An Emperor’s dream
Le Village de Charonne and other Paris villages almost disappeared when Napoleon III, who had a grand vision for the French capital, annexed suburbs around Paris. These communities had until then led peaceful, pastoral lives outside the old city walls, the Enceinte des Fermiers Généraux (the Farmers General wall.) Baron Haussmann (in charge of carrying out the Emperor’s dream,) needed extra land to create the large avenues, parks and boulevards that would become his signature style. He got it after Napoleon III signed the Decree of Annexation in 1859.
160 years ago, 500,000 people previously living in the suburbs became Parisians overnight. It took a while for many to recover and adjust. The “Grand Paris” (No, the current city mayor Anne Hidalgo did not invent the concept!) was launched. The city was organized in 20 arrondissements, now sprawling all the way to the other wall, the Thiers Wall, built in the early 19th century. Taxes previously levied within the Farmers General wall were extended to the new neighborhoods within the Thiers wall, a very beneficial move for the authorities. Thus started a major exodus out of the French capital when newly-minted Parisians (many from the working classes,) could not afford to remain in the city. Napoleon III was about to create the modern, beautiful capital that (he hoped) would finally eclipse London.
Irresistible “village Paris”
I have always been fond of the 2-digit arrondissements, as a local, when I lived here for a decade until I relocated to Seattle, and later as a visitor, during my American years. To me, a perfect day in Paris often involves quiet, quaint, village-like neighborhoods instead of the crowded, or more elegant areas along the Seine river downtown. I live off la Petite Ceinture, at the intersection of Vincennes, St Mandé and Montreuil, by choice. My preference for authentic, small-scale Paris is reflected in stories written on this blog over the years. From Belleville to Montmartre, from Auteuil, to Passy, les Batignolles, la Butte aux Cailles, la Mouzaïa, or la Campagne à Paris, I enjoy exploring many of the former Paris villages (and smaller neighborhoods) and often bring my readers along. I still remember when hardly anyone visited them. Before gentrification set in, parts of these out-of-the-way neighborhoods were a bit rough around the edges; and that kept many tourists (and a few Parisians too!) at bay. Everything’s changed. I hear English (and other languages) spoken along some of these streets. I see photos of la Butte aux Cailles, la Cité Fleurie or le parc de Belleville on Instagram daily. I hope that before packing their camera, visitors dig a little deeper and take the time to discover the stories that make these corners of Paris so unique.
Le Village de Charonne
No wonder I like it so much here: le village de Charonne could be anywhere en province. In the heart of the old village, there’s a church, Saint-Germain de Charonne, towering over a small square, la place St Blaise. It sits on the site of an old chapel built in the 9th century. A local legend claims that a long time ago, Saint Germain, the bishop of Auxerre, Burgundy, met a young girl nearby. Her name was Geneviève. She came from Nanterre, west of downtown, and later became the patron saint of Paris. A painting inside immortalizes the scene. One of the last Parisian parish cemeteries sits behind the church. You may recognize a few names on gravestones even if most did not make the international Hall of Fame.
Saint Blaise: Welcome to the neighborhood!
In the village de Charonne, vignerons (wine makers,) maraîchers (vegetable and fruit growers) petits métiers (tradespeople) are long gone, as are fields and vineyards. Wine was once plentiful here, and until the annexation, so much cheaper than in heavily-taxed Paris, on the other side of the Farmers General wall! There were lively guinguettes, where local factory workers and craftsmen rubbed shoulders and enjoyed a bit of fun on Sundays. Today, pedestrian-friendly rue St Blaise, once the neighborhood’s lifeline, still winds down the hill, lined with boulangeries, restaurants and bars, revealing courtyards, small alleyways, rows of modest low houses, (former blue collar workers’ homes,) to the curiosity-driven visitor’s eye. As befits small town life en province, a lull falls on the street in the early afternoon, after the lunch crowd has left.
