Over the past few years, I've developed a special appreciation of the first few days of January. Those days when Christmas is over, Hogmanay has been and gone and the world is getting over its collective hangover and gearing up to go back to work. It can be a wonderful time to travel. I once went to Venice in the first week of the new year and experienced three days of crisp, icy blue skies, haunting mists over the canals and a city that was refreshingly free of the tourist hoardes. Sometimes, it's a great opportunity to curl up on the sofa, watch DVDs and take advantage of the fact that there is absolutely nothing better do to.
This year, back in Paris after two weeks of travels, I seized the opportunity to go out and discover Belleville. When I think of Belleville, I tend to associate it with the 20th arrondisement, but in fact it incorporates parts of the 10th, 11th and 19th as well, in that far-flung north-east corner of Paris where the tourists never go.
If it wasn't for the frequent glimpses of the Eiffel Tower, you could forget that this was Paris. More than any other part of the city, it gives the impression that local community comes first, with the fact of being in the country's capital as far on the horizon as most of the famous tourist sites.I started my walk at Couronnes metro station and made my way up through the Parc de Belleville. I was initially just looking for a nice view but was treated to surprises along the way, like the group of older Chinese ladies practising dance moves to music from a ghetto blaster (if you've seen the film Casse tête chinoise, it was the Parisian version of what the hero of the film sees in the park in New York every day. From the top of the hill, you can admire not only the Dame de fer but also some great tiled artwork, a homage to Piaf, who was born in Belleville, and this quirky map of Belleville's points of interest.
Strolling up the rue des Envièrges, I came across this miniature garden at the entrance to a courtyard, admired these colourful yarns in a tiny tailor's shop where two people were having a huge argument, and saw what I think was my first real-life example of le bookcrossing, as a lady flicked through a selection of paperbacks that had been left casually on a windowsill.
Making my way along the rue des Pyrénées and back down the rue de Belleville, I had a real sense of the multiethnic nature of this part of Paris. Some blocks seemed almost entirely Chinese, others were full of North African businesses, while further down towards Belleville metro station, several buildings had the Jewish Star of David on the front. My last discovery was this little street where graffiti artists are officially allowed to unleash their creativity:
The perfect antidote to a grey day in Paris!