Friday, 17 November
The sun came out a bit on Wednesday, and I decided to carpe diem, to act on a recent article in Le Parisien newspaper about “deux petits paradis aux allures de village” that I had never even heard of: la Butte Bergeyre and la Mouzaïa. Getting to the first, my phone informed me, would only take 29 minutes by bicycle.
Paris, intramuros, is a tiny city. Ringed by the périphérique, it is 9.5 kms/6 miles north to south and 11 kms/7 miles from east to west. The surface area is 104 square kms/40 square miles. Compared, for example, to London’s, which is 1554 square km/600 square miles. Here is a map that nestles the entire city of Paris into the lap of central London.
But Paris is also the densest city in Europe. Look at the Paris-Berlin ratio:
The little lady thus packs a punch well above her size. You can travel the 6.3 kms/3.9 miles from home to la Butte Bergeyre, then the 2.6 kms/1.6 miles to the quartier de Mouzaïa (10 more minutes), and be transported to a different world, one unfrequented by the 44 million tourists who have visited the city in the last year and who are still overunning my quartier, even in this dark, rainy month.
According to the article in Le Parisien, while Paris property prices are generally falling, the wee houses in these two 19th arrondissement neighbourhoods on either side of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont are stable or rising.
But who wouldn't want to live in a woolly-lamb of a house like this on the Butte Bergeyre...
...with a communal garden and vineyards and a view like this...
The history of these buttes (little hills), however, did not presage quaint village living in the capital. They were gypsum and limestone outcrops on which little vegetation grew. From the Middle Ages to 1760, the Buttes-Chaumont served mainly as an execution site for the Ancien Régime. The gibet of Montfaucon was the largest gallows in the country.
Following the Revolution, it became a rubbish heap and repository for carcasses of horses and other animals. If the wind was blowing the wrong way, the stench could permeate Paris.
Mid-19th century, enter Baron Haussmann (you really can't get away from the guy in this city). To satisfy Napoléon III's desire for a park à l'anglaise, he proposed to transform the smelly heap into an urban Eden. Heaven and lots of earth was thus moved to create the 25 hectare/62 acre public garden.
The two neighbourhoods I visited at either edge of the park had mostly served as quarries to excavate stone not just for buildings in Paris but also, oddly, in the US (the administrative name for the Mouzaïa area is actually le quartier d'Amérique). When the supply was exhausted by the end of the 19th century, low, modest houses were constructed in both places because of the fragile, unstable stone underneath. The Butte Bergeyre, after a short period as a rugby stadium (Robert Begeyre was a rugby star killed in the first world war), became a little hilltop village in about 1925; la Mouzaïa (a most un-woke appellation recalling a colonial victory in Algeria), a warren of "villas" or narrow lanes with gated, gingerbread houses, was built between 1880-1920.
Walking around both areas was completely dépaysant, like visiting another country. In fact, la Mouzaïa, in places, almost felt like Berlin. The buildings with funky façades that would never be tolerated in uppity central Paris...
...or, just beyond the cute villas, modern towers that could compete with the best of East Berlin's Plattenbauten...
The streets even had the same East Berlin hush.
On the way home, it occurred to me that after over 40 years of living here, Paris can still surprise me.
Back down in the frenetic gnarl of the city, riding along the Seine as the sun was setting, I braked dead in my tracks. Even the monumental side of the city appeared to me in a fresh light. Lucky me, I thought, with so much beauty and variety, just a bike ride away. Who can blame the tourists?