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Paris' vibrant secret scene

It is not often on the radar of tourists, but the up-and-coming 19th arrondissement is a good reflection of the diverse cultures of Paris beyond grand monuments and pretty gardens

Soh Wee Ling on 17 Sep 2017

The Straits Times


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Graffiti everywhere - that was my impression of Paris during my first trip to Europe years back.


Paris, seen from the RER B train I got on at the airport, and in the neighbourhood where the mother of my boyfriend (now husband) lives, is nothing like the city romanticised on social media.


We relocated to Paris in 2013 and, naturally, we chose to live on the same side of the city as my mother- in-law. Since two years ago, we have been living in the heart of the up- and-coming 19th arrondissement, right by the scenic Napoleon-era Canal de l'Ourcq, and loving it.


Tourists seldom venture to this traditional working-class neighbourhood in north-east Paris and most guidebooks have also neglected to give this vibrant area the proper mention it deserves.


It is a melting pot of diverse cultures, thanks to a large number of Chinese, Arab and African immigrants. My parents are surprised I only have to go down the next street to find Yeo's soya milk at a grocery store run by a Cambodian-Teochew family.


Everyone talks about the historic Jewish quarter in the Marais and its kosher restaurants, but did you know there is also a big orthodox Jewish community in the 19th?


Like the rest of east Paris, there is no lack of cultural activities, nightlife, contemporary art exhibitions and trendy restaurants popping up in the 19th. It has also seen a lively transformation over the last few years, with more young couples and families moving into the neighbourhood, home to two of the largest parks in Paris.


In my opinion, everyday life in the 19th arrondissement makes for a truer reflection of today's Paris beyond the grand monuments and manicured gardens.


This is the new Paris, dynamic against an industrial backdrop, where bearded hipsters cross paths with grandmothers and Muslim butchers.




Au Boeuf Couronne


This is an old-fashioned French brasserie for any carnivore. Located opposite where the old abattoirs of Paris once stood (present-day Parc de la Villette), Au Boeuf Couronne has been serving quality cuts of beef since 1865.


Customers may still be strolling in to order giant steaks at 10pm, as the brasserie is open till midnight.


I always get the pommes soufflees (potato puffs), which are not easy to find in French restaurants these days, to go with my steak instead of the usual fries.


Where: 188 Avenue Jean Jaures, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 5 Porte de Pantin)


Info: www.boeuf-couronne.com


Les Bancs Publics


We often dine at this casual bistro that is a two-minute walk from home. It has a seasonal, reasonably priced menu, cheerful wait staff and the perfect terrace facing the Canal de l'Ourcq - great for people- watching with a glass of wine when the weather warms up.


Where: 2 Rue de Nantes, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7 Crimee)


Info: www.les-bancs-publics.fr




At Gilles Benard's Quedubon (French for "only good things"), the classic comfort French food is good and the wine even better. Pick from an impressive selection of natural wines to accompany your meal and, if you have enough luggage space, why not pack a bottle or two to bring home?


Where: 22 Rue du Plateau, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7B Buttes Chaumont)


Info: restaurantquedubon.fr


La Boulangerie par Veronique Mauclerc


The bakery is a listed historic monument with its early 20th-century wood-fired oven - one of only four left in Paris.


There is a fantastic array of bread - all baked with organic flour and ingredients - alongside a small selection of patisserie and viennoiserie. I go there for its eclairs and chocolate pear tarts but, really, you cannot go wrong with anything else.


There is a tiny tea salon at the back but, if the weather is good, pack your sweets to snack on in the nearby Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.


Where: 83 Rue de Crimee, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 5 Ourcq)


Le Pavillon des Canaux


Enterprising young owners have breathed new life into an old lock keeper's house and transformed it into a cosy cafe-restaurant where one can opt to eat in any room, be it the kitchen or bedrooms fitted with quirky, mismatched furniture. Customers can even sit in a bathtub to enjoy their coffees.


Ambience aside, there is friendly staff, Wi-Fi, great food and purportedly the best noisette (espresso with a dollop of milk) in Paris - everyone is welcome to chill as long as he likes on his laptop, outside the lunch peak hours.


Where: 39 Quai de la Loire, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 5 Laumiere)


Info: http://www.pavillondescanaux.com


Kaffee bar 19


Inspired by the craft coffee movement, Kaffee bar 19 is a welcome newcomer to the neighbourhood. This cosy German coffee shop serves seriously tasty coffee (beans from Parisian roaster Coutume) and light organic meals. Say "hi" to owner Aaron and his crew behind the counter.


Where: 26B Rue de l'Ourcq, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7 Crimee)






Opened just this July, L'Atalante is the new kid on the block riding the craft beer wave in Paris and already attracting scores of residents, like myself, and beer-loving hipsters in the long summer evenings.


It is a spacious bar overlooking the canal, with a roster of almost 20 independent craft beers on tap that changes so regularly that the menu is projected on a wall every evening.


