Sun and Wind, North of the Pyrenees

Quiet Days In the Rue de la Butte aux Cailles

Paris:- Thursday, 13. June 1996:- There is a walk you can take in Paris, if you have the time - for it is quite a long walk - that could be called the 'inner crown' walk. This involves, not starting from the centre and going out, but by making a circular trek about halfway between the inner core ring of streets and the phériphèrique that runs around the city.

I took this walk, straddling two years at the beginning of the decade, to see what there was. I saw the 'hundred villages' and a fair amount of what is between them, and I saw a lot of little odd corners that I've never forgotten.

My memory records scenes better than it does words or numbers. If I see a random mention of Chinatown - where I intend to go to do a report - this starts off a chain of 'scenes' from my 'walk-about' and one of these can capture my fancy, and in these year-end times of few major events or expositions, what captures my fancy can turn into a report for Metropole readers.

fleurierue.jpg (17k) At the bottom of the 13th, just west of the place de Rungis, there is a charming set of streets - almost alleys - the rue des Orchidées or Iris, flowers all of them - of small houses and winding lanes, hidden behind small trees, bushes and a lot of flowers, all dating from 1928. When you are in these streets you are not in Paris, but in the 'villages.'
East of there, east of the rue des Peupliers and off the place de l'Abbé George-Henocque, there are the streets of 'doctors,' all filled with two-floored houses. These streets were opened from the late teens to the early '30's, and I presume they have some relation to the Red Cross teaching hospital which is on the place, which used to be called, square des Peupliers. The 'rue' of the same name dates from 1730, and was considered to be prairie then.
buttcallies.jpg (13k) In this whole area, it is the rue de la Butte aux Cailles which is the most historic. This is in the north, near the métro station, Corvisart, on the line six.

On 21. October 1783, the first montgolfière balloon to carry passengers, landed here after a flight of 25 minutes over a distance of eight kilometres, after starting at 13:54 from the château de Muette. Cannon were placed on the 'butte' on 3. July 1815, but the capitulation of Paris was signed that evening and they never saw use.

Around 1850, the first residents moved in - the poor and expropriated from Paris - and the area was only attached to Paris in 1860. At the time, there was a splendid view from the 'butte' - to the Observatory in the north and to the south, to the mass of the Hospital at Bicêtre. Modern construction has reduced this view to the immediate vicinity, and what you can see today are streets of low buildings, little alleys, almost secret corners and no postcards on sale.

Today, in the early afternoon, the sky is glistening and there is a wind pumping down the streets and around corners. From the métro I have come up the rue des Cinq Diamants, a street of no great commerce and no history, past the theatre, to the corner of the Butte aux Cailles. How can I say that on this corner what is remarkable is a feeling rather than something that you can see and describe? The sun is there and the wind, and the newspaper shop is closed, but the bar across the street is open. It is nothing.

But there is a 'feeling' - that, this is unknown, forgotten Paris - it is not someplace you have been before, perhaps because it is in the past - I do not know exactly. The streets are empty, but all the restaurants I saw were full; it was a bit too windy to sit outside.

buttresto.jpg (14k) I did though, when two hardy souls on the pavement in front of the bar 'Le Merle Moqueur' invited me to. Even in the shade it wasn't bad or too cold. One, a student at the Ecole des Métiers de l'Image at the nearby Gobelins, told me that the 'Butte' as it is known, is quite lively at night, with many bars having music, some of it live. The cliental are mostly students and when it is warm the doors are open, and the police are constantly being called by residential neighbors who want peace and quiet.
The wind blew and we talked about the south side of the Pyrenees and there was no traffic and the sky was very bright and I suppose that is what reminded us of it, even though Tom Waits' "Twenty-nine Dollars and an Alligator Purse" was coming out of the bar very solidly - yes, without the particular colors of Paris before us and the sound of Waits behind us, we could have been south of the Pyrenees. We agreed that it would be a good thing, but it was pretty good where we were - to be on a street where a balloon had landed in 1783.

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