bottles outside Le Repaire de Bacchus on
rue Mouffetard. (author photo)
Paris à pieds: Pedestrians have the right-of-way
© Joe Wiebe
Posted September 27, 2004.
The rue Montorgueil just north of the heart of
Paris is a wonderful discovery. Its white cobblestones are regularly polished
by shoes, rain, and the city workers' neon green brooms, making it resemble a
museum's tiled floor. There is plenty of history here, too: many of the buildings
lining the street display plaques describing their heritage going back hundreds
Montorgueil is no collection of dusty relics from a bygone era - it
is alive and bustling with pedestrians: a father in his business suit
walking his petite fille to school; silver-haired retirees gathered
at their favourite café, savouring cafés crèmes,watching
the people go by, and arguing over last night's news; mothers pushing
strollers, gathering the day's needs - baguettes here, cheese there,
some fruit - and what does le
boucher recommend, the chicken or the veal, or perhaps she'll
get some fish two shops down. Apart from the locals, some tourists
have made the pleasant discovery of Montorgueil on their own; perhaps,
if they were lucky, they ended up in one of the many surprisingly inexpensive
hotels in the neighbourhood.
Montorgueil is one of several streets that Paris
has closed down to traffic, encouraging shopkeepers to display their wares on
the sidewalks, and cafés to spread tables and chairs right out to the
edge of the street. Promoting a pedestrian culture in the heart of a bustling
metropolis has the effect of slowing life down - it is quieter without all the
car engines, horns, and alarms, cleaner (those white cobblestones positively
sparkle in the sun), and somehow even the air tastes better, although that might
be an illusion overlapping from those other sensual pleasures.
The focus in Montorgueil is food, either the raw
ingredients needed for just about any recipe, or a spot to sit and enjoy a fine
meal at any time of the day. The side streets offer other choices, especially
the nearby Passage du Grand Cerf, a gorgeous indoor arcade dating back to 1825
where the focus is on artists and artisans - locally made jewellery and clothing
compete with antiques and ultra-current housewares. Or get a tattoo on the rue
Tiquetonne which crosses Montorgueil near its south end.
neighbourhood is a perfect base for exploring Paris. First, fuel up
with a pain au chocolat,or perhaps a more substantial brunch at Au
Rocher de Cancale, a 300-year old rustic eatery that swings effortlessly
from breakfast café to lunch-time bistro to trendy dinner spot
as the day progresses.It is
a short walk south through the manicured gardens of Les Halles to many
attractions along the Seine: the Louvre,
Île de la Cité, Notre-Dame, and the Pont-Neuf. Even the
meandering warrens of the Latin Quarter on the Rive Gauche are only
a twenty-minute promenade away.
The striking, irreverently designed Centre Georges-Pompidou
is also a short walk southeast of Montorgueil. On the way there, take rue Saint-Denis,
another pedestrian-only street. Instead of fruit stalls and cheese shops, Saint-Denis
offers other sensual delights - sex shops and peepshows - along with trendy clothing
stores, fast food restaurants, and cafés. You will still see families
out for an evening walk: young couples pushing a stroller amid the flashing neon
and tantalizing glimpses of skin, toddler and parents alike taking it all in
with that innately Parisian sense of aloof disaffection that must be genetic.
Several metro lines pass through the Montorgueil
area, so it is easy to get to destinations that are not close enough to walk
to, like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Montmartre.
Another successful pedestrian-only experiment is
the rue Mouffetard, directly south of Notre-Dame. While Montorgueil is mainly
about food, Mouffetard offers a more diverse range of wares to window-shoppers
and those who actually want to part with some euros. Clothing stores, cafés,
hotels, tourist shops, and even a bowling alley all vie for attention as you
descend this slightly winding street. Tall buildings jostle right up to the edge
of the single lane of cobblestones, creating a canyon whose walls cascade with
flowers bursting outof windowboxes on intricatewrought-iron balconies, all
above colourful awnings that shop- keepers roll out as the sun progresses through
If shopping makes you hungry, there are fruit and
vegetable vendors here, too, along with a store thatsells dozens of different
kinds of paté. To solve your thirst, peruse the bottles offered at Le
Repaire de Bacchus, a wine store whose wares are displayed in baskets right out
on the sidewalk - ahh, vive la différence!
After an afternoon of shopping and browsing, reward
yourself with dinner at La Méthode (2 rue Descartes, which is what Mouffetard
changes its name into north of Place de la Contrescarpe), an innocuous restaurant,
small and homey, which serves exceptional food at reasonable prices. The green
beans alone are worth the flight - they taste like they were grown in butter.
While hordes of tourists march along the banks
of the Seine year-round, locals choose the more secluded Canal Saint-Martin in
the northeast of the city, built under Napoleon to bring drinking water to central
Paris. Whether walking north from Place de la République or south from
the Place de la Bataille-de-Stalingrad, this is a pleasant stroll, especially
on summer Sundays when the roads along the canal are closed to motorized traffic.
The Canal Saint-Martin is a romantic spot - the
mature trees lining its banks shelter metal foot bridges (fans of Amélie will
spot the one where she skipped stones in the film) with serene views of water
slowly spilling over locks as it makes its way into the centre of the city. It
is an extended park, with areas to play pétanque, long stretches of smooth
pavement for rollerblading or cycling, and even some all-weather ping-pong tables
permanently installed alongside the waterway.
The neighbourhood lining the canal is a mix of
residential and retail, along with more of the city's ever-present cafés
and brasseries, of course. One can easily while away a sunny afternoon here without
hearing an English speaker demanding a
"chocolate bun" (at least until Rick Steves discovers it). That might
sound harsh, but in a city as heavily touristed as Paris, it can be
rewarding and relaxing to live like the locals and enjoy some freedom
from the tour buses, even if only for part of a day.
It is surprisingly easy to walk around Paris; many
of its major attractions are close enough to avoid blisters. And from the cobblestones
and sidewalks, you are often rewarded with the most memorable sights and experiences
- that restaurant you would never have stopped in if it weren't for the rain
that sent you looking for shelter, or the boutique where you found that special
item. These three neighbourhoods are a good place to start your walking tour,
and there are bound to be more pedestrian-only streets waiting to be discovered
by footloose travelers.