The working man’s Montmartre and all the better for it: barely any tourists, absolutely no tacky tat and zero eat-me-and-die fast food outlets. Instead, this captivating hillside village offers a delightfully bucolic environment in which to practice that most Parisian of activities- la flânerie, the art of wandering with no particular agenda in mind.
The presence of unstable limestone quarries and the proximity of the (now defunct) Bièvre River flood zones meant La Butte aux Cailles was one of the rare neighbourhoods to escape Paris’ multi-storied Haussman-isation in the 19th century. Little changed since then, its picturesque cobblestoned lanes (Rue Alphand, Passage Barrault, Passage Boiton and Passage Sigaud) and postcard-pretty residences (Villa Daviel, Square Peuplier, Rue Dieulafoy and La Petite Alsace, 2 Rue Daviel) radiate tranquil rurality.
At 63 metres, Place Paul Verlaine is the Butte’s highest point as well as where a natural hot spring was discovered in 1866. To take advantage, go for a swim in the adjoining Butte Caille municipal swimming pool, a listed Art Nouveau complex where the spring’s thermal waters feed indoor and outdoor pools. Alternatively, taste the water at the square’s water fountain, one of only three remaining spring-fed artesian wells in Paris. Aviation aficionados may also be interested to learn the square is where the first ever-manned hot-air balloon landed in 1783.
The provincial feel of the Butte belies rebellious, proletariat roots, symbolized by its starring role in one of Paris’ bloodiest civil insurrections, the 1871 Commune. The Place de la Commune commemorates the exact spot where die-hard workers faced off government troops in the Commune’s last stand.
This refusal to toe the line today translates into an effervescent street art scene. Eye-catching graffiti, mosaics and stencils (including works by well-known artists such as Miss Tic, Space Invader, Jef Aerosol or Seth) decorate almost every corner of the Butte, transforming it into an open-air gallery with quirky surprises around every corner. Every year during the second weekend of June, the artists association Lézarts de la Bièvre opens various studios to the public and invites a well-known street artist to add his or her works along the circuit (For walking maps and more information: http://www.lezarts-bievre.com)
Contradictory to the end, the Butte’s quiet streets come alive at night with a vibrant bar scene centring around Rue des Cinq Diamants and Rue de la Butte Aux Cailles, the village’s two main thoroughfares.
To prolong your visit:
- If the weather is nice, put together a picnic from Laurent Duchêne (2 Rue Wurtz) and head down to Parc Montsouris. Built over ancient limestone quarries (later used as catacombs and stretching all the way up to the Catacombs de Paris entrance on Place Denfert Rochereau), Montsouris is one of Paris’ largest green spaces and a great spot for a picnic. On the way, detour through the leafy passages of the poetically named Cité Florale or the adorable Square Montsouris.
- Alternatively (and only if you can bear the architectural shock), head eastward towards Avenue d’Ivry and Avenue de Choisy, the crime-scene of Paris’ catastrophic 1960’s experimentation with high-rise construction. Here, amongst grotesquely ugly buildings, say au revoir to the Butte’s pastoral peace and discover Paris’ Chinatown, a noisy, colourful, neon-lit ground zero for all things Asian.
- C.O.Q Hotel, 15 Rue Edouard Manet, 75013 - Just a hop, skip and jump away from the Butte, a bang-up-to-date boutique hotel boasting delightfully eclectic interiors and a relaxed bohemian vibe.
- Les Cailloux, 58 Rue des Cinq-Diamants - a long-standing neighbourhood fixture serving traditional Italian trattoira cuisine.
- Chez Mamane, 27 Rue des Diamants- a hole in the wall dishing up some of the best couscous in Paris.
- If you fancy trying out some of Chinatown’s offerings: Imperial Choisy, ✆ (0)1 4586424032 Av de Choisy (cheap and cheerful Cantonese), Lao Lane Xang 102 Av Ivry ✆ (0)1 58890000 (Laotian specialities), Pho 14, 129 Av de Choisy ✆ (0)1 45836115 (brilliant Vietnamese Pho soups).