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A planted promenade high above the hustle and bustle of street traffic has become the backbone of the 12th arrondissement. The walkway starts out high above ground level near the historic Place de la Bastille, offering strollers unusual city views, before descending into an embankment.

If Napoleon III had not granted the Strasbourg railroad company a 17-kilometer right of way slicing through the city, Parisians and visitors would not be enjoying this elevated promenade today. The train line was decommissioned in 1969 after a century of use, and sold to the city in 1986.

Four and a half kilometers of the railway have been preserved and turned into a sunsplashed overhead walkway starting at the Avenue Daumesnil. The long, narrow promenade on the viaduct, which has been renamed the Viaduct of the Arts, is over 9 meters above street level, is lined with linden and cherry trees, and dotted with pergolas and flower-bedecked trellises. The dense, tightly-knit vegetation suddenly becomes light and clear at the point where the promenade overlooks the stepped terraces of the Hector-Malot garden designed in 1995. Twenty maples trees, whose leaves turn crimson in the autumn, shade an upper-level terrace with red brick paving. The waters of intersecting canals and fountains spring out into three small gardens on the lower level.

Back on the planted promenade, a bridge decorated with shrubs and jardinières spans the Boulevard Diderot, where the promenade widens to accommodate a reflecting pool fringed with lavender. Working-class neighborhoods, rundown, graffiti-covered buildings, vacant lots and recent structures put up as part of a neighborhood urban renewal plan spread out left of the viaduct. The right side is more upscale and full of Haussmanian architecture. The police station at the corner of the rue de Rambouillet features monumental sculptures based on Michaelangelo's slaves, and a craft and home decorating center built in 1995 stands where the viaduct and the former Rambouillet-Montgallet meet. The roof supports the promenade's last overhead section. Two buildings whose facades echo the viaduct's curve mark this section at both ends.

 

Back on the ground after walking 1.4 kilometers above it, strollers reach the Reuilly garden located on the site of a former freight and switching yard. A huge sundial shaped like a butterfly or a star that has fallen from the sky has two inscriptions that read, "Le temps passe, passe le bien" ("Time passes, spend it well") and "Le soleil luit pour tous" ("The sun shines for all"). In the summer months, the sun does indeed shine on all those lying on the central lawn's cushy grass, while others stroll through gardens of euphorbia, sedums, ferns, bamboo and aquatic plants. Some visitors sit in gazebos shaded by flowering apple trees admiring statues of female nudes by Naoum Aranson and Raymond Delamarre. This lively area features a grotto, a water stairway and playgrounds with jungle gyms based on a railroad theme. Children scamper, gardeners lovingly watch the climbing roses bloom and old Parisians gossip about the neighborhood.

The promenade continues across the footbridge over the lawn before reaching the Allée Vivaldi mall. On the right, a new garden with common tree species is in front of the former Reuilly train station. This is where the bike trail begins. At the end of the mall, the Reuilly tunnel opens out onto a natural area with a maze of bowers at the end. Here the city's sounds are muffled, the scent of humus wafts through the air and birds chirp. This is a wilder part of the promenade. The path becomes less monotonous, winding through lush vegetation that was originally planted to prevent the embankment's soil from eroding when this was still a working railway. A musical sculpture jingles in the wind as the path stretches to Charles Péguy Square, which is named after the poet who left for the front during World War One from the nearby Bel Air train station and never came back. Near the end, the path is lined by laurel and prune trees and reaches the bed of the disaffected Petit Ceinture railway that encircles Paris. It passes under the Boulevard Soult before reaching the city limits. Plans are under way to extend the promenade to Lake Daumesnil in the Bois de Vincennes.

This bucolic walkway, designed by the architect Mathieux and the landscape architect Vergely, beckons Parisians and visitors alike to discover another way of experiencing the city. Paris seems far away. Strollers have the feeling that they are somewhere else. The city vanishes and reappears in the blink of an eye, but it looks different.

Restoration work on the viaduct began in 1992. The 72 orange-red brick arches with cream-colored stone trim are crowned by Gothic-style machicoliation recalling Vincennes castle. Today, craftspeople and contemporary designers have moved into 60 renovated vaults, carrying on a tradition that began in 1198 when cabinet-makers settled in the area around the Saint Antoine abbey. Since then, the 12th arrondissement has boasted a long history of craftsmanship. The viaduct has become a showcase of know-how to help these craftspeople, who symbolize French culture, tradition and innovation, and to preserve the neighborhood's soul. Silversmiths, brassworkers, gilders, sculptors, embroiderers, milliners and musical instrument makers quietly ply their trades, offering an unusual glimpse of Paris.

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The Bassin de l'Arsenal was excavated in 1806 on the site of the moat of the former Charles V wall that once enclosed the city. Originally built to serve the inland port and bring water from the Seine to the Bastille, today it is a marina bordered by terraces, pergolas and a rose garden. A tunnel at one end leads to the Saint Martin canal.

