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Wine bottles outside Le Repaire de Bacchus on rue Mouffetard. (author photo)

Paris à pieds: Pedestrians have the right-of-way in Paris.
© 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 of years.Le Palais du Fruit on rue Montorgueil.
     But 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 spotAu Rocher de Cancale on rue Montorgueil. 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.
     The 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, 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 the day.

     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 bridgesCanal Saint-Martin. (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.



Ping Pong players along the Canal Saint-Martin..

 

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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