Rue Ella Fitzgerald is not so much a road as a boardwalk hugging the glassy Canal de L’Ourcq. It attracts all manner of Parisians: lycée students, designers from the nearby Hermès offices and willowy ballerinas from the national dance centre. Turning onto the main road one recent winter afternoon, I passed the Beaux Arts town hall, a wine shop, fromagerie and the Chanel headquarters before arriving at a discreet white door announcing the new outpost of Thaddaeus Ropac, the great contemporary-art gallerist. Ten minutes earlier I’d officially left Paris, passing under the Boulevard Périphérique to the suburb of Pantin. But the Paris vibe lingered.
The door opened onto a sculpture garden and two-storey brick ironworks hollowed out and whitewashed. Vast modernist artworks stretched across three monumental rooms, their vibrant colours absorbing rays from the full-length skylights. What made them even more striking – I was the only one looking. In time, I dropped my heavy bag and slunk down onto the polished-concrete floor to contemplate Sol LeWitt’s Wall Drawing #1176 in comfort. In a setting vibrating with Dan Flavins and Donald Judds, nobody was around to mind.
Unless you read the French-language Guides du Routard, you’ll rarely hear about the Paris outside Paris – nor how Parisian exploring them will make you feel. After a week spending more time outside the centre than in it, I can honestly use that cliché about seeing the City of Light in a new light – a light unfettered by grand monuments and aimless crowds.
For its part, Pantin doesn’t hit you over the head with itself. Though not without its bleak industrial corners, Pantin is Paris for Parisians, peppered with alfresco cafés, community gardens and zinc-bar bistros in 19th-century townhouses. Come summer, a narrowboat called Le Barboteur sails past hosting vinyl discos and supper clubs. The commute back into Paris? A 10-minute train or a canal-side stroll through the Villette gardens.
Other unexpected delights await on the opposite end of town. One Friday, I met a friend at a ornate 200-year-old château devoted to Sèvres ceramics, created here since the days of Madame de Pompadour (a major patron). I don’t go in for urns, but the Sèvres National Ceramics Museum is amazingly forward-thinking, displaying glossy porcelain feats by young designers who’ve twisted, stretched and suspended it beyond comprehension. When we did spot an urn, it was 11 feet tall and bathed in light from a picture window overlooking the city. Interspersed were delicate clay furnishings by designers in residence, whom we learned operated out of the ateliers out back. Later we peeked into the workshops, cluttered with disembodied hands, crouched figures and dishware. A worker waved from the giant kilns, apparently delighted to spot an interested face.
We took to the woods. From Sèvres, acres of wild garden segue into tidy rows of ancientâ oaks, opening up at the foot of a Grande Cascade, where water roared down stone tiers under the watch of sculpted nereids. Steps led up a steep hill to gravel terraces, each with a vantage point out to the city and down to classical gardens designed by Louis XIV’s own landscaper, André Le Notre. On this spot once stood Château de Saint-Cloud, home to Marie Antoinette before Napoleon helped himself to it. Napoleon III was living here in 1870 when he started the Franco-Prussian War; his enemies burned it down.
We had no idea the château had even existed, let alone the eponymous neighbourhood to the north. Strolling through Saint-Cloud afterwards, we peeked into a Gothic cathedral founded in the sixth century, some 700 years before Notre-Dame was completed. We wound past quaint Swiss cottages and tall mansions with Mansard roofs similar to those seen on The Addams Family. Then we grabbed a tram.
There’s nothing quite so local as riding the T2 light rail along the Seine while other tourists elbow into the Métro. We took it to Les Coteaux and walked to the river on a path pointing out toward the Eiffel Tower.
Lunch was at a Seine-side guinguette called Quai Ouest, converted from an old warehouse with hanging lanterns and walls of windows. Out of place in a full house of elegant sophisticates, we were nevertheless shown to a window table by a hostess who couldn’t have looked happier to see us. Ditto the staff who indulged us with poussin, pâté and crème brûlée as we watched pleasure boats chug past. Apparently service outside the périphérique comes with a smile.
Afterward, we crossed the Seine on a Napoleonic aqueduct and walked off lunch in the Bois de Boulogne, slicing through the woods past sports grounds, boating lakes and flower gardens. It took nearly an hour to reach the blooming glass petals of Fondation Louis Vuitton, the young contemporary-art gallery sponsored by the brand. But no matter: the gallery stays open until 9 p.m. on Fridays. The wide-open, light-bathed spaces by Frank Gehry create a remarkably easy flow, from the wild, oversized installation works to the rainbow-striped Ellsworth Kelly Spectrum in the atrium. We may not be huge fans of Gehry, nor Vuitton for that matter, but we appreciated their contribution to Paris’s outskirts.
Of course, the Fondation is no secret. Yet a lot of visitors perceive its distance from the single-digit arrondissements in central Paris as prohibitive. That leaves the rest of us with wide-open spaces to swan around.
The same goes for Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, that multiacre flea market beyond Porte de Clignancourt. Up here, a city-within-the-city of swish curiosity shops ripples outward from Rue des Rosiers. Storefronts open right onto the street, or beckon you deep into covered arcades spilling over with marble busts, silk lampshades and fainting couches. Consider it the Louvre of antiques: a place in which to happily lose oneself. Even better on Fridays or Mondays before lunch, when it’s 100 per cent less crowded.
My last time there I lost myself down an art deco rabbit hole before ducking into the cozy corner café Markotte for a deep bowl of roasted organic pork, scoops of mustard-flecked mashed potato and a pear crumble dessert, all lovingly served for €14 ($21). Then I headed into town. Bloggers had been raving about a new boutique hotel, so at the cocktail hour I meandered in past the bar’s scowling hostess and seated myself. It took 15 minutes to flag down a reluctant server and order a €17 mocktail, the cheapest item on the menu. When it hadn’t arrived in another 15 minutes, I glanced around to find the server on her break in the lounge.
Nobody’s perfect. But I didn’t stick around long enough to watch this experience redeem itself. There was too much waiting in the wings for me to discover.
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