At the wobbly, bright-eyed age of 22, I moved to Paris to take up a seven-month teaching assistantship at a middle school in one of the city’s northern suburbs. Having barely adjusted to the outrageous slings and arrows of adulthood, I was shocked to find that it wasn’t exactly a cakewalk to get a roof over my head, especially with only a meagre teaching stipend and no French parents or relatives to serve as guarantors. After weighing a couple of options– including the undesirable offer to work as an au pair for a family in the posh, sleepy suburb of Neuilly way out west– I managed to secure a tiny room in the urban-yet-residential Rue Montorgueil quarter in central Paris.
With the eponymous market street serving as its artery, the neighborhood roughly joins together, at one end, the Metro stations Sentier and Réaumur-Sebastopol to the north with the Etienne Marcel stop on the south side. Only a hop, skip and a jump from the bustling crowds of the Les Halles mega-shopping center and the Centre Pompidou, the Montorgueil district has a remarkably village-like feel.
(Any of these stops are ideal for exploring the area, by the way– see more suggestions for getting there and what to see in the area by scrolling down).
A Room of my Own
When I say the place I managed to snag for a rather steep rent was tiny, I’m not just embellishing for dramatic effect. The studio, if it merits the name, measured exactly 9m2, or around 97 square feet. In fact, it was so diminutive that, rather than occupying a normal level in the rather shabby building on Rue St-Sauveur, it was crunched, by some cruel architectural feat, between the second and third floors– not unlike the office on the 7 1/2th floor in “Being John Malkovich”.
Nevertheless, it made a wonderful “pied à terre” and place to lay my head between teaching, exploring the new city, and lurking in local brasseries toiling over a draft for a first novel that would never see the light of day (for now, at least). Although it was cramped, it was ingeniously designed, a bit like a boat cabin, with cabinet and shelf space near the ceiling painted in a cheerful light blue.
Most everything had, by necessity, a double function: my desk was also my kitchen counter; the dishes were dried on a rack placed in the tiny shower. The leaks and rusty pipe smells were a constant. Still, it was mine, for a time: decorated with a large print of a Tamara de Lempicka painting showing a woman in a blue dress playing a mandolin, and a rickety pull-out couch/bed, from which I would compose emails to friends on my (ultra-speedy!) 56k connection.
A District of Puzzling Contrasts
Something I quickly discovered was that staying in for too much of the day had little appeal, irrespective of the claustrophobic living conditions: my little “boat cabin” was located just a block away from what would become my first neighborhood in Paris: Rue Montorgueil and the surrounding streets. This was a semi-pedestrian district paved with tiles in white marble; it was bustling with cafés and bars, bakers, produce and fish sellers, restaurants, and independently owned boutiques.
It wasn’t all idyllic: the Rue St-Denis just a block east from my studio on Rue St-Sauveur harbors a seedy red-light district, and was lined with sex shops and exotic dancing bars. But this was precisely one of the things that mesmerized me as I wandered around my new stomping grounds: the heady cosmopolitan contrast between pleasant, traditional Rue Montorgueil and Rue Tiquetonne, where schoolchildren played makeshift football in the streets after school, and the unapologetically crass Rue St-Denis, which has in fact been a red-light district for many centuries.
Located only a few blocks from Les Halles, the traditional smack-center of Paris where there once stood an enormously messy, nauseatingly smelly, chaotic market, the Montorgueil district preserves some of the area’s market-centric activities–but without the awful smells of old, luckily. Fresh produce sellers, fishmongers, florists, bakers and fromageries (cheese shops) are tightly packed along the semi-pedestrian thoroughfare, especially the stretch running from Metro Sentier down to Rue Etienne-Marcel. Most of these are excellent, so I highly recommend ducking in to any that draw your eye or stomach.
