Belleville’s narrow streets, ateliers, and garden passages remind us of the neighbourhood’s rural and working-class roots. Belleville was once a wine-making village well outside the city walls. It became known in the 18th century for its countryside guinguettes, where Parisians would come on Sundays to relax and drink a lot of tax-free wine. When it was annexed to Paris in the 1860s, Belleville was already heavily populated by the working classes. During the Paris Commune of 1871, the barriers in Belleville were the last in the city to fall to the Versailles troops. Almost 25,000 inhabitants lost their lives.
In the 1900s, Belleville’s population grew with the arrival of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia and North Africa. The government started demolishing the most rundown quarters in the 1960s and built ugly housing projects. However, the neighbourhood has kept its traditional atmosphere and hidden pockets of history. By the 1990s, Belleville attracted a new wave of young artists who set up their ateliers in the old factories and workshops, and middle-class French families looking for inexpensive housing. Today Belleville is once again defined by its strong neighbourhood solidarity, as well as one of the liveliest alternative nightlife scenes in Paris.
Begin walking at the Métro Belleville, the heart of the local Chinese community, and walk up the Rue de Belleville. This street is lined with Chinese grocers, restaurants and shops selling hand-painted porcelain, Buddha statues and firecrackers.
Turn right onto Rue Piat, one last hill before the entrance to the Parc de Belleville. You will have the most extraordinary panoramic views over Paris. Because there are no tour busses, it beats the view from Montmartre! The Parc de Belleville was created in the 1980s on the site of an old gypsum quarry. Its steep hillside is softened by vine-covered arbours, the longest cascading fountain in Paris, and even a mini-vineyard in reference to the neighbourhood’s past.
Continue along the Rue Piat to the Rue du Transvaal. At #16 is the Villa Castel passage, where Truffaut filmed several scenes of the 1961 film Jules et Jim. Take the next right onto the Passage Plantin, made up of little cottages originally built for nearby factory workers. Turn left at the Rue de la Mare, to the Ateliers d’Artistes de Belleville (32 Rue de la Mare, 20th M° Jourdain). This community art gallery represents over 150 local artists and organizes an annual Portes Ouvertes in May. Continue via the Rue de Savies to the Rue des Cascades, where one of the city’s old water points from a Roman aqueduct still stands. This street was the location for another classic French film, Casque d’Or, a drama about Belleville’s guinguette days of cheap wine bars, dance halls and the local gangsters known as Apaches. Follow this street to the Rue de Ménilmontant. Walk down the Rue de Ménilmontant, where, on a clear day, you can see the toy-like Pompidou Centre in the distance. Turn right at the Rue Julien Lacroix. On the corner is Ménilmontant’s local church Eglise Notre-Dame de la Croix. It was here that rebellious soldiers of the 1871 Paris Commune, who had taken over the church as their meeting hall, voted to kill their hostages, including the archbishop of Paris.
Cross the street to the Place Maurice Chevalier and follow the Rue Etienne Dolet to the Boulevard de Belleville. The colourful Marché Belleville, one of the city’s largest outdoor markets, spreads out along the boulevard every Tuesday and Friday morning with fruits and spices from around the world. Just below is the Rue Oberkampf, famous for its lively strip of gritty bars and wild clubs stretching from the Métro Ménilmontant to Métro Parmentier. But it’s also an interesting street to visit during the day, with its mix of typically Parisian food shops, ethnic cafés and quirky boutiques.