Where: 26 Quai de la Marne, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7 Crimee, Line 5 Ourcq)


Info: www.atalanteourcq.fr


Cafe Mama Kin


This unpretentious neighbourhood drinking hole boasts cheap beers and a laid-back atmosphere where the owners-barmen are always up for a chat and everyone seems to know everyone.


On its walls are colourful tribal works by the 19th arrondissement's very own resident graffiti artist Da Cruz. You may even chance upon a film screening or live music.


Where: 13 Rue de Thionville, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 5 Ourcq)


Rosa Bonheur


Tucked in an obscure corner of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, this is a great bar with a terrace to enjoy a drink on a sunny afternoon.


It is a popular venue for aperos (pre-dinner drinks) among hip Parisians, so I tend to go early with my friends at 5 to 6pm to avoid the evening queues.


Where: 2 Allee de la Cascade, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7B Botzaris)


Info: rosabonheur.fr/rosa-buttes


Cafe Odilon


Cafes with tasty, reasonably priced table wines are a dime a dozen in France, but this one prides itself on a large selection of organic wines drawn from taps to be ordered by the glass or carafe.


My mother-in-law believes that organic wines without additives tend not to give her a headache the morning after.


You will have to judge for yourself. Feel free to ask for a taste or recommendation here.


Where: 16 Quai de la Marne, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 5 Ourcq, Line 7 Crimee)




Philharmonie de Paris


Do not let architect Jean Nouvel's controversial gigantesque metal beast of a concert hall scare you off. Even though the Philharmonie de Paris has been open since 2015, not many people know that its rooftop is open to the public for free from Wednesdays to Sundays, noon to 8pm.


Be wowed by the panoramic view of Paris, including the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre-Coeur, and the green suburbs. The icing on the cake? Follow the zig-zag path on the building's facade to lead you down to ground level. Where: 221 Avenue Jean Jaures, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 5 Porte de Pantin) Info: philharmoniedeparis.fr


Pont levant de la rue de Crimee 


At the junction where the Canal de l'Ourcq meets the Bassin de la Villette stands the last surviving vertical-lift bridge in Paris that has been functioning since 1885.


Registered as a protected historical monument in 1993, the bridge had a cameo in the whimsical French film Micmacs (2009).


It is quite a sight to see the bridge in operation to let boats go through. For pedestrians in a hurry, there is an arch bridge next to the lift bridge.


Where: Near 158 Rue de Crimee, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7 Crimee)


Marche Joinville


For those heading to the 19th arrondissement on a Thursday or Sunday, do not miss the hustle and bustle at this zero-tourist neighbourhood market.


The French do not go to the market as early as Singaporeans, so late morning till noon is when the market is at its busiest. Arab vendors hawking fresh produce and greeting "nihao" are signs of how multicultural this neighbourhood has become. Grab seasonal fruit while you are there.


Where: Place de Joinville, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7 Crimee)


Paroisse Saint-Serge


I have only recently discovered this quaint little Russian orthodox church with a magnificent painted wooden facade that is well hidden.


Definitely plan your visit on a Sunday, when the church is open, to admire the Russian neo-gothic interiors that are nearly a century old, as incense wafts in the air.


I also pop by on weekdays to read in the garden.


Where: 93 Rue de Crimee, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 5 Laumiere)


Info: paroissestserge.free.fr


Le Centquarte


Nestled among mundane buildings in an untrendy corner of the neighbourhood, this vibrant arts and culture venue used to be a municipal funeral hall.


These days, the Centquarte ("104" in French) is a constant buzz of activity under the impressive arches of the late 19th-century structure, with playing children and rehearsing breakdancers alongside free contemporary art exhibitions.


Where: 5 Rue Curial, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7 Riquet)


Info: www.104.fr


Parc des Buttes-Chaumont


Tourists usually go to traditional Parisian parks such as the Jardin des Tuileries or the Jardin du Luxembourg, but it is worth heading to this hilly park where, on warm days, Parisians relax on sloping lawns.


Formerly a refuse dump and a quarry, the park was opened in 1867 and is now the fifth-largest park in Paris, complete with an artificial lake, a suspension bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel and a temple perched on a cliff.


Where: 1 Rue Botzaris, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 7B Buttes Chaumont, Line 7B Botzaris, Line 5 Laumiere)


Bassin de la Villette


For a true Parisian experience, spend a weekend afternoon at the Bassin de la Villette. Its banks are lined with more petanque players and picnickers than you can see at the Seine, but there are fewer tourists.


Like the locals, take along a few bottles of supermarket wine, a baguette and some cheese. Otherwise, the floating bars atop one of the docked peniches (canal barges) or the newly re-opened Grand Marche Stalingrad complex are fine options.


Where: Bassin de la Villette, 75019 Paris (metro: Line 2/5/7 Stalingrad, Line 2/5/7B Jaures, Line 7 Riquet, Line 5 Laumiere)


• Singaporean Soh Wee Ling is a freelance travel and lifestyle writer and photographer living in Paris.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.


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