It does not host the Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower, and it is not as flashy as Saint-Germain-des-Pres. There are no grand Haussmannian boulevards or any major Parisian monument, and it is exactly this reason that makes the Quartier Quinze-Vingts quintessentially Parisian. Most of us who live in Paris don't have sweeping views of the Sacre-Cœur or the Iron Lady from our windows; we have parks, markets, gardens and canals. This everydayness makes Quinze-Vingts the perfect place to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon exploring the streets in the most Parisian way possible.
Never heard of the Quinze-Vingts? You're not alone; even many Parisians have no clue where it is. If there is not a metro named after it, in the Parisians eye, it might as well not exist. The Quinze-Vingts is the westernmost part of the 12th arrondissement and bordered by the Seine to the south, the Bassin de l'Arsenal to the west, the Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine to the north and the Hôpital Saint-Antoine and Gare de Lyon to the east. In its centre is the Quartier d'Aligre.
Quinze-Vingts derived its name from the hospital of the same name, just behind Bastille. It housed 300 beds for the blind so it was called "The 300". A strange twist of linguistics though, it wasn't called Trois Cents or Three Hundred but Quinze-Vingts or Fifteen-Twenties. The usage comes from the old Vigesimal numbering system where twenty was the base number as opposed to ten. Even though Quinze-Vingts literally reads Fifteen-Twenties, it is read and understood as simply 300. The Vigesimal numbering system has long disappeared from modern French... almost. Some of you might have noticed it still exists when the French say quatre-vingts, or four-twenties which logic dictates, means eighty.
Le marché d’Aligre
The beating heart of Quinze-Vingts is Le Marché d'Aligre: a true local's market. The rue d'Aligre is transformed six days a week into a bustling fresh produce market. The produce is fresh, cheap, and the sellers are animated and engaging. Such is the activity that Parisians will cross town just to savour the flavour on the street.
Inside the covered Marché Beauvau on the square, one will find the prices a little more expensive, but also an exceptional quality. The sellers are peddling the finest cheese, wines, game and poultry, fish, flowers and more. I recommend the craft beer stall for some absolutely delicious beer and as for cheese, you can't go past some creamy Saint-Félicien.
Take a stop at Aouba Café at the top of Rue d'Aligre for a quick espresso. This standing room only café roasts their own coffee, and the result is a deliciously rich, darkly roasted cup. When they are roasting, it is a beautiful sight to watch the beans swirl around and the little shop emits the richest of flavours. 30 Rue d'Aligre
On weekends the market becomes busier and a little bit more expensive, and you will often hear music around the square. Perhaps from a large brass marching band, sometimes a jazz quartet or often an old man grinding an organ playing old French chanson singing softly into the wind.
The market flair is an undeniable attraction for anyone with a bit of time in Paris and a great place to photograph as well, thanks to the the eclectic mix of colours, faces, activities and opportunities. Be sure to make it on time though, once it closes the stalls pack up, the produce stored or discarded and the streets cleaned. Within an hour or two you would have no idea that there was ever a market.
The covered Marché couvert Beauvau is open Tuesday to Saturday from 09h00 until 13h00 and 16h00 until 19h30, on Sunday from 09h00 until 13h00. The street Marché d'Aligre is open Tuesday to Saturday from 08h00 until 13h30, on Sunday from 8h00 until 14h30.
Coulée Verte Réne-Dumont
The Coulée Verte is a former railway line that once ran from Bastille to Vincennes. It has since been converted into a beautiful sky park. The elevated pathway cuts right through the middle of Quinze-Vingts and is the best way to explore the quartier. As you stroll along the pathway through the different atmospheres of the park, one can peek into the windows and over the rooftops of the buildings surrounding the line. My favourite building has a series of men pulling back their skin to reveal a hole where their heart should be. The whole thing becomes much funnier when you realise the building in question is the Commissioner of Police for the 12th arrondissement.
The realisation of the Coulée Verte has been an inspiration for many other aerial linear parks, most notably The High Line in New York. With no traffic lights or road crossings, it is a popular place with families and joggers alike. There is even a free outdoor gym at the Jardin Hector Malot. The end station of Bastille used to run right up to the Place de la Bastille, but it has since been demolished to make way to the modern Opera Bastille.
Bassin de l'Arsenal
Everyone knows about the Canal Saint Martin in the 10th arrondissement, but not many people think about its little brother the Bassin de l'Arsenal. The Canal flowing into the Seine begins at Arsenal, goes underground at Bastille and pops overground again near Republic as Canal Saint Martin. The marina at Arsenal is joined by a garden and petanque fields on its eastern edge and makes for a perfect place for a summer's picnic. It's so cute that if it were not for the Bastille column in sight, you might mistake it for a seaside port.
Place de la Bastille
There could not be a more defining image of the French Revolution than the state prison used by the Kings of France: The Bastille. When the workers, mostly from the Faubourg Saint-Antoine in Quinze-Vingts, stormed the prison on the 14 July 1798, it put the wheels in motion for what would eventually culminate in the guillotine cutting off the heads of the King and Queen. The anniversary of the storming of the Bastille is commemorated as the National Day, or as it is known outside of France: Bastille Day.
In the centre of the Place de la Bastille stands a 47m high cast bronze statue engraved in gold and adorned by "The Spirit of Freedom". It memorialises the revolution - but just not that one mentioned above, but rather the July Revolution. It gets a little confusing when you look at the French history. The first revolution replaced the monarchy with a republic, then an empire, then a monarchy again, a second republic, a second empire, a third republic, a puppet Nazi state, a fourth republic, and finally a fifth republic. So Bastille was the site of the prison that started the first French Revolution, and the column, commemorates the Three Glorious Days, or the second French Revolution.
The prison was ceremoniously destroyed; nothing remains of it today. The intangible connection with revolutions and protest has survived though, and the square plays a prominent role in marches and demonstrations across the city today.
Gare de Lyon
The impressive Gare de Lyon was built for the World Exhibition in 1900 and handles rail travel to Lyon, unsurprisingly, as well as the French Riviera, French-speaking Switzerland, Italy and Spain. It is the third largest station in Paris and one of the largest in Europe. Step into the sumptuous art-deco Train Bleu restaurant to be exported back a century with each room meticulously decorated to represent a different region of France.
In the evenings the streets come alive. Particularly Rue de Cotte which is home to some great bars and restaurants. Make sure to stop in for a beer at Charlie Bar (pictured above) 29 rue de Cotte. The beer is cheap, the staff are friendly, and I may have had an exhibition in this cute bar once ;)
If you're looking to discover a part of Paris off the tourist trap and explore the capital like a local, then Quinze-Vingts is for you. It is a great ambling area, where you can pick a direction and be sure to stumble across something great: a trendy bar, a delicious restaurant, an adorable artisanal craft shop, or a back street park. Or why not take a tour with Aperture Tours and be accompanied by a professional photographer who will show you the hidden treasures, all while teaching you about your camera and helping you to improve your photography. Either way, get out there and enjoy all that Paris has hidden.
Author : Alexander J.E. Bradley
Alexander lives in the Quartier Quatre-Vingt in Paris and is the founder of Aperture Tours: professional photography guided tours, designed to help you get the best out of your camera whilst exploring wonderful cities with a local. A professional photographer for over a decade Alexander enjoys shooting the surreal by mixing dreamlike qualities into his conceptual images.