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Make yourselves at home

Discover a Paris neighborhood, its shops and bars, its churches and buses, its own particular comforts

By Stephen Heuser
Globe Staff / July 11, 2010

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PARIS — Is there any city in the world with fewer undiscovered corners than Paris? Never mind the Champs-Élysées and Notre-Dame, long since surrendered to tourism. Montmartre? The Faubourg Saint-Germain? Been there, done that. You duck into an offbeat falafel place in the Marais only to discover the person at the next table is from Norway, or Chelmsford.

Do not despair, traveler. I give you: La Butte aux Cailles.

Imagine a forest of 1960s apartment towers parting to reveal a tiny neighborhood of gabled houses and cafes. Imagine a bright-red cobbler’s shop wedged between buildings, walls populated with quirky street portraits, the flashes of briefcases and bicycles as Parisians rush home from work before the cheese shop closes.

If you have never heard of La Butte aux Cailles — well, I can’t pretend I had either. My girlfriend, Carolyn, and I were visiting Paris for a week; we wanted to stay near friends who live near the southern edge of the city, and I thought we might have a more genuinely Parisian experience renting a short-term apartment than booking a hotel. When I searched the bulletin boards online, the most promising place I found was a corner flat located next to this little seven-pointed intersection well southeast of any neighborhood I had ever heard of. The owner’s description called it “romantic.’’

There is always a moment of anxiety when you first see a place where you have agreed to live for a week. Our apartment had looked cheerful enough in photos, and we were assured it would have American conveniences (read: a shower), but when we arrived we found a building entrance unlike anything you would see in the States. No. 11 was a bright red door in an old masonry wall, and it opened to reveal not a lobby, but a cobblestone passage that led us deep into the block. We dragged our suitcases past a row of trees, a wandering cat, observant old women. The owner, April, was waiting for us, and we followed her as she ducked into an entryway and twisted up a wooden stairway that seemed to have been overlooked by renovators for years.

The apartment door opened to a bright and airy two-room space, newly refinished. April had intended to live there herself, before switching gears and moving in with her boyfriend. We were among her first renters. The kitchen didn’t have an oven — not unusual in Paris — but had a generous counter and cooktop; there was a toaster oven stashed in the armoire. The bathroom was split, an arrangement that turned out to be perfect for two people. The shower clinched the deal: sandy-tiled, capacious, and gushing.

April offered to show us around, so we followed her back out into a warren of narrow streets. Across the street was a paper shop. The other way was an antiques store, the Little Cavern, and a corner cafe.

“Butte’’ means knoll, and until the 19th century, the Butte aux Cailles was an almost rural village known for its windmills, overlooking the rest of the city. In 1871, it played a small role in a grand historical drama as one of the last redoubts of the Communards, the urban rebels who tried to barricade Paris against the Prussian-controlled national army. Its slight rise meant that it kept its character as modern Paris spread, and it entered the 20th century as a blue-collar enclave of row houses. Those modest houses are still there, wrapped with vines and flowers, and distinctively human-scaled amid the concrete and glass postwar tower blocks that grew up around them. Today the area, April explained as she led us past wine shops and cafe-bars, has become a kind of hip refuge.

Within a few days we had settled into a routine: croissants from the bakery at the corner; coffee made in a press. We had a different bakery for bread, and found a cheesemonger who would probe each round to determine which one was ready to eat. Every morning we were awakened by a thin, metallic tapping that we eventually realized came from the tiny cobbler’s shop outside our window.

The area is known, among other things, for its restaurants. Chez Gladines is a corner cafe with a Basque menu and the buzz of familiarity; the creperie Des Crepes et des Cailles packs in young people for late meals. We were a little underwhelmed by the well-regarded bistro L’Avant Gout, popular with foodies for its “pot-au-feu de cochon’’ — a hearty stew of pig parts, including a long ribbony slice of pig ear. On the other hand, we loved the charming Les Pissenlits, though it was hard to say the name with a straight face. (It means dandelions.)

It’s the classic traveler’s vanity to try not to feel like a tourist, to have “your’’ neighborhood, and this apartment was feeding that weakness in the best possible way. There was just one catch: We wanted to see the rest of Paris. On our first day we took an epic stroll with our friend Tadhg and his daughter, and only just made it to the outer reaches of what you might call tourist Paris. Clearly we would need to start buying Metro tickets.

