Bebop a lula into a zinc bar

11th October 1996 at 01:00
Stephen Thomas walks, smells and eavesdrops in le Paris insolite. The Paris of Simenon, Piaf, Truffaut, Doisneau and Brassai is disappearing with the gradual exclusion of those who have given inner Paris its rich texture. Workers and ethnic minorities are being geographically disenfranchised, shovelled out into the kind of grim satellite towns captured by Mathieu Kassovitz in his film La Haine.

At the same time, a bloodless response to tourism and affluence, gentrification and the "frigorification" of old facades, has given too much of the city a museum-like quality. The death last January of Richard Cobb, Professor of Modern History at Oxford, brought to an end his meticulous chronicling of the remaining "quartiers populaires", the Paris of "petit zincs", "restaurants d'habitues", "ateliers", "impasses" and "passages". History for Cobb should be walked, seen, smelt, eavesdropped as well as read.

The 10th and 11th arrondissements on the fringes and to the east of the Canal Saint Martin are typical Cobb territory which have so far escaped the relentless prettification which has sanitised the Marais, the Bastille quarter, the Rue Mouffetard or the Rue St Denis. The Canal Saint Martin is one of the loveliest, least well-known waterways of Paris, which was saved during the Pompidou era from plans to fill it in to build a motorway. It was a key location for Jean Vigo's 1934 film L'Atalante and the setting for Dabit's novel and Carne's film Hotel du Nord.

Once a major route for the transportation of raw materials from Northern France and Belgium, the canal's iron humpbacked bridges link an unfashionable working quarter of sweatshops, printers and dealers in leather. Shopkeepers, students, craftsmen and small traders live alongside Parisians with roots in North or West Africa, Vietnam or the Caribbean.

Typical of the area round the canal is the unpretentious Restaurant de Bourgogne, 28 Rue des Vinaigriers. It offers as good a cheap meal as you will get in Paris in the kind of warm, noisy, congenial atmosphere for which the English middle class idealises France, but find less and less.

The overworked waiter puffs furiously on his pipe, while the patron, Maurice, takes life at a slower pace, occupying the front table with a bunch of locals for pastis and conversation, vacating it only when 10 or more customers wait to be served.

Round the corner at 60 Rue de Lancry, is La Patache, a cafe-bar which has hardly changed in 40 years. Its ancient stove with a chimney snaking above the tables gives it the decrepit austerity of the set for a Beckett play, evoking the Paris of Bebop, music hall and the existentialist warblers. Piaf, Brel and Ferre play on the expiring jukebox, with photos of jazz stars and faded reproduction prints tacked to the wall.

At 19, Piaf was "discovered" in 1935 when a Parisian nightclub owner heard her singing in the Rue Troyon near the Arc de Triomphe. He told her that her gravelly tone was ruining her voice. Her memory has been celebrated since 1967 in one of Paris's tiniest museums, the two-room Musee Edith Piaf, in Menilmontant, a few hundred metres from her grave in P re Lachaise Cemetery.

The museum is part of the fourth floor apartment of one of her devoted friends, Bernard Marchois, the curator, and of Claude Sounac, treasurer of the fan club "Les Amis d'Edith Piaf" which counts Michele Morgan, Les Compagnons de la Chanson and Serge Lama as members of Comite d'Honneur.

A life-size photograph of Piaf's tiny frame, her little black dress, letters, the gold discs for Mon Legionnaire and other songs are among the exhibits. Books, tapes, videos of the films, and a compilation video of her performances are on sale.

Down the road from the museum, the Cafe Charbon, at 109 Rue Oberkampf, captures the delicately poised transitional quality of the Belleville-Menilmontant area in which Piaf grew up and scraped a living as a street singer. Its zinc bar, wall mirrors, fin de si cle murals, cracking plaster and beer-drinking artisans, mark it out as an authentic bar de quartier. The cocktail menu, well-heeled customers, Tricky and the Prodigy on the sound system, represent its transformation into one of Paris's most fashionable cafe-bars.

Paris inside the Peripherique is rapidly losing its vitality, but there are still finds to be made in le Paris insolite, which, as Richard Cobb put it, "should be walked, because much of it, the most secret, the most modest, the most bizarre, the tiniest, is only discoverable by the pedestrian who is prepared to push behind the the boulevards and the long straight streets of the Second Empire".

Richard Cobb's books The Streets of Paris and Tour de France are published by Duckworth. Promenades and People and Places, are published by Oxford University Press. Musee Edith Piaf and Les Amis D'Edith Piaf, 5 Rue Crespin du Gast, 75011, Paris. Visits by appointment only. Tel: 43 55 52 72

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today