Paris: A City of Cozy Neighborhoods

Paris at dusk (Photo: Alex L. Fradkin)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on October 27, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: destination, hotel, Paris, Rick Steves.

As I dodge Parisians walking their poodles and pushing baby strollers in a vibrant market street, I'm reminded that one of the reasons Paris is endlessly entertaining is its neighborhoods. On streets such as rue des Martyrs, real people make cozy communities in the midst of this vast, high-powered city. You find a warm and human vibrancy you miss when just hopping from big museum to museum.

Strung across the road above me, a banner announces a neighborhood "clean-your-attic-day" sale. At a bakery, a sign in the window still brags its baguettes were voted the best in Paris. And next to me, a line of motorbikes are poised to deliver sushi, pizza-style, to the next caller. (In this affluent neighborhood, many professionals don't want to cook after a long day of work, so delivery services like this are booming.)

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Rue des Martyrs leads toward the center of Paris from the busy boulevard Clichy. As you wander, you feel the reality of raising a family and a sense of neighborhood in this urban setting. Still, security is a concern. Several side streets are voie privee—private lanes for high-rise, gated communities. The school has barriers to keep possible car bombs at a distance. (Since the terrorist attacks that rocked Paris decades ago, there's no parking in front of most schools or near buildings that serve a Jewish clientele.)

Shopping for groceries is an integral part of everyday life here. Parisians shop almost daily for three good reasons: Refrigerators are small (tiny kitchens), produce must be fresh, and it's an important social event. Shopping is a chance to hear about the butcher's vacation plans, see photos of the florist's new grandchild, relax over "un cafe," and kiss the cheeks of friends. In a Parisian neighborhood like this, people know their merchants as if it were a village.

Goods spill onto the sidewalk. And locals happily pay more at a shop that's not part of a chain. The corner charcuterie still sells various meats. But it's morphed with the times by offering more variety, prepared dishes sold by weight, and even a few tables so that customers can eat in as well as take out.

Across the street is one of the countless late-night groceries. They are generally run by North African immigrants who are willing to work the night shift, earning their living off wealthy locals who gladly pay the high prices for the convenience. Locals warn me that any place advertising prices by the half-kilo is trying to mask a very high markup.

The cheese shop has been serving the neighborhood ever since it used to keep goats and cows out back. This fromagerie preserves its old marble shelves, aluminum milk jugs, and WWII vintage scales as if to show off its community roots. And rather than big name cheeses, it sells only the products of small artisan farms.

Locals know the butcher serves top grade beef—a big concern after what they translate as the "crazy cow" problem. The ceiling hooks—where butchers once hung sides of beef—now display just a red medallion that certifies the slaughtered cow's quality.

At the patisserie you can jostle with a discerning and salivating clientele for the tasty, little, typically French works of art. They bake up special treats in sync with each season: Easter, Christmas, or whatever. I'm here at the end of the school year and it's the season for First Communions—so that's the theme filling the window displays.

And the tobacco shop/cafe on the corner is coping with the no-smoking law by putting out heaters and as many tables as will fit on the sidewalk (where smoking is permitted). Shops like this, once run by rural people from Auvergne in central France, are now generally run by Chinese immigrants.

The trendy baby clothes store is a reminder that the French love to doll up their babies. In the last generation, an aging and shrinking population has been a serious problem for Europe's wealthier nations. But France now has one of Europe's highest birth rates—the fertile French average is about two children per family, compared to 1.6 for the rest of Europe. Babies are in vogue today, and the French government rewards parents with substantial tax deductions for their first two children—and then doubles the tax break after that. Making babies is good business.

Rue des Martyrs finishes with a commercial climax before ending at the neighborhood church—the Neoclassical (from 1836) Notre Dame de Lorette. And from there, steps lead into the Metro, where all of Paris is a cheap Metro ticket and a few minutes away.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

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