Disclaimer. The challenge when visiting Charonne, is to ignore what is around the village: high rises, loud streets, cars, in short, modern day Paris. It’s worth it, however. Walk across pretty place des Grès, with its fountain and café to reach le square des Grès, named after an old cobble stone depot. You will find honeysuckle, wisteria, climbing roses, and a playground where local children come after school. You will also see nearby high rises. Block them out, as I did, and as locals likely do.
More village de Charonne exploration
Le village de Charonne once had a train station. It sat along la Petite Ceinture, the circular railway that used to go around Paris from the late 19th century to the 1930s. The train station was rehabilitated into a café with live music, la Flèche d’Or, for a while, but it is empty once again. What will it be next?
Le village de Charonne has a giant salamander climbing alongside a tall building… and a plaque honoring a notorious former resident, the late Barbara.
At the end of a quiet street where elementary school children can be heard playing during recess (or summer camp,) le village de Charonne has a large garden, le Jardin Naturel, promoting biodiversity in Ile-de-France. On a hot day, it provides welcome shade and a chance to sit on a bench in a peaceful environment. There’s more: the park sits below the Père Lachaise cemetery. Visitors can see the top of ornate graves peeking above a high wall. At the end of the garden, an arched passageway and a few stairs leads into the cemetery.
Charonne has a lot to offer and in spite of its busy surroundings, manages to retain charm and authenticity. A few days after I took these photos in July, I showed a couple of clients around le village de Charonne and the 20th arrondissement. Their request when they contacted me: “We know Paris well. Surprise us.” — Mission accepted… and accomplished. When touring season wraps up, and I return to l’Ile de France, I will be looking forward to bringing more visitors to this special corner of the French capital. I may introduce them to some of the characters who lived there a long time ago, when the small village de Charonne was not part of Paris (quite happily so.)
Additional material: Charonne in the 1970s
Here’s an interesting documentary filmed more than 40 years ago. Locals in Charonne (who all knew each other,) were getting ready to fight for the preservation of their village, as modern buildings and high-rises started to encircle them, and riverains were moving away. They were right to worry: We all know some of the eyesores 1960s and 1970s urbanism efforts spawned in downtown Paris. Fortunately, they persevered and were successful in preserving not only buildings and streets, but also a community feeling that still survives today. (in French)
How to get to le village de Charonne
Le Village de Charonne is located between the Père Lachaise cemetery and the Porte de Montreuil, from boulevard de Charonne to boulevard Davoud. It takes the good part of a day (with a sit-down lunch) to explore all the hidden corners of the neighborhood. I have only shown a few here. We, tour guides, like to keep a few secrets! 😉 Bonne visite!
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I lived about 10 minutes from here. I like to think the name of my street – rue des Maraîchers – was a throwback to its rural origins. Charonne is smaller than some other Paris villages and it does take some imagination to block out the surrounding high rises, but it is worth a visit. In fact I would say the whole of this end of the 20th ie southeast of Père Lachaise is worth a wander. One of the last unknown corners of the city.
I could not agree more, even if I believe there aren’t any unknown corners of Paris by now , just “less known” ones. Lucky you to have lived in le village de Charonne!
I’d heard rumor that parts of Petite Ceinture is to become a pedestrian walkway, similar to the Highline in NYC. There’s a placard on part of it up in the 19ème near La Villette with some marketing message about it right next to Simonetta (trendy hipster Pizza ?).
Bonjour Kim. As you know, Paris already has a pedestrian walkway in the 12th arrondissement, la Coulée Verte, that actually inspired the NYC Highline many years ago 😉 La Petite Ceinture is accessible, in sections, and interesting initiatives are popping up, here and there along the old tracks. I can’t wait to see what shows up in the 19th where you saw that sign!
Very interesting – thank you Veronique.
I’ve stayed at Mama Shelter – is that near to this area?
