Bastille, The Brooklyn of Paris
Story & photos by Marlene Shyer
Walking distance from the most heralded attractions in the center of Paris, Bastille has its own cool. A mix of bars, cafés, boutiques and history, it’s a part of the city just outside its tourist-heavy center, a low-key, hip and trendy spot that offers an alternate look at the City of Light.
Ground zero of the area is the Place de la Bastille. In its center is the high and mighty gilded symbol, the Colonne de Juillet, honoring the 700 victims of both the 1830 and 1848 revolutions, which began with the storming of the notorious prison. Look up and up: the white marble base is topped with a golden globe on which a gilded, naked Génie de la Liberté, encumbered with the remains of his chains, holds a torch to the sky. Unfortunately, commerce has intruded on this icon and allowed it to be embellished with a wraparound ad for a popular wristwatch.
The memorial is 170 feet high and below, the streets radiate with pedestrian and vehicular life. All this, and for a bit of excitement, there are occasional demonstrations here. Beware of bikes, motorbikes and enthusiastic pigeons, too!
Opposite, the Opéra Bastillle is hard to miss, with its modern circular glass and granite facade. It’s home to the Paris National Opera, also offers ballet and symphony performances, seats 2723 inside and accommodates those sitting on the colossal stone steps outside.
The Café Rey, established in 1912, is within view. One can imagine Victor Hugo sitting here at a little table with his notebook and an absinthe, still served today with a sugar cube in traditional style.
Hugo’s house, preserved nearby, is a short walk away. It’s Number 6 within the Place des Vosges, and now a museum. Inside are partially furnished rooms, beautiful wallpaper and many artifacts, but limited English-language enlightenment. Outside expect lines and security.
The high-rent Place des Vosges, among the oldest squares in Paris, is a series of stately red brick houses built above stone collonades. Underneath them are serious modern art galleries, one after another. Some amateur artists work outside at their easels as well and there are occasional street performers adding local color. There are also several indoor/outdoor cafés, bien sûr. Onion soup and escargots seem to be on every menu.
On to working the calories off Bastille-style: Above the Avenue Daumesnil and stretching for almost three miles is La Coulée Verte René-Dumont. Built in 1994 on a 19th Century railroad track, it’s reminiscent of the Highline park in New York, complete with runners and walkers, metal benches and city views. There are two flights of stone steps to walk up and some elevators, but those are not always in working order.
Underneath in the Viaduct des Arts are the atelier/shops of many artisans. The leather merchant will create a vest or cover your books, the bridal shop will custom-make a wedding dress, the weaver will hand-weave something on the premises. There are many more like these, a shopper’s dream.
Within Bastille, eating is trés bon. The Septime, with its Michelin star, is at 80 Rue de Charonne and highly rated. A few steps away, Chez Paul at number 25 might save some euros. And the Marche d’Aligre is a covered food market with stalls surrounding it featuring everything from fish to fruit to flowers, including a cheese shop that includes 80 varieties of goat cheese.
The quaint Cave a Bière right nearby at 16 Rue de Cotte has 120 choices of beer, including the rare Bière des Corbières 2015, and a Blanche Au Mourrédre, as well.
“Let them eat cake,” Marie Antoinette famously said, and if she’d been at the patisserie Le Blé Sucre she might have also recommended the chocolate croissants. They are memorable.
So is the small Hotel L’ Antoine at 12 Rue de Charonne. There’s a cozy lounge, generous breakfasts and coffee or tea available all day. Together with an accommodating English-speaking and knowledgeable 24-hour staff, it all adds up to a Bastille winner.
Author of eighteen books of fiction and one memoir, Marlene Shyer has also been traveling widely for over twenty years. Her travel stories have appeared in American and Canadian newspapers, including the Boston Herald, Commercial Appeal, Lowell Sun, and NY Post. Her trips have also inspired essays that appeared in Passport, Saveur and German Life magazines. When not writing about destinations, she’s likely packing for her next trip.