This meant navigating the Place d’Italie, an immense traffic circle two blocks away that tethers La Butte aux Cailles to the rest of the city. It was a subway interchange, a bus hub, and the home of a glass-fronted shopping mall and the neighborhood’s stately town hall. At one edge was a cafe; in the center of the whole thing was a fountain.

One of the subway lines went straight to the Louvre, and another would rescue us from a hailstorm on the Place de la Concorde. But what we really liked was taking the buses. One wound northward through the picturesque neighborhoods of the fifth arrondissement and traced the left bank of the Seine. Another cut across the city to the Invalides museum and Napoleon’s tomb; another ran all the way to Montmartre.

For a week, we left from the Place d’Italie to prowl Paris’s neighborhoods and sights — the cemetery of Montmartre, the Pantheon, the tiny medieval churches of the Left Bank. We were sitting in the courtyard of a palace in the Marais when a man set out a sidewalk placard advertising a concert that night. We bought tickets, and two hours later were sitting in a salon of the Hotel de Soubise, listening to a string quartet in a room that had hosted chamber music for 300 years.

Carolyn, meanwhile, had a whole separate agenda, which was to ingest flour and sugar in the most imaginative forms possible. The quest led us to lavender and apricot cake in the Square Montholon, a violet marshmallow from Pain de Sucre, a tiny, perfect, wasabi macaroon. And each time, we returned home to the corner bakery, the cobblestones, the red door. We bought a bottle of Pastis for cocktail hour. We watched French TV shows and tried to figure out what the perfectly dressed women were crying about.

It was our fifth night before we did one thing that felt absolutely right: We cooked dinner. Earlier glowering skies had cut short a walking tour of the neighborhood, and we were making a run for the Metro station when we noticed a flash of tent canvas at the end of our street. This was the largest open market in La Butte aux Cailles — dozens of vendors who set up shop a few times a week.

We walked by rows of vegetable sellers, a half-dozen fish merchants, a sausage man from the provinces, and a Middle Eastern family selling spices. We acquired a handful of olives, a dried sausage from Auvergne, a velvety disk of St-Marcellin cheese, brussels sprouts, walnuts, and a whole rotisserie chicken. We stashed our food in the fridge and headed back out for the day.

That night, we hauled the toaster oven out, cut up the chicken, and slid it under the heat. Carolyn sautéed the brussels sprouts with the walnuts; I sampled the sausage and opened the wine. April had outfitted her apartment with a CD player, and we popped in a mix of French songs.

The wine I had picked up at the corner shop was a miscalculation — I hadn’t noticed on the label that it was a dessert wine. OK, fine; the fantasy of living like a local was going to collide with reality eventually. But we set the table, and as our funny little pied-a-terre filled with Jane Birkin music and the smell of roasted chicken, again it began to feel a little less like a fantasy.

Stephen Heuser can be reached at sheuser@globe.com.

If You Go

The market for short-term apartments in Paris is thriving, despite a reported crackdown last year on landlords renting without a commercial license. There are several websites listing short-term Paris apartments. We used VRBO.com. You can e-mail the owner extensively, asking for an address and more photos. Google Street View can give you a sense of the neighborhood. We paid about $125 a night for a two-room apartment.
Where to stay
Its distance from the city center means La Butte aux Cailles has some inexpensive hotel rooms, though not fancy. Three in the neighborhood are the Mercure Paris Place D’Italie (from $122 a night), two branches of the Hotel Ibis (Tolbiac and Place d’Italie; from $85), and the bargain Timhotel Place D’Italie (from $67), and Hotel Verlaine (from $80).
Where to eat and drink
The central stretch of Rue de la Butte aux Cailles is lined with cafes and small bistros that fill every night. Two popular restaurants off the main stretch:
Chez Gladines
30 rue des Cinq Diamants
011-33-1-45-80-70-10
Busy, friendly Basque cafe by day, thriving bar at night. You might end up sharing a table. Entrees $10-$15. No reservations. Cash only.
L’Avant Gout
26 rue Bobillot
011-33-1-53-80-24-00
www.lavantgout.com
A modern bistro with pretensions to something more, draws diners from across the city for pork pot-au-feu and inventive takes on bistro classics. Appetizers $13, entrees $21.
What to do
Manufacture des Gobelins
42 avenue des Gobelins
011-33-1-44-08-53-49
Among the few traditional cultural sites in the area is a tapestry factory whose history stretches to the 15th century, and which still produces decorations for official French buildings. Guided tours Tue-Thu 1 and 3 p.m. Adults $12, children $5.