Prime numbers

Margaret Turton walks the gentrified 15th and moneyed 16th arrondissements of Paris linked by bridges across the Seine.

Poverty, according to the novelist George Orwell, frees people from normal standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work. Orwell came to this conclusion while living on the breadline in Paris in the late 1920s.

He was working as a dishwasher in restaurants with the chance of rising to lavatory attendant at an establishment on the Rue du Commerce in the 15th arrondissement. The kitchen was deplorable but the bar was enlivened with indecent pictures by an artist from the Paris Salon.

From such vantage points on the fringe of poverty, Orwell pondered the conditions of the casual labourer, recording observations in his first novel, Down and Out in Paris and London.

I mention this because the Rue du Commerce, the 15th and Paris restaurants in general have clearly risen several notches since Orwell's account, which now seems as distant as the Roman invasion of ancient Gaul.

I love the 15th arrondissement, though it will always lack the glamour of the neighbour it eyeballs across the Seine - the upmarket 16th arrondissement where, even in Depression-era Paris, moneyed people never really worked.

Several bridges link these vastly different districts. Pont d'lena runs from the Eiffel Tower (just beyond the edge of the 15th) to the Trocadero Gardens and Palais de Chaillot on the opposite bank of the river. Here, on the broad terrace, Hitler was photographed looking back across his newly conquered Paris in June 1940.

The next bridge is Pont de Bir-Hakeim, named after a French victory over Rommel in the Libyan desert. With locations in the 16th, it was a frequent backdrop in the Marlon Brando classic Last Tango in Paris.

Pont de Bir-Hakeim and Pont de Grenelle cross and grant access to a midstream island, Ile aux Cygnes (Island of the Swans), where a row of tall chestnut trees line a shaded walk (Alle des Cygnes) to a scaled-down Statue of Liberty at the island's downstream end. Pleasure boats and river cruisers glide back and forth and the Eiffel Tower provides a backdrop from a kilometre or so upstream.

But I digress. Elegant Haussmann-era city planning distinguishes the 16th. The 15th makes do with the city's first skyscraper, the provocative Tour Montparnasse. While sleek high-rise apartments have recently mushroomed on streets nearer the Seine, to the east Tour Montparnasse still looms higher; its bulk suggesting normal standards of aesthetics were suspended as it rose in the early 1970s.

That said, industrial areas in the 15th have given way to public spaces. Former horse markets and abattoirs have been transformed into a charming park that takes its name from postwar poet Georges Brassens. It has a wooded hill, a pond, a scented garden, a belfry, a small vineyard and some bee hives. Bronze statues of meat workers hauling carcasses suggest a link with a grittier past while the vast steel frame of the old Horses Hall shelters a popular book market most weekends.

It all brings to mind what Paris might have been like when its suburbs were villages. More importantly, it shows the way real Parisians lived.

But real people also reside in the elegant 16th. Like its recently gentrified neighbour, it's not really touristy. However, the 16th is where you find the people with the money. Onassis, Rainier, Rothschild - to name a few - lived in this district, along with patrons of the arts who left mansions and other legacies for all to see.

The sumptuous Noailles mansion was the home of Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles, last of the Parisian salonnieres - society women who brought together key figures in politics, culture and art. Here, between 1920 and 1970, she entertained Dali, Picasso, Cocteau and Man Ray in what is now the glittering showroom of crystal manufacturer Baccarat. Its gallery grants us entry to her world and the sumptuous Cristal Room restaurant is one of the most dramatic dining venues in Paris.

The 16th is also the district for big-scale art. Within their monumental halls overlooking the Seine, Palais de Chaillot and neighbour Musee d'Art Moderne hold some of the world's largest paintings. Noteworthy is Raoul Dufy's oversized mural The Electricity Fairy (1937) - a sort of hymn to the development of electricity - which occupies all four walls of an oversized room.

The 16th has a few surprises, too. In an unexpected twist, architect Le Corbusier's friend and patron Raoul La Roche commissioned an austere, almost monastic house on Square du Docteur Blanche in 1923. It is open to the public.

Also in the 16th, Maison de Balzac is not a mansion but a bolt hole where the writer Honore de Balzac took refuge from his various creditors in the 1840s.

Balzac adored this "carbon dioxide-filled atmosphere where flowers and books thrive like mushrooms". The house is much as he left it after completing his major work The Human Comedy. The garden displays a bust of Balzac looking more like a rugby player gone to seed than a gatherer of lilacs or astute observer of humanity. Below this garden was a secret gate to a cobbled lane that was his escape route from the bailiffs. It's still very rustic. Village-like, really.

Another artist's garden, house and studio - now the Musee Bourdelle - lies in the shadow of Tour Montparnasse. Here, Emile Bourdelle, a student of Rodin, lived and worked in the 15th until the late 1920s. His legacy is an example of a thriving Parisian atelier of the early 20th century and its calmness and beauty make Orwell's anguished observations of the working poor of Paris all the more compelling.

Margaret Turton travelled courtesy of the French Tourist Bureau and International Rail.


Getting there

Air France has a low-season fare to Paris for about $2340 return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax, to Singapore (8hr), then Paris (13hr 40min). This fare allows an extra return flight from Paris to another European city.

Staying there

In the 15th arrondissement, minutes from the Eiffel Tower, Adagio City Aparthotel Paris Tour Eiffel has high-rise apartment-style accommodation with access to a fitness area and indoor pool. Some apartments have sweeping views from the Seine and Eiffel Tower to Sacre Coeur on the horizon. Rates from €220 for a one-room apartment for two people, see

In the 16th arrondissement, Hotel Baltimore is a typical Haussmann-era building constructed in 1892. When it became a hotel in 1920 it was named after its first guest and regular resident Lord Baltimore who, according to the hotel management, was in love with Paris and its gastronomy and wine. Hotel Baltimore is part of the Accor Group's MGallery boutique hotel collection. Rooms from €205, see

Eating there

Cristal Room Baccarat, 11 Place des Etats-Unis, mains from €40. Phone +33 (0)1 4022 1110.

La Table du Baltimore, 88 Avenue Kleber, has creative modern cuisine in a chic and comfortable setting. Mains from €37. Phone +33 (0)1 4434 5434.

Victor, 101 Rue Lauriston, has traditional French cuisine and decor with mains from €18. Phone +33 (0)1 4727 5507.

Sightseeing there

Parc Georges Brassens, Rue des Morillons. Open daily, free entry.

Metro: Convention.

Noailles mansion (now Maison Baccarat), 11 Place des Etats-Unis. Open daily, 10am-6.30pm except Tues, Sun and public holidays. Entry €5. Metro: Kleber.

Villa La Roche by Le Corbusier, 8 Square du Docteur-Blanche. Open Mon, 1.30pm-6pm; Tues-Thurs, 10am-6pm; Fri-Sat, 10am-5pm. Entry €5. See Metro: Jasmin.

Maison de Balzac, 47 Rue Raynouard. Open Tues-Sun, 10am-5:30pm. Free entry. See Metro: Passy.

Musee Bourdelle, 16 Rue Antoine-Bourdelle. Open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm. Free entry. See Metro: Montparnasse-Bienvenue.