It’s Chinese New Year, but there’s plenty to see any time of year in this very particular part of Paris: surprises, good food and lots of discoveries that you couldn’t ake anywhere else in the city. Let us be your guide…
photos : JasonW
We started our walk by crossing the Charles de Gaulle bridge (the newest Parisian bridge just next to Austerlitz station) to the left Bank. Behind us was a scene that we were to see often along our walk of the 13th arrondissement, a mix of old and new with the clock tower of Austerlitz (the old) sandwiched and dwarfed between two office blocks (the new)…
The first unidentified object: the Docks de Paris, the Cité de la Mode et du Design, call it what you will. In any case opening is running about a year late (should have been open in Spring 2008) and no date has been given for the moment. A fashion school has opened there, but that’s all. Designed by Jakob et Mac Farlane, for the moment we can only imagine how the huge roof terrace will be.
Carrying on past the new National Library (BNF) and the huge – and great – MK2 cinema complex we arrive at the grandly-named avenue de France, with its new office buildings (and more on the way!), shops for the people who work in the office buildings and bars for the people who work in the office buildings. As you might imagine, the entire area is a ghost town at weekends. However, if the new spurt of building in the area isn’t particularly to our taste, it’s hardly the first time that the 13th arrondissement has been the scene of horrendous development and dire, banal architecture. They wanted it to be ‘modern’ and a lot of it already looks old (and not in a good way). Buildings dating from the early 20th Century butt up against others from the end of the 20th Century. I’ll let you judge which you think has stood the test of time better…
Here’s one small house that has resisted it all!
In some areas you’ll still find islands of preserved architecture, like here on rue Jean Fautrier. Its collection of brick buildings were probably originally for workers, but they look almost regal compared to certain edifices in the area, thanks to the attention to detail and judicious use of quality materials.
And just nearby is a passage that gives you an idea of what the area must have been like before the 60s carved their way through it: passage Bourgoin. Here, the little houses are not higher than three storeys qnd each have their own private mini-garden…
So let’s look on the bright side. The area has been changed for ever by property moguls and planners making decisions that we would find unspeakable today (at least I like to think so) but it is unique in Paris, and thus fascinating.
The other end of the passage leads onto rue Nationale, just in front of a rather good noodle restaurant we know. Is it happens, it’s also just next to the building where our bee-keepers live, as shown by the photo looking up to their balcony where the beehives are sat for most of the Spring and Summer.
From their place we can see Les Olympiades, an urban development of high-rise housing from the end of the 1960s. Each tower is over 100 metres high with 36 floors. Built to bring young, dynamic businessmen to the area, it was not a success and most of the flats remained empty until around 1975 when Vietnamese immigrants started to rent them, usually sharing with many others to cover the high rent. And that’s how the Chinese quarter of Paris was born. The area with its crumbling concrete and grimy shopping centres (more on those later) can make it seem quite an austere place.
Thank goodness that the Asian community moved in and turned this inhabitable wasteland into a thriving area. Tang Brothers placed their huge supermarket here (avenue Ivry) and have gone on to become the largest importers of Asian food in Europe. Perhaps that’s why they were so snotty about letting me take photos in there? I got told off by three separate people!
This is where you’ll find an unrivalled selection of Chinese ans Thai ingredients, strangely-shaped vegetable, tens of different types of soups and odd savoury biscuits. Above all, the prices are very low and the tastes are something else! Don’t go on a Monday though (they’re closed).
Te smaller branch of Tang Frères in the shopping centre next door is open on a Monday however. The centre is called the Oslo Centre (keeping with the Olympic theme of calling everything after a faraway city or country). Tang Brothers is on the ground floor – you’ll see it as you walk in – and is a much tidier affair than the jumbled hangar next door. Simpler for those who don’t know their way about the produce, the range is obviously a little reduced. The Oslo Centre gives a good idea of the paradiseland that the architect were attempting to construct at the time and how these ideals stand up to time. An obligatory passage for most of the residents in the area (as shown by the wall of notes outside that serves as a small ads column), it’s in a poor state of repair and doesn’t look like somewhere you’d really want to go. Wrong! What it lacks in glamour it makes up for in surprises..
You won’t find shops like this anywhere else in Paris. Kitsch object, statuettes, karaoke DVDs and a restaurant that has has the good sense – unlike all the others – to modernise its décor and go ‘designer’. I immediately felt in my element and decided to stop for lunch, a nice plate of crispy noodles and prawns. Very large and rather nice!
The shop displays reel you in with shelves lined with strange products. We bought some saucy sake glasses and some sweet little men that bob their heads thanks to a solar panel. Unfortunately, the Hello Kitty mp3 player speaker (with Kitty in her own DJ booth!) was a little too expensive, even reduced to 30 euros. If you are a fan of her or Totoro, get ready to empty your wallet!
Leaving the shopping centre and walking up the avenue d’Ivry towards the Place d’Italie, there is still much to see including other great restaurants (a great Thai that you can see in the Flickr gallery) and a grocer’s with a huge stand of exotic fruit & veg.
We finished our visit at the corner of the avenue d’Ivry and the rue de Tolbiac, with one of the towers belonging to the University sandwiched between two older buildings, a fitting allegory for the area…
Obviously we didn’t see everything (check out our itinerary on the map below). Go see avenue de Choisy too. At the far end you’ll find a pagoda-style Mac Donald’s and other strange stuff! The area has changed a lot over the last 40 years and there are lots of discoveries – both old and new – to be made if you make the effort to look.
All the photos of our walk can be found at the Flickr gallery here.
To read our article about the Chinese New Year proceedings, including the huge march on 1st February 2009, click here.