hawkweed oxtongue and sickle hare's ear

In the past, this district was a village isolated in the middle of vineyards until 1860 when the city of Paris extended its boundaries by annexing several surrounding communities. Charonne district has truly kept the soul of a country village even though of course new streets and avenues were created and many of its old houses have been replaced by new buildings.

In his reveries of a solitary walker, Jean-Jacques Rousseau has described it when it was still a country village:  
On Thursday, the twenty-fourth of October, 1776, I walked after dinner through the Boulevards, as far as the rue du Chemin-Vert; from whence I gained the heights of Ménilmontant, and, pasting through the vineyards and meadows, crossed, as far as Charonne, the lovely manor that separates those two villages; after which, I took a circle, designing to cross the same meadows by another path. While walking through them, I felt that pleasure and interest which agreeable prospects ever give me,  frequently stopping to examine plants which I saw among the grass. I  perceived two which are seldom found near Paris, though common enough in this place.

Will it be possible to find the two plants seen by the philosopher in the Jardin Naturel (Natural Garden) to be visited at the beginning of our stroll ? 

Hence this public garden is protecting near two hundreds of wild plant species growing in the Paris region.
Then, we will walk up to rue Saint-Blaise, which was the main street of the old village centered around its church and cemetery. We will discover another quiet and bucolic public garden in the middle of old houses, where a nice rest can be enjoyed under the green shading of a pergola.
We will visit the Hermitage (Pavillon de l'Ermitage), a former small pavilion built in 1727 belonging to a large estate of 200 acres, and today the only structure from the Château de Bagnolet.
We will end with a place quite emblematic of our walk  today, called la Campagne à Paris (Countryside in Paris).
Usually, my walks in Paris are very much centered around the places photographed by Eugene Atget, but for Charonne, unfortunately I have found very few. Indeed, as the theme is more the country side in Paris, we will start from an undergrowth …

Following the rue de Bagnolet, we will start from an undergrowth ...

Jardin Naturel - 120, rue de la Réunion

and will end in streets lined with lilac trees.

La Campagne à Paris - Charonne

Villa Riberolle

We start from metro station Alexandre Dumas or from bus stop Charonne Bagnolet (line 76) and take rue de Bagnolet up to rue de la Réunion on our left to go to the public garden  Pierre Emmanuel Jardin Naturel.
Meanwhile on our way, we can have a look at n°35, rue de Bagnolet, Villa Riberolle which still has many old buildings, former factories.
Have a look at this old sign above the entrance of n° 49, rue de Bagnolet, quite emblematic of the industrial times in Charonne at the end of the 19th century. Quite unusual, the sign is referring to a Franco-American partnership. Its business was the preparation of hare and rabbit hair used in felt to produce hats. I have found its story in a blog related to the factories in Paris. And same wise, the American factory located in Brooklyn was referring to the French one – Pelissier Jeunes & Rivet – Cutters of hatter’s furs in Paris!   

On our way before rue de la Réunion, two interesting bookstores, 51 and 61, rue de Bagnolet, quite deserving a stop …

  • Villa Riberolle
    35, rue de Bagnolet

  • Villa Riberolle

  • 49, rue de Bagnolet

Le Jardin Naturel Pierre Emmanuel

This public Garden located below Père Lachaise cemetery is quite special as it protects wild flora and fauna of the Parisian area. The wild plants are the ones growing naturally when the countryside was still around Paris and birds like the blackbird, the tit can be heard (the app on my smartphone did even recognize the song of the winter wren ...). Within an area of 6000m2, a meadow, a pond and an undergrowth can be seen in this eco-friendly garden, created in 1996. It is a very quiet space, kids having their play area across rue de Lesseps.

In his book, the tree and the wind – loose sheets 1980-1981, the journalist Pierre Emmanuel was making quite relevant and visionary observations about the western society,  where our ordinary space is merely noise caught within an image wall. Nature itself is polluted by noise. Noise is killing inner silence and is preventing capacity of discernment. Our fundamental depth, like the depth of the seas, is becoming unsuitable to sustain life.   
The public garden Pierre Emmanuel Jardin Naturel is a unique wild place to offer the city dweller with this precious silence only punctuated with bird songs. The discreet presence of tombs behind the northern wall of the garden can even enhance the silence with some spiritual dimension taking the soul of the walker into a contemplative state so much pursued by the journalist, poet and academician Pierre Emmanuel.        

La Petite Ceinture - 102bis, rue de Bagnolet

Let’s take the exit on rue de Lesseps and let’s go back rue de Bagnolet. We walk by Villa Godin, n°85, rue de Bagnolet, protecting its green environment behind a gate.