It’s true that the whole area has gentrified tremendously since I called myself a local there. Rue Tiquetonne is as of late mostly occupied by concept fashion boutiques; and up toward Sentier, the neighbourhood’s historic role as a center for fabric-sellers, silk-weavers, and their “grossistes” (bulk fabric shops) is sadly fading, making the area less and less accessible to struggling young people and students. When I first moved here, it was a common everyday sight to see workers wheeling (nay, charging aggressively through the streets with) enormous rolls of coloured fabrics around the area; now you’re more likely to see marketing executives rushing down the streets on their smartphones, heading to overpriced brunch at one of the many trendy cafes and restaurants that cater to them in the area.
Still, this is a neighborhood that will forever hold a privileged place in my memory and my bones, as the first place I called home in Paris. And in many ways, it was also the place where I squirmed awkwardly into adulthood. As far as I’m concerned, this was a pretty ideal place to do it.
Getting There, & Stops I Recommend
The easiest way to get to the area is by taking Metro line 3 or 4 to Etienne Marcel or Sentier. With the aid of a good area map, I recommend that you explore these streets: Rue Etienne-Marcel, Rue Française; Rue Tiquetonne, Rue Montorgueil, Rue Grenata, Rue Dussoubs, and, if you feel like seeing the rather dull, quiet street I called home, Rue St-Sauveur.
For history and culture:
Check out the little-known intact medieval tower, Jean Sans-Peur, located off of Rue Etienne Marcel, near the corner of Rue Francaise. The only remains of the Hotel de Bourgogne, it’s named after “Jean the Fearless” who notoriously murdered his cousin, the Duc de Bourgogne, during a duel here. You can climb the tower for a small fee, and it’s usually pretty quiet, since tourists seem oblivious or indifferent to it. Their mistake.
Also make sure to check out some of the details, from murals and elaborate carvings, that grace some of the buildings on Rue Montorgueil. One of the murals I find fascinating, at 12 Rue Montorgueil, figures above a building named “Au Planteur”and dates to the colonial era. It’s more than a little problematic, depicting a white colonial explorer and his black servant (or even slave). Having reported in the past on France’s vexed relationship with its colonial past, the mural never fails to both fascinate and disturb me.
For eating & drinking:
Like I said earlier, I really do recommend ducking into anyplace in the area that inspires, as the quality tends to be high, whether you’re sampling fresh fruit at a greengrocer on the corner, or sipping a cafe creme while lounging on one of the area’s numerous terraces. Lezard on the corner of Rue Tiquetonne and Rue Montorgueil is a place I’ve gone for years and can recommend for drinks, lunch or dinner; it’s a gay-owned bar-restaurant-cafe that’s open to all and has a friendly, pleasant ambience day and night. The Breizh Café and Cider Cellar is a superb stop for Bréton-style savory and sweet pancakes, breakfast and brunch, and a traditional cider or creative cocktail in the basement bar.
The Experimental Cocktail Club at 37 Rue St-Sauveur is also coveted for its excellent mixed drinks– and has made my old street eons hipper than when I called it home.
For pastries and sweets, try the Maison Stohrer bakery at 51 Rue Montorgueil, claiming to be the oldest bakery in Paris. I admittedly prefer the bread and viennoiseries such as croissants and pain au chocolat at the Eric Kayser bakery, at 16 rue des Petits Carreaux (a little confusingly, Rue Montorgueil actually turns into/becomes Rue des Petits Carreaux as you approach metro Sentier.) It may be a chain, but I’ve never been disappointed by the buttery, flaky, or chocolatey perfections that come out of the oven, chez Kayser.
Rue Etienne Marcel and Rue Tiquetonne are lined with boutiques and concept shops, from both well-known designers such as Barbara Bui, to concept shops such as Kiliwatch (64 rue Tiquetonne) and local multibrand boutiques (Eleven Paris, 32 rue Etienne Marcel). There’s also a Benefit Cosmetics branch at 56 Rue Tiquetonne, and a Nuxe spa location at 32-34 Rue Montorgueil, if you’re hankering for some pampering.
Finally, the Passage du Grand Cerf, one of Paris’ sublime old covered galleries or “arcades”, is always worth a whirl, even if you only indulge in leche-vitrines (literally, “licking the windows”, or window-shopping). Stay tuned for a forthcoming feature on some of my other favorite arcades in the city.