Bonjour! Mama Shelter is located on rue de Bagnolet in the 20th as I recall, and yes, that would be very close to the area I show here. Hope you get to return and explore further. A bientôt.
I have always admired your command of the English language. and today’s essay has once again confirmed it. Please continue your entertaining series of articles about the city that both of us love!
Merci beaucoup Ken. That is very nice of you to say. I enjoy writing (in French or in English) and am planning to continue telling a few stories now and then, not just about Paris, but also about la Belle France. I hope you enjoy them too!
This is the first time I’ve read your stories about la Belle France. I’ve been to Paris several times and to Normandy and Mougins as well. My dreams are often set in delicious Paris. I’m 70 years old, an amateur portrait artist, and I would still love to live there one day, so I read as much as I can about life in France…my guilty pleasure.
My husband and I have a timeshare in Vincennes and expect to be there again next year for a week. I count the days…
Bonjour Pat. Bienvenue. May I ask where you heard about the French Girl in Seattle blog, since this is your first visit here? A time share in Vincennes sounds fabulous. I lived there for several years with my family as a college student and am only a few minutes away from the town center currently. Love it out here! A bientôt.
Hi Vero, I always enjoy your posts on FB but finally signed up to receive your blogs on email. My grandmother was born at 3 rue du Parc, Saint-Mande not far from the 20th. My next visit to Paris I intend to go and see where she was lived and will explore the 20th. Last visit my cousin Sylvia & I visited 101 Blvd Voltaire where our grandfather was born. Sylvia & her husband Philippe love in Aubergenville. Until last year she owned an art framing shop in the 17th for over 30 years. I am blessed to have family in France who have taken me to many places I would never seen on my own. Happy Travels from Victoria BC??
Bonjour Camilla. Thank you for subscribing to French Girl in Seattle! It’s always special to visit a foreign country with locals. You get to experience another culture from the perspective of natives, and that makes a big difference. I see your grandparents hailed from “the eastern” side of Paris I am quite familiar with. I hope you get to see St Mandé and find your grandmother’s home on your next trip. I can only guess what a special moment that will be. A bientôt.
Hi Véronique, wonderful post, as usual. I haven’t spent much time exploring Paris, my inclination is to fly in and out of Paris, but to quickly jump on the train – there’s an amazing country out there just waiting to be explored. But your post reminds me, Paris is Paris for a reason, so much to see and enjoy. Like you, I prefer the village-like atmospheres. Your post really makes me want to spend more time exploring this wonderful city. Thanks for sharing your insights, really great. Ciao!
Thank you for stopping by, Eric. Well, that is a big compliment, as I know, like me, you love “la vie en province.” Yes, there are many corners of Paris that make the city a special place to visit. They just always aren’t the corners most crowds flock to! 😉 — A bientôt.
Merci !!! Fascinating article,we explored pere lachaise on our trip to paris last year and found it absolutely fascinating….we actually went again a week later and paid tribute to so many famous people and didn’t even realise that lovely garden is right beside the walls. As a keen gardener i would have loved to have wandered through and Charonne looks beautiful.
We explored paris for 6 wonderful weeks and a day out to Monets garden in Giverny was a highlight !!!!
Versailles was also superb,especially le petit trianon of Marie Antoinette,absolutely gorgeous.
Was a very tiring trip…especially as it takes approx 26 hours flying time to get there,its a long way from “down under” but taking the plunge again next year and can’t wait !!!
Bonjour from nouvelle zelande
Thank you for the feedback, Olive! It sounds like you made the most of your visit. Aren’t you happy you will still have new areas to explore (like Charonne,) when you return? 🙂
You have described the neighborhood I have grown to love over 14 year of living here very well. Maybe too well!! Hope the tour buses are not on the way! ?
Bonjour Stephen. For better or for worse, I don’t think you have to worry about tour buses coming to Paris for months to come. 😉
I lived in Paris and went to school there when I was a boy. I have always loved Paris and try to return as often as I can. There is always something “new” to see.