At the end of the 19th century, Paris was circled by a railway (hence its name of Little Belt- Petite Ceinture) built by eight different companies between 1852 and 1867. People living in the new districts annexed to Paris in 1860, like the villages of Charonne and Belleville were taking this train to reach the center of the city when the Paris Metro did not exist yet. It is indeed the development of the Metro which forced the passengers traffic of the Petite Ceinture to be stopped in 1934. Being near destruction, the Petite Ceinture is now back and is cared for by its association and by the SNCF (the French Railway Network) supposed to provide maintenance as official owner. Some sections of the belt developed by the city of Paris are open to the public.
Firstly open to the goods in 1856, the small Charonne railway station opened six years later to passengers traffic.
In May 1995, ten students from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts transformed the abandoned railway station into La Flèche d'Or (the Paris to London train Golden Arrow), a café and concert hall (rock, electro). One of the most popular place of Parisian night life in the 2000s, it was shut down in December 2016.

  • Petite Ceinture
    Rue de Bagnolet

  • Former Charonne railway station

Let's now cross rue des Pyrénées,  which is leading North to Belleville (see the page in my blog). During our walk in Belleville, we stopped rue des Cascades, in front of the house where the filmmaker Jacques Becker shot several scenes of the movie Casque d'Or (Golden Helmet), based on the true story of Amélie Elie. In 1902, Amélie, a teenage prostitute, met Manda, a young gang leader who she cheated with Leca, thus generating a war between the two gangs. Shot twice in the arm and the thigh, Leca was taken to the Tenon Hospital (where later Edith Piaf was born) rue de la Chine in Belleville. As Leca was leaving the hospital on 6th of March, 1902, he was assaulted again by Manda's gang here at the crossroad with rue des Pyrénées. As this was instantly reported by the newspapers, the legend around the Golden Helmet was born; and the word Apache created from an article by the journalist Dupin: "These are the customs of the Apaches of the Far West, and a disgrace of our civilization. In the middle of Paris, at high noon, two rival gangs battled for a girl, a blonde with her hair piled on her head like a prize poodle."

Garden - Square des Grès

Place des Grès

Let's go on rue de Bagnolet, up to rue Florian, then rue Pierre Bonnard on the left and ahead passage des Deux Portes, leading to rue Saint-Blaise. On our left, we have a nice view on church Saint-Germain de Charonne and its old tower bell rising above the provincial rue Saint-Blaise. First, let's turn on our right in rue Saint-Blaise to make a detour by the public garden Square des Grès, almost hidden behind the place des Grès. It is a little garden, which has the nice smell of the old Parisian country, at the entrance there is a backyard with a table, two garden chairs, trees, a grace preserved from the real estate developers.

This public garden, almost invisible from Place des Grès (Sandstone Square - in the past there was here a storage of sandstone paving stones) provides a very quiet and green atmosphere and offers a countryside landscape with glycine, honeysuckle and roses climbers over pergolas and with the old houses, thus contrasting so much with the high modern buildings taking us back to reality and reminding us that we are in Paris in a dense urban district.
Let’s stand up out of this gentle torpor shared with some cats within the shaded pergolas and let’s go back to rue Saint-Blaise.

  • Square des Grès

  • Square des Grès

Rue Saint-Blaise

The street looks like a main street of a country village. In the past the quiet Charonnes village was not only inhabited by workers and craftsmen, it was also highly appreciated by noble families. Hence, at the No 5, rue Saint-Blaise, the owner of the house photographed by Eugène Atget was Camus de Mézières, a 18th century architect. This architect designed the Corn Exchange (Halle au Blé today the Commodities Exchange - Bourse de Commerce in les Halles) and the Hôtel de Beauvau, headquarters of the Ministry of the Interior. Though listed as cultural heritage, the house was destroyed in 1929 and replaced by the Saint-Cyrille and Saint-Méthode church in 1935, accessible rue de Bagnolet, just in front Saint-Germain de Charonne church.

  • Yard of the house located
    5, rue Saint-Blaise
    (Musée Carnavalet)

Saint-Germain de Charonne Church

The remarkable Atget's shot of Saint-Germain de Charonne is one that could have been taken somewhere in the country, a small village church surrounded by its cemetery. Together with Saint-Pierre de Montmartre, there are the only ones in Paris having kept their parish cemetery. All the other Parisian parish cemeteries were shut down and replaced in the 18th and 19th century by the new Père-Lachaise and Montparnasse cemeteries, still outside Paris at that time, with their human remains transferred to the Catacombs in Denfer-Rochereau.

