Paris Beyond The Clichés

Most tourists give Paris’s 12th arrondissement a miss. But a lack of showpiece landmarks and museums doesn’t mean lack of character. East of the Bastille, this mostly residential neighborhood offers an intriguing taste of Paris without the clichés.

Stretching from the Bastille to Place de la Nation, Faubourg Saint-Antoine is one of the 12th’s principal shopping streets. The numerous bars and restaurants on and around the thoroughfare pitch prices at local level, not tourist level. I had a fabulous meal at Le Brasserie Tarmac (33 rue de Lyon), a lively restaurant offering French-Spanish fusion: 13.50 euro ($16) for shrimp bisque, then grilled barracuda with a jewel-like julienne of veggies.

A hotbed of worker rebellion during Revolutionary times, Faubourg Saint-Antoine became synonymous with cabinet-making, furniture and associated crafts as far back as the late Middle Ages. The dozens of passageways and courtyards secreted off the Faubourg give an idea of what proletarian Paris used to be like. It’s as if you’ve stepped into a hidden world.

Many courtyards contain an attractive mix of residential buildings and the ateliers of artisans, designers, architects and even old-fashioned dressmakers. With its cobbles, trees and ivy-covered buildings, one of the loveliest is Cours de Bel Air at number 56—but I’ve never investigated them all.

When the light is fading on a winter day, a wander down Passage du Chantier is a wander into the cobblestoned 1800s. It’s still home to furniture workshops and restorers. If you want a copy of a Louis XVI style writing desk, this is where to come.

I spotted an advertisement for a Passage du Chantier studio in a real estate agency window. Considering it’s almost beside a Metro (Ledru Rollin)—and within 10 minutes walk of both the Bastille and the Marche Aligre market—the price seemed incredible: 152,000 euro ($184,000).

Of course, there was a catch—the size. Even by Parisian standards, 14 square meters (150 square feet) is incredibly cramped. Agent Florian Brochot said that although unsuitable for a vacation apartment, it would be snapped up as rental accommodation for a student. The property had only gone on sale the day before, but had already attracted plenty of interest.

He took me to see it, but in truth, this wasn’t a studio. Unlikely to be a venue for too many parties, it was a room with a camping-style gas ring for cooking and a size zero bathroom. But it will still command a monthly rent of around 750 euro ($900).

The average square meter price for apartments in the 12th is 7,810 euro. This is substantially below the fashionable-with-foreigners Marais in the neighboring 4th arrondissement. On the western side of the Bastille, the square meter average in the 4th is 11,390 euro. But being a slave to fashion isn’t obligatory.

Other 12th arrondissement properties on the agency books include a one-bedroom apartment (26 square meters) in a 1910 edifice on Quai de la Rapee for 229,000 euro ($277,000). At the outlying edge of the neighborhood, an 80 square-meter apartment in a modern apartment building near Porte Dorée and the Bois de Vincennes is 585,000 euro ($700,000).

Even if not property-hunting, give the 12th a look. Also off Fauborg Sainte-Antoine, the Marche Aligre is two markets in one—a colorful street market and a covered market hall. Along Avenue Daumesnil, the Viaduc des Arts and Promenade Plantee was a new find for me. The rose-brick viaduct of a former railway line, it was renovated in the 1990s. Its arched arcades now provide spaces for artisans, cafes and arty-crafty boutiques.

Above the viaduct, the old rail track has been turned into a raised one-kilometer walkway for strollers, joggers, and those who want to loll on benches reading a book. Greened with all kinds of plants, it feels like another secret spot. Arrowing from near the modern Bastille Opera to Jardin de Reuilly, it gives a different architectural perspective on Paris. For once, you don’t have to crane your neck to look up at apartment buildings. You can gaze straight across at their upper floors.

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