Around the world in 52 suburbs: Paris in May

Welcome back to Paris. Or Parises, I should say. While much of it may look the same, thanks to the homogenising effect of civic planner Georges-Eugene Haussmann and the ubiquitous café, there seems to be a new and different Paris around each and every corner.

Take my past month here for example. Having already explored three lesser-known neighbourhoods, I decided to live dangerously and visit a full-blown tourist trap for my fourth Paris instalment – the Marais.

Well, it was more a choice made by accident. Due to my sudden decision to stay longer in Paris, we had to find new accommodation quickly. When I spotted a tiny pied-à-terre in the Marais for a good price it got me thinking – was the Marais as soulless as it seemed?

At a quick glance the area, which straddles the 3rd and 4th arrondissement, seemed to be just expensive boutiques and cafes. But during a week of endless rain that kept the tourists away, I found another Marais, one with medieval winding streets lined with magnificent former mansions and breathtakingly beautiful gardens.

With rain dripping down its proud stone walls and without its adoring fans, I felt like I glimpsed into its aristocratic past and saw a little of what lies behind its present shiny veneer. So yes, the Marais has soul but you can only see it in the rain.

The following week I explored a neighbourhood that was almost the polar opposite – the Batignolles, in the “far” north of Paris. In place of tourists and chic Parisians was a mix of elderly folk and families with two kids and one on the way. Instead of empty boutiques were crowded boulangeries. In short, les Batignolles is not somewhere to see and be seen – it’s a place to play pétanque.

The week after my stroll through the Batignolles I headed east to the 18th arrondissement to a very different Paris yet again – Chateau Rouge.

Also referred to as la Goutte d’Or, this is the Little Africa of Paris. Amazingly, Chateau Rouge is just minutes away from tourist-crazed Montmartre and its top drawcard, the Sacre Coeur. One minute it’s all pretty pretty, then suddenly you’re wondering, what happened? Where did Paris go?

Markets here offer gombo (okra) not oysters or foie gras, and you have to elbow your way through or be elbowed. Shops are filled with colourful African materials not trendy western gear. Butchers are halal.


Exotic, yes, but at the end of the main open-air market a police car is almost permanently parked – along with the colour and movement are serious drug and crime problems. Add illegal immigration into the mix and you can start to understand why the locals were incredibly unhappy about my camera and I pitching up.

Since I wasn’t going to be able to do anything too deep, I decided to explore one particular facet of Little Africa – its “fashion”. The neighbourhood is filled with men and women who continue to dress as they would if they still lived in Africa – only now they’re in Paris, amongst the berets and trench-coats. The shock of hot, vivid colour against a sea of western blah and sombre tones is just fantastic.

Then there are the Africans who take their colourful heritage and apply it to a more contemporary look. I especially loved les sappeurs, men in suits who overdress in a playful, inventive way. I’d actually go so far to say that it was in Chateau Rouge that I saw the most interesting fashion I’ve seen so far in all of Paris (not that I hang with the fashionistas, of course).

Leaving the vibrant colour and edgy energy of Chateau Rouge behind, I headed off for my seventh and last neighbourhood in Paris to the eastern suburb of Montreuil.

Despite the fact it’s just 6.6 km from the city centre, Montreuil seems a million miles away. For starters, it’s sprawling with loads of open space, something you never find in Paris proper. The architecture isn’t charming or Haussmann-like but lots of people can afford to live in a house and have a garden. And while the place can appear super quiet, even boring, beneath the surface there’s a whole lot going on – film, art, music, dance. Potted pointy shoes even.

I’m sure if I stayed another year I’d discover a million other Parises. But this week we have to bid them all adieu because we’re off to our next stop, Rome. Time to pack away our berets and slip on an espadrille. See you there in a month’s time!

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