If the 12th century squat bell tower seems a little bit oversized, it is because a fire destroyed a significant portion of the nave in the 18th century and reducing the church almost by half. Rue de Bagnolet was very steep, too steep for the horses pulling the heavy carts filled with stones to build the Paris walls (fortifications), this is why the street was leveled in the 19th century making necessary to add steps to the church.

For the lovers of the French movies, Les Tontons Flingueurs (Crooks in Clover), directed by Georges Lautner,  is ending on these steps with the wedding scene. The French actor Pierre Blanchar who played his last role in the Black Monocle (Le Monocle Noir), also directed by Georges Lautner, lies in Charonne cemetery. Very small, there are about 650 graves, its main attraction is the statue of a man with a bicorne hat of one François-Eloy Bègue, known as Magloire. As a mythomaniac, the citizen who planned for himself this life-size statue was claiming to be the secretary to Robespierre, the French Revolution figure; As a bon vivant too, enjoying the good things of life, he would have required to be buried with a bottle of wine. 

  • Saint-Germain de Charonne, rue de Bagnolet
    (Musée Carnavalet)

The Hermitage - Pavillon de l'Ermitage - 148, rue de Bagnolet

The Hermitage, a former folly built in the 18th century, is open in the afternoon from Thursday to Sunday. It was part of the Bagnolet estate, bought by the Regent of France in 1719 and became the favorite residence of his wife, the Duchess of Orléans, daughter of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan. After her death, it was inherited by her son Louis d'Orléans (Louis the Pious), then to Louis-Philippe d'Orléans (the Fat) who sold the estate. The Hermitage is the only building from the old estate to exist today; It would have got its name Hermitage from Neo-Classical murals, three of them still exist, representing Holy Hermits.

During the walk in Sentier district (corner rue Beauregard, Cléry and Chénier), I am telling the story of Baron de Batz who tried to save the life of king Louis XVI on his way from the jail in the Temple to the scaffold. The Hermitage was the property of Baron de Batz, ideally located out of Paris for the secret meetings to prepare the escape of the king. Having more luck than his mistress who was arrested in the house and later executed, he managed to save his life.

In 1887, the house was sold to the Debrousse hospital , located next. Restored in 1987, it is now open to public since 2005, thanks to the association Les amis de l'Ermitage, organizing visits and exhibitions.

Let's now continue on rue de Bagnolet up to rue de la Py on the left. Then,  rue Martin Garat on the right and rue Géo Chavez on the right and let's go up the stairs of rue du Père Prosper-Enfantin leading to a small district, known as la Campagne à Paris (Countryside in Paris).

  • Hospice Debrousse
    148, rue de Bagnolet
    Atget – 1900/1901

  • Pavillon de l'Ermitage

La Campagne à Paris - Rues Jules Siegfried, Paul Strauss

The bottom of the hill is a former gypsum quarry buried under mountainous amounts of debris collected from the construction of the Haussmannian avenues de la République and Gambetta. 
This very unsteady ground was a major challenge for Pierre Botrel, one of the architects selected by the promoter, the 1907 cooperative society of La Campagne à Paris, a project of one hundred houses for workers and employees.
There were also very strict requirements, rather modern for that time and for a “popular area": on top of the traditional kitchen, diner room and several bedrooms, each house had to be equipped with toilets, a bathroom, running water and sewage services.
The first houses were built in 1914 and the last ones in 1928 due to world war and economical crisis. Each member of the cooperative had a capital share  used to purchase the land and the houses were financed by a government loan permitted by new laws promoting social housing. Paul Strauss and Jules Siegfried, senators very much engaged in providing support to the most destitutes, initiated social housing laws, giving their names to the main streets of the block. 
Today, population has changed, not everyone can enjoy a house with a garden in Paris even though they are by no means luxurious.

The French novelist Georges Perec who loved Paris, word play and games created alphabetical wanderings in Paris with specific constraints as for example the names of the streets had to begin with the same letter. Maybe, would he have appreciated that the small staired street with his name is the shortest way from rue Paul Strauss to rue Jules Siegfried. These games together with twenty rather difficult cross-words, one cross word for each of the Paris districts have been grouped in the book Perec/rinations.

Our peregrination is ending here. If you go back rue Géo Chavez, you will find the metro station Porte de Bagnolet or the bus lines 102 - 76 - 57.

Year 2018
 - Text and photos: Martine Combes