During six days of wandering, I saw a Paris that was at turns familiar - the brasseries and tabacs, the bakeries, the busy traffic circles - and eye-poppingly new to me: a vast and messy urban agglomeration that’s home to most of metropolitan Paris’s 10 million residents.
The walk had been conceived as a free-form perambulation in a city I’d spent so much time in that I’d ceased to see it with fresh eyes. But it turns out I’d stumbled into a civic movement. An effort is afoot to redraw the political, social and cultural boundaries, to explode what author Mira Kamdar has called “the implacable logic of centre and periphery, of included and excluded”.
My first mistake: Wine at lunch. (Soon repeated.)
On my first day, after a morning spent pushing north from my hotel along the Boulevard Soult. After a foray into the unlovely suburb of Bagnolet, I installed myself at an outdoor table at a busy café in the 19th arrondissement called La Pelouse. One 11 plat du jour, a carafe of chilled Brouilly and a crème caramel later, I found the idea of rising to my feet less than appealing. After that, I made a promise to myself to exclude wine from lunch for the remainder of the week. (It’s a promise I would fail to keep.)
If an observation stands out from that first, long day’s walk, which ended just before sunset in Pantin, it’s that Paris’ edge areas have served as a vast laboratory for bold and occasionally bonkers architecture. Beyond the Boulevards des Maréchaux, the inner ring of surface streets that mark the limits of the Paris most visitors know, the uniform ranks of Haussman-era buildings give way to a crazy-quilt of styles and eras.
On my second day, I followed a market street bustling with African vendors hawking their wares - iPhone cases, sunglasses, handbags - and emerged onto the vast parvis of the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis. Inside, I explored the church’s creepy necropolis, which houses the remains of France’s kings dating from Dagobert I in the 7th century. I was able to enjoy several uninterrupted minutes in the presence of a child-king’s shrivelled heart.
Led astray by Google Maps
Day 3 was a slog along warehouse-lined streets that took me deeper into north-western suburbs than I’d planned to go, thanks to ill-considered route choices based on cursory glances at Google Maps. That day’s journey ended with a sore-footed, late-afternoon arrival at La Défense. Exhausted, I descended into the Métro and rode Line 1 for nearly its entire length, west to east, across Paris’ midsection to get back to my hotel.
By comparison, the next day - which began with another long ride on Line 1, depositing me back at the La Défense terminal - brought abundant splendours and comforts. Foremost among them: the Bois de Boulogne. What a tonic this 800 hectare urban forest and prairie is. What an exhilarating sensation it is to emerge from those woods and behold the Fondation Louis Vuitton.
After lunch, I wandered somewhat aimlessly through Boulogne-Billancourt, which is how I found the superb Musée des Années Trente (Museum of the 1930s), the site of my solitary communion with vintage furniture. Another is the Musée de * ’Histoire de * ’Immigration, housed in a monumental art deco palais at the edge of the Bois de Vincennes.
A night in the ‘Brooklyn of Paris’
By day 5 and 6 interesting things seemed to present themselves. Beyond the river lay the homestretch, a jaunt of less than 2km that took me from Left Bank to Right across the Pont National, then past an train yard and what appeared to be a homeless encampment and, finally, on towards my hotel.
That last night of my trip, I took the Métro back to the suburb of Montreuil, which I’d heard described as the “Brooklyn of Paris”. I’d skirted it on my first day but hadn’t noticed much beyond takeaway joints and graffiti. As I popped out of the Métro, the suburb seemed transformed: A park behind the town hall was heaving with young families. Beyond that was La Marbrerie, the marble factory-turned-music venue. The cumbia band was in full swing, and a few dozen people were dancing with joyful abandon.
After a couple of beers, I splurged on a cab back to the hotel. As the driver eased onto the Périph, I had the thought that the highway, which I’d crossed over and under so many times on my walk, no longer felt like much of a barrier at all. New York Times