Charonne — the last authentic village in Paris
By Jerry Marterer
What draws the curious to Charonne is a beautiful Regency era pavillon in a small park, but that is only part of the attraction in what may be the last authentic village in Paris. To approach the village, take the No 3 métro in the direction of Galliéni to the Porte de Bagnolet. The No 5 exit opens on the Place Edith Piaf, named for the “Little Sparrow” who was born nearby in 1915. Her life’s story in the movie La Vie en Rose recounts her growing up in the squalor of nearby Belleville. Her statue in the otherwise nondescript square was erected in 2003 on the 40th anniversary of her death. The life size work emphasizes how tiny she was. A Wallace fountain in the small triangular space evokes its working-class past. Across from the place Edith Piaf there is an industrial looking complex where maintenance is done on commuter rail cars. Alongside is the rue du Capitaine Ferber.
At the bottom of the street on the corner is Le Bistro Parisien, one of the most genuine neighborhood restaurants we have found. The convivial atmosphere here is contagious. Area workers on their lunch break enjoy the plat du jour while couples of a “certain age” linger during three course lunches. On our last visit we both started with the duck terrine with figs, then the grilled lamb with lentils for my wife, and roasted duck breast in wine sauce and roasted potatoes for me. We shared a light Bordeaux. It was simple home cooking that would be seen as elegant and much more expensive in the United States.
After lunch we turned left on the rue Pelleport. At the end of the short street, across the rue de Bagnolet is the Pavillon de l’Hermitage, just inside the gates to a park. It is all that remains of the Château de Bagnolet, which sat at the edge of the village of Charonne. The original Château de Charonne was built around 1600 in the countryside east of the old city walls amidst gypsum mines, farms and vineyards. It changed hands several times among royalty. In 1719, Philippe of Orleans, the regent of France during Louis XV’s childhood, bought the estate for his wife, the Duchess of Orleans. They enlarged the 200 acres of gardens and rebuilt the château in the Regency style. The name was changed to the Château de Bagnolet.
It was common at the time to construct totally useless, whimsical outbuildings called “follies” in the parks of the châteaux. For example, Versailles has a tiny farm where the Queen could play milkmaid. Others had miniature Roman temples to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Three “follies” ware added to the grounds. All but one, the Pavillon de l’Hermitage were destroyed in the 1800s and the land subdivided. The building was known as the “palace of the hermits” because of the religious paintings on interior panels depicting the lives of the hermit-saints of the desert. Some were graphic enough to be deemed indecent at the time, and the naked hermits have since been clothed in the paintings. The pavilion was used strictly as a summer retreat for salons and games. One can imagine royal families strolling in the surrounding park. Although the exterior is in the Regency style, interior décor is more in the Rococo manner. There are no furnishings, but a photography exhibit shows the area’s transformation during the last 150 years.
On the adjacent corner sits the restaurant Le Papillon (The Butterfly), a perfect companion to the pavillon and another ideal place to stop for lunch. The dining room is not large but still spacious. Modern sculptures adorn the bright windowed alcoves. As in most neighborhoods where 20 and 30-somethings hang out, “le brunch” is all the rage these days on weekends and the Papillon was serving it to singles and young families. The daily menu takes old standards and makes them modern without derailing them. On the day my son and I were there, I had a chef’s salad with foie gras on toast, smoked duck, haricots verts, lettuce and tomatoes. My son had scallops en brochette with steamed carrots and broccoli with a hint of curry. Lunch was not expensive. Our expectations were exceeded.
Rue de Bagnolet
After lunch we began our walk down the rue de Bagnolet from the high ground of the chateau. It appears that the street has been widened and the slope has been changed from what was once a steep narrow lane, evidenced by unusual double staircases on the front of two homes on the left and the retaining wall across the street. In 1850, when Paris began fortifying itself with a new encircling wall, the rue de Bagnolet was deemed a vital north-south supply route and it was widened and graded for military use. Further down the hill is the village center and the church of St-Germain de Charonne on the hillside above the place St-Blaise. An 1836 painting shows the Charonne town hall in front of the church before it was demolished when the road was widened. The church is one of only two remaining in Paris with its own cemetery on the hill above the church.
The village center then was down the rue St-Blaise. The legend is that Saint Germain, then the bishop of Auxerre, baptized a six-year-old girl in the chapel here in the year 429. The girl became St-Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris. The church was closed in 2009 because of unstable walls. Steel beams supporting the outside walls can be seen from the street. During the rebuilding, excavations under the church have uncovered artifacts from eight centuries. The church was reopened in December 2020. Walk down the tiny rue St-Blaise. It looks like a quaint Utrillo painting. Cheap rents have spawned several artists’ ateliers here, but some new trendy cafés signal a possible gentrification and the end of low rent.
At the foot of the old part of the street is the Place des Grès, looking a little forgotten — maybe frozen in time. Gallows in the square dispensed justice in pre-revolutionary days. The far-left political climate of this working-class quarter is embodied by the neighborhood headquarters of the Communist Party on the square across from the Magnolia Bar.
Walk back up to the Place St-Blaise and turn left. If you’re feeling extra energetic, walk up the hill next to the church to the cemetery. If not, continue down the right side of the rue de Bagnolet. The street crosses a bridge over railroad tracks. Look across the street at a dilapidated building with an awning that reads La Flèche d’Or. Look closer at the dark sign underneath and attached to the building reading CEINTURE. This was the Gare de Charonne station of the Petite Ceinture, the little railway that circled the city. After it was abandoned, it was a night club for a while called La Flèche d’Or (The Golden Arrow — the name of a London to Paris boat train that ran from the 1930s to the 1970s.) There are always children running in and out of the railway tunnels despite the no trespassing warnings.
Down rue de Bagnolet at number 85 is the Villa Godin. The term villa doesn’t necessarily mean anything luxurious. (Villa Godin) Generally they are gated lanes with tiny houses, in this case, attached cottages. We were trying to peek through the locked gate when an older woman who was going in invited us to see the homes. She told us she had lived there since 1970 and would never move. I checked prices on the web. These tiny houses are expensive! Further down the street is a former restaurant, l’Escargot d’Or, (the golden snail) with an oversized example above the door. It is now a coffee shop.
Rue de Charonne
This is one of the easiest walking tours. It’s mostly downhill from the starting point and there are good places to eat. The rue Bagnolet turns into the rue de Charonne. At the bottom of the hill at No 13 is Chez Paul, which opened in 1900. As you approach it you may be put off by the sight of the worn signs and the faded awning. Disregard them and enter anyway. This is the epitome of a classic old French bistro. (Chez Paul Interior.) The menu is extensive. Starters include onion soup, leeks vinaigrette and almost-forgotten dandelion greens with bacon and poached egg. Main courses of steak tartare, grilled beef, rabbit, veal and farm-raised chicken have been offered for years. After a dessert like baba au rhum, you’ll be ready to face the rest of the day — or maybe take a nap!
The Number 76 bus travels from the close-by Place de la Bastille along to the rue de Rivoli to the Louvre.
Jerry Marterer is the author of Paris 201 — Uncommon Places in the City of Light. He and his wife, Suzanne, divide their time between Charleston and Paris; he may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.