la Butte aux Cailles. Stop at one of the quaint cafés. Browse the little shops for locally-made products such as honey and typical French home décor items. If it's raining, nose around at the indoor, flea market, Antiquités de la Butte aux Cailles, (31 rue Vergniaud; tel. 01/53-62-08-23; www.butte-aux-cailles.com). Light a candle or listen to a concert at the church, Sainte-Anne de la Butte aux Cailles (188 rue de Tolbiac; tel. 01/45-89-34-73).
Wander up and down the little streets. On the Rue Daviel, there are small houses, some done with decorative timbers and tiles. These are part of La Petite Alsace, public housing from the early 1900s. Across the way, on the Villa Daviel, admire the lovely houses and tiny gardens.
A really interesting tidbit of history occurred here in 1783. Pilâtre du Rozier landed the first, manned, hot-air balloon on the Butte. Check out the commemorative plaque in the Place Paul Verlaine.
Also, in the Place Paul Verlaine, there's a fountain fed by wellspring water. It's said that the locals fill water bottles at this source. Perhaps a wait-and-see approach would be best before you replenish your water bottle here.
In this spot in 1866, a natural hot spring was discovered. To take advantage of the waters, public baths were constructed in 1908. Then, the architect Louis Bonnier built an Art Nouveau-style swimming pool in 1924, supplied by the hot spring. Stick a bathing suit in your backpack because that stunning public pool is still in operation today, filled from that hot spring: Piscine de la Butte aux Cailles (5 Place Paul Verlaine; tel. 01/45-89-60-05).
Another of the neighborhood's claims to fame dates from the Paris Commune of 1871, a workers' revolt against the state. This working-class district was one of the strongholds where the Communards resisted the Versaillais troops until the bitter end. This is memorialized at the Place de la Commune de Paris in the center of the Butte aux Cailles.
Les Amis de la Commune de Paris (46 Rue des Cinq Diamants; tel. 01/45-81-60-54; http://lacomune.club.fr/pages/parent.html) is a non-profit organization with a little shop front. Stop by to find out more about this historic event.
Local residents are a bit up in arms these days for a different reason. They fear their delightful neighborhood will turn into a noisy bourgeois bohemian hot spot. But the positive side to gentrification is a nice choice of restaurants and cafés to relax in after you've explored the area. Here are a few to try:
- Les Cailloux (58 rue des Cinq Diamants; tel. 01/45-80-15-08; www.lescailloux.fr)
- Chez Gladines (30 rue des Cinq Diamants; tel. 01/45-80-70-10)
- Chez Paul (22 rue de la Butte aux Cailles; tel. 01/45-89-22-11)
- Le Temps des Cerises (20 rue de la Butte aux Cailles; tel. 01-45-89-69-48)
Walk around. Discover the sights. Then do what any self-respecting Parisian would do -- sit for hours over a delicious meal.
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