Since the beginning of France’s total lockdown on 17 March, the weather has been unusually and brilliantly sunny in Paris. But well into our fifth week of confinement, we are only allowed to go out with a dated permission slip and to travel within a 1km radius of our home, once a day, and for a maximum of one hour. Most Parisians have logged their address and arrondissement (district) number into a handy site that calculates the circumference around their home.
In my case, this includes the northern reaches of the Belleville neighbourhood, whose inhabitants are historically known for their penchant for rebellion and fights for social justice. It’s also a cultural melting pot and remains boisterously mixed, ethnically and socially, despite the gentrification that has been inching forward for the past 15 years.
With no traffic, open businesses or throngs of people, our confinement is an opportunity to explore in depth the familiar streets, and look at landmarks with fresh eyes.
Setting off at 9.30am, I walk north-east along the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Cutting through the centre of the circuit to get to its outer edge, I pass a woman I’ve seen several times, who dresses in black and feeds the crows. I’m heading to rue de Mouzaïa, which is named after a mountain pass in Algeria that was the site of a battle between French and Algerian troops in 1840. The 19th-century Mouzaïa neighbourhood is known for its warren of lanes and houses originally built for quarry workers. The entire neighbourhood is built on gypsum quarries, which produced high-quality plaster for export to North America – hence its nickname of le quartier de l’Amérique. My favourite house is a lemon-yellow one on the corner of a lane called Villa Sadi Carnot: it has a palm tree in the garden and buds on the wisteria are about to unfurl.
I turn right and walk to the empty Place du Rhin et Danube, where in the late 19th century a horse and fodder market was held. In the middle of the square, purple, red and yellow pansies and poppies are growing around the statue of a woman carrying a sickle and a bushel of wheat. From there I wander north-west down steep rue de Crimée to a gate that leads to a small house painted cardinal red, with an icon of a saint up top. This is the entrance to the wooded site of the St Serge Institute of Orthodox Theology, founded by émigrés who came to Paris before the Russian revolution. Next, it’s on to rue de Meaux, where I watch Orthodox Jewish women, and North African women laden with grocery bags as they pass by a social housing complex built in the late 1980s by Italian architect Renzo Piano. Sheets hanging from the windows are painted with messages such as “Hooray for public hospitals” and “Thank you from the bottom of our hearts”.
Signs of gentrification are visible south of the square, with the Gumbo Yaya Soul Food soul food joint, and a little farther down, where rue de la Grange-aux-Belles meets rue Juliette-Dodu, there’s the Fontaine de Belleville café, normally full of hipster coffee drinkers. All are shuttered. Rue Juliette-Dodu runs along the back of the Hôpital Saint-Louis, built in 1607 to quarantine plague victims. In a courtyard inside thecomplex is one of the least-known and most beautiful gardens in Paris, but for now it is closed.
I turn on to rue Saint-Maur heading south – here the creeping gentrification of the quartier is more obvious. Rue du Faubourg-du-Temple, which crosses rue Saint-Maur a few metres further on acts like a border: near the hospital there are still Turkish kebab shops, small greengrocers still open and a farm shop grocer called Le Court Circuit. I turn left up rue de la Fontaine-au-Roi, given its name in the 17th century because of the pipes that took water from Belleville to the royal palace 10km to the west.
Past a cluster of lush cherry trees in full bloom, I turn right on to the wide Boulevard de Belleville. The broad pedestrian area in its middle is lined with halal butcher stalls and ethnic grocers that are still open for business. Rue de Ménilmontant to the north-east is an uphill climb. The area was important during the Paris Commune, a socialist, progressive, revolutionary government thatran Paris for two months in 1871. Near the top of the hill, off a side street on the right is the Bellevilloise, founded in 1877 as Paris’ first cooperative offering political and cultural education to the underprivileged.
Turning left I come to Place des Fêtes, where public festivals and open-air dances were held in the 19th century, but which was demolished in 1975 to make way for mammoth social housing projects. Here, I discover an art deco metro station and what is basically a fortified late 16th-century manhole called the Regard de la Lanterne. Next it’s downhill again, going west, to make one last detour to a little-known hillock called the Buttes Bergeyre, reached by steep steps built under apartment buildings or a hidden road. Houses built in the 19th and early 20th centuries line small cobbled streets. From one side of the hill, where there’s a miniature vineyard, I enjoy an extraordinary view of the Sacré Coeur in Montmartre.
I can’t help but feel lucky that my confinement area – though the same as for every French resident – is a particularly rich one.