Rick Steves: Paris - a city of cosy neighbourhoods
18th December 2012, 3 comments
As I dodge Parisians walking their poodles and pushing baby strollers in a vibrant market street, I’m reminded that one of the reasons Paris is endlessly entertaining is its neighborhoods. On streets such as rue des Martyrs, real people make cozy communities in the midst of this vast, high-powered city. You find a warm and human vibrancy you miss when just hopping from big museum to museum.
Strung across the road above me, a banner announces a neighborhood “clean-your-attic-day” sale. At a bakery, a sign in the window still brags its baguettes were voted the best in Paris. And next to me, a line of motorbikes are poised to deliver sushi, pizza-style, to the next caller. (In this affluent neighborhood, many professionals don’t want to cook after a long day of work, so delivery services like this are booming.)
Rue des Martyrs leads toward the center of Paris from the busy boulevard Clichy. As you wander, you feel the reality of raising a family and a sense of neighborhood in this urban setting. Still, security is a concern. Several side streets are voie privée — private lanes for high-rise, gated communities. The school has barriers to keep possible car bombs at a distance. (Since the terrorist attacks that rocked Paris decades ago, there’s no parking in front of most schools or near buildings that serve a Jewish clientele.)
Shopping for groceries is an integral part of everyday life here. Parisians shop almost daily for three good reasons: Refrigerators are small (tiny kitchens), produce must be fresh, and it’s an important social event. Shopping is a chance to hear about the butcher’s vacation plans, see photos of the florist’s new grandchild, relax over “un café,” and kiss the cheeks of friends. In a Parisian neighborhood like this, people know their merchants as if it were a village.
Goods spill onto the sidewalk. And locals happily pay more at a shop that’s not part of a chain. The corner charcuterie still sells various meats. But it’s morphed with the times by offering more variety, prepared dishes sold by the weight, and even a few tables so that customers can eat in as well as take out.
Across the street is one of the countless late-night groceries. They are generally run by North African immigrants who are willing to work the night shift, earning their living off wealthy locals who gladly pay the high prices for the convenience. Locals warn me that any place advertising prices by the half-kilo is trying to mask a very high markup.
The cheese shop has been serving the neighborhood ever since it used to keep goats and cows out back. This fromagerie preserves its old marble shelves, aluminum milk jugs, and WWII vintage scales as if to show off its community roots. And rather than big name cheeses, it sells only the products of small artisan farms.
Locals know the butcher serves top grade beef — a big concern after what they translate as the “crazy cow” problem. The ceiling hooks — where butchers once hung sides of beef — now display just a red medallion that certifies the slaughtered cow’s quality.
At the patisserie you can jostle with a discerning and salivating clientele for the tasty, little, typically French works of art. They bake up special treats in sync with each season: Easter, Christmas, or whatever. I’m here at the end of the school year and it’s the season for First Communions — so that’s the theme filling the window displays.
And the tobacco shop/café on the corner is coping with the no-smoking law by putting out heaters and as many tables as will fit on the sidewalk (where smoking is permitted). Shops like this, once run by rural people from Auvergne in central France, are now generally run by Chinese immigrants.
The trendy baby clothes store is a reminder that the French love to doll up their babies. In the last generation, an aging and shrinking population has been a serious problem for Europe’s wealthier nations. But France now has one of Europe’s highest birth rates — the fertile French average is about two children per family, compared to 1.6 for the rest of Europe. Babies are in vogue today, and the French government rewards parents with substantial tax deductions for their first two children — and then doubles the tax break after that. Making babies is good business.
Rue des Martyrs finishes with a commercial climax before ending at the neighborhood church — the Neoclassical (from 1836) Notre Dame de Lorette. And from there, steps lead into the Métro, where all of Paris is a cheap Métro ticket and a few minutes away.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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3 comments on this article Add a comment
20th December 2012, 06:08:40 Bruce posted:Great article Rick! Paris is indeed a collection of villages, which gives it a small town feel when you live in it. Quite a surprise for such a large and world-famous city. I lived in Auteuil (16th) for two years and felt like a homey when I went shopping. You forgot to mention the farmer's markets which each area has two days a week.
24th January 2013, 09:45:12 michael kittle posted:Rick always puts a positive spin on his travel advice with little down side to balance out reality. As an American expatriate living full time in the south of France for 10 years, I can assure the reader that the most popular areas to live in France for the French are Lyon and East to Annecy, according to a recent poll.
One of the most popular destinations for expatriates is the area of Provence that is not congested like the wine country near Avignon. The French consider Paris to be an over priced and unpleasant place to live where the residents are increasingly rude to each other, not just to tourists. Before deciding on where to live in France , I stayed in Paris for 5 weeks near the Louvre and ruled out Paris because of the tense aura of hostility among the natives.
Vaison la Romaine
19th June 2014, 05:06:51 Brian posted:Love the Rick Steves guidebooks and his travel advice. My wife and I spent a week on the French Riviera in September and had an absolutely wonderful time. The food, the scenery, the wine and the people were just amazing. I love taking photographs and the light down there is sublime. I never understood the comments about the Provencal light until we were there. I love Paris also but it is a big city however it is made up of neighbourhoods, We would take the Metro to the different neighbourhoods and linger in them to enjoy their ambiance! France is an amazing country and the people have been exceptionally wonderful except for 2 individuals and that can happen anywhere in the world! We look forward to our eventual return when we retire in a couple of years!