Property developers have spoiled the banks with ugly glass and concrete apartment buildings, but this is still a lovely place to come in October, when dead leaves pile up in the fading, straw-colored autumn light. Teeming factories, bustling workshops, docks loaded with plaster, bargemen's bistros and penniless girls once lined the quays from Stalingrad to Bastille. The straight, 4.5-kilometer canal, which split the city between middle-class quarters on the west and working-class neighborhoods to the east, was built by hand in 1825.

Napoleon had ordered the artificial waterway dug to supply Paris with water and provide a shortcut that would avoid navigating a long, circuitous bend in the Seine. By the 1960s, traffic had dwindled to a trickle and the canal narrowly escaped being filled in and paved over for a highway. Then it was turned into a pleasure canal where Parisians and visitors enjoy leisurely boat rides, sailing through the heart of Paris from one lock to the next.

Steve Zade, a 53-year-old British-born "gastronomic refugee", is a guide aboard the Canotier, which sets out with international tourists from La Villette every day. Cars on the rue de Crimée, which bisects the canal, must often wait for the drawbridge to close as it lets his boat through. Steve entertains his passengers with an endless flow of funny commentary. "Why are Spanish tourists on the bateaux-mouches always straining their necks and looking back at monuments two kilometers upstream?", he asks. The passengers are stumped. "Because by the time they hear the Spanish translation, the landmark being described is already two or three bridges behind!" The tourists burst into laughter, certain they have made the right choice about how to spend their day.

Once a small village, in the nineteenth century La Villette became France's fourth-busiest port. A walled-up warehouse on the basin nobly stands across from a 30-story skyscraper. The warehouse was built in 1885 to store sugar, grain and wine that bargemen unloaded from their boats. On the opposite side, a vacant lot marks the spot where the warehouse's twin stood until it burned down in 1990.

At the Jaurès lock, the first of nine that compensates for the 29-meter difference in altitude from one of the canal to the other, the waterway really seems to enter Paris. The Rotonde de la Villette, a former 18th-century customs house designed by Nicolas Ledoux that once formed part of the wall around the city, stands a little further away. The names of other former customs houses are engraved in the stone.

The canal did not exist yet when the sinister, medieval Mont Faucon gallows that inspired the poet François Villon to write Ballade des pendus (Hanged Men Walking) stood at the intersection of the rue de la Grange-aux-Belles, the Saint Martin's lock, the Quai de Jemmapes and the rue Louis Blanc. A series of graceful, lacy, openwork steel bridges surrounded by lush greenery spans this stretch of the canal. The Hotel du Nord, which is famous for being the setting of Marcel Carné's classic 1930s film of the same name, stands near the Récollets lock.

The canal passes under the swing bridge on the rue Dieu and through the Temple lock before flowing underground to the Bastille. Skylights piercing the tunnel's ceiling cast an eerie greenish glow as the canal passes beneath the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir for two kilometers until flowing into the Seine at the Bassin de l'Arsenal.

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Except for the 12th arrondissement, which includes the Bois de Vincennes, the 14th has the highest amount of park acreage in Paris, ranging from the tiny Papillon garden off the little rue de Châtillon to the 16-hectare Parc Montsouris. Those are the spaces open to the public. Then there are the private courtyards, villas and cobblestone, verdant dead ends. The sisters of Saint Joseph de Cluny still grow their own tomatoes on the rue Méchain. The ring road is greed and red, with the red of the brick apartment houses lining the Boulevard Brune mixing with the green of many gardens.

The 14th arrondissement is also home to all the major hospitals of Paris as well as the Santé prison, the only house of detention still inside the city limits. The population of the residential Montsouris quarter has been declining, but in the Plaisance neighborhood it is increasing. The "three mounts" - Montparnasse, Montsouris and Montrouge - have always been crowded: they were home to the laboring classes and workshops, factories and street trades before artists, painters and writers moved in. The china menders and bougnats - cafes that originally sold coal - are gone, and the carters now drive vans. But in winter, a glazier and a grinder still make their rounds in this neighborhood, which seems like a link to happier times.

The 14th arrondissement actually led a double life. During the week, the neighborhood was fairly quiet, with retirees straight out of a Balzac novel shuffling around in their slippers in the morning. And then came Friday, when all Paris seemed to flock to Montparnasse until Sunday night. That has not changed, although the neighborhood has a lot more antique shops than it used to. Many of them specialize in bric-a-brac, small furniture and china The area around the rue de l'Ouest, the rue Raymond-Losserand and the rue du Château is changing, with old buildings coming down and new ones going up, but they will be lower than the ones in the 13th arrondissement.

The rue du Château leads to the neo-classical Place de Catalogne designed by Ricardo Bofill based on a Greek temple and a Roman arena. Nearby is the Place de Séoul and the Hôtel de Massa, an eighteenth century "folie" that once stood on the Champs Elysées. In 1927, it was threatened with demolition and moved to its present location. Every stone, beam, panel and floorboard was carried across the Right Bank and faithfully rebuilt to house the Société des Gens de Lettres.

 

 

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