Ca Se Visite

January 10, 2006By Heidi EllisonWhat's New Potpourri

Belleville Up Close and Personal

One of Belleville’s bucolic passageways.

Belleville, a neighborhood full of unexpected charms, straddles two of Paris’s double-digit (19th and 20th) arrondissements, far from the city center. It remains practically unknown to tourists, and the residents of this quartier populaire (working-class neighborhood) would probably rather keep it that way. But the secret is out. Artists began colonizing many of its former workshops some time ago, and the inevitable gentrification is following hard on their heels.

Now is a good time to visit the neighborhood, before its loses its village-like character, which a number of associations are trying hard to preserve. One of them, Ca Se Visite, offers unusual tours of the area. Since Belleville has no famous monuments to show off, and its mixed bag of architectural styles includes few major gems, the tours concentrate on people – artists, shopkeepers, craftspeople and neighborhood old-timers – while touching on the neighborhood’s history.

To create these original tours, the ebullient guide Angenic, a storyteller at heart, did intensive research, interviewing older residents and gleaning their best stories to pass on to visitors. She was also able to gain access to many of the neighborhood’s hidden courtyards and passageways – with their grape arbors
and small gardens – which outsiders might otherwise never see.

Belleville has been a neighborhood of immigrants ever since it was first attached to Paris in 1860, but it still retains its village feel, with bustling specialist food shops and a neighborly ambiance. Noting that one of the area’s colleges had students of 80 nationalities, Angenic explained that the more settled Upper Belleville was home to mostly European immigrants, who arrived in waves beginning in the early 20th century, while Lower Belleville is still receiving recent newcomers.

During the tour called “Les Cours et les Artistes de Haut-Belleville” (Upper Belleville’s Courtyards and Artists) on a freezing winter’s day, Angenic took a small group to chat with an artist who calls himself KATS in his studio/gallery, and then on to one of Belleville’s (and Paris’s) best bakeries, La Pâtisserie de l’Eglise, where the owner was waiting with cups of real hot chocolate and a warm galette des rois (a traditional almond tart for Epiphany, omnipresent in France during the month of January), which he served while telling us about his profession and his work to preserve the neighborhood’s character.

In each courtyard and passageway, Angenic had a story to tell about its inhabitants, some of them amusing and others tragic. One house had been inhabited during World War II by a family with six children. When the Gestapo started taking his children’s Jewish friends away, the father hid two of them in his basement. Denounced by his neighbors, he was visited by the Gestapo, who demanded to know where the Jewish children were. When he continued to deny hiding them, they killed one of his sons. After the war, he raised the two children. All three still live in Belleville and remain close to each other.

In the Place du Guignier, Angenic showed the group where the young Maurice Chevalier, who was born in the neighborhood (as was Edith Piaf), got his start by singing while selling his grandmother’s hand-knitted socks.

The charms of Belleville’s hidden courtyards and passageways haven’t escaped the notice of a number of international stars. Among
those said to live in the area are Joan Collins, Juliette Binoche and Valerie Lemercier. And Johnny Depp was recently spotted scouting the neighborhood.

Ca se Visite offers a number of different tours – comparing Upper and Lower Belleville, for example, or looking at street art – some of them conducted by English-speaking guides.

Heidi Ellison

Ca Se Visite: 1, rue Robert Houdin, 75011 Paris. Tel.: 01 48 06 27 41. E-mail:

KATS: 20, rue de la Villette. Tel.: 06 82 73 52 95.

Pâtisserie de l’Eglise: 10, rue du Jourdain, 75020. Tel.: 01 46 36 66 08.

© 2006 Paris Update

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