A stroll through seedy St. Denis

23Nov11

Sometimes the pursuit of one journey leads to an entirely different adventure. Such was the case today when Steve and I headed to the Gare du Nord and Gare de L’Est to make some train reservations.

Both train stations lie just a couple of miles north of our apartment, so we decided to walk home via the rue de Faubourg St. Denis. One of Paris’ oldest streets, St. Denis has long had a seedy, gritty reputation—and today it didn’t disappoint.

Our stroll started with the kind of street art that makes Paris’ working-class neighborhoods so visually interesting and vibrant.

I loved Invader’s droll visual pun on the Impasse des Peintres (Painters’ Alley). See the dripping paint roller?

And I was especially fascinated by one building, which was adorned with large strips of metal that were cut precisely to create the image of a man’s face.

After walking south for about a mile or so, we entered the (in)famous St. Denis shopping district. This road has led into central Paris since Roman times. But its heyday came in the late 1800s, when fashionable Parisians flocked to its covered “passages” to see and be seen.

Most of these old shopping arcades have since fallen into disrepair, but each still retains a bit of its former personality and beauty. We paused for a pile of magnificent curry in the Passage Brady, which we dubbed “little Mumbai” for its many Indian shops and restaurants.

We also ducked into the Passage Beaubourg L’Abbe—which I’d somehow missed during my excursion in March—and the Passage du Grand Cerf. Of all the arcades in this area, the Grand Cerf is the best preserved. It’s a popular destination for antique aficionados who don’t mind dropping 15 euros on an old, beat-up picture frame.

A few blocks further south, we stopped to explore the warren of tangled, narrow streets that escaped Hausmann’s gentrification. It didn’t take much effort to imagine medieval Paris and her dark, dirty, crowded streets.

It also didn’t take much effort to imagine why many people associate rue St. Denis with prostitution and sex. Suggestively clad women dotted the streets as their would-be clients darted furtively from video store to peep show to God-knows-what. I’ll save all but one of those photos for another occasion.

We eventually made our way to the Hôpital Dieu, which I visited briefly in March when I fell ill. Since then I’ve been trying—I mean really trying—to pay the modest bill for my treatment. Alas, my attempts have been thwarted by a series of bureaucratic missteps.

It took almost an hour, three administrators and a mountain of paperwork to pay the bill in person, but I think it’s finally taken care of. And I can’t say I much minded hanging around in the hospital’s gorgeous courtyard …

The Hôpital Dieu lies right next to the Notre Dame cathedral, so Steve and I decided impulsively to climb to the top. The drizzle made the footworn steps a bit slippery, but we didn’t mind. Even in the drizzle Paris still dazzles.

I even liked the “accidental” shot I took while trying to steady my camera. I imagine it’s how the pigeons see the world as they come zooming around the bell towers.

On our way home, we stopped at Shakespeare & Company to rest our feet for a minute.

Then we braved a thousand succulent temptations as we wove our way through the Latin Quarter. We had groceries to eat back at the apartment, after all. Must … be … disciplined!

Yup, Steve and I covered a lot of ground today. But no matter how much I see in Paris in a given day, I always feel as if I’ve barely scratched the surface.

Oh, well … there’s always tomorrow.



7 Responses to “A stroll through seedy St. Denis”

  1. It’s quite ironic that I remember Paris being very overrated & in fact plain dirty…. but yet…. I long to return and see the many things that I have yet to see&discover!!! I <3 Paris!!! :) Great Post!!! :) **

    • 2 hmunro

      I think a huge part of the reason I love Paris so much is that it’s a study in contrasts like no other city I’ve known. It can be extremely elegant and cultured — to the point of elitism and rudeness, sometimes — yet it can also be dirty, smelly, and decidedly debauched. And somehow the two co-exist to create this wonderful range of experiences that make me think, over and over, “this could only happen in Paris.” You MUST come back soon. :)

  2. Heather’s in Paris!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    So, I’m jealous, jealous that I’m not there (even though I was JUST there in April) but I’m VERY THRILLED that you are because I LOVE to see it through your eyes. Actually, I feel as if I’m walking behind you or peering over your shoulder.
    Sorry for not being here but there’ve been lots of life changing events over the past few weeks. I PROMISE to come back and catch up. I don’t want to read it all, especially your Paris posts in one sitting. I have to spread out the joy. Paris and your reporting are like a favorite piece of candy. You take a bite, roll it around in your mouth, savor the way it tastes when it hits the tip of your tongue, the sides and back, chew very slowly and then swallow. And put the rest back in the wrapper until the next time.

    • 4 hmunro

      Never has *anyone* described my writing as a “favorite piece of candy,” so you’ve just made my week, Marcia! Hope those life changes are all good; you deserve only the best. Take good care, and stay in touch, OK? xoxo

  3. Love the shots from Nôtre-Dame. I should go there more often. I remember going to Shakespeare & Co. It’s a very nice shop, apart from the prices… (they pay you 1€ for a second hand book, sell it for 10€.) I saw the Eiffel Tower in the mist, to (never ceases to amaze), I regretted not having my camera (how often that has happened…).
    Have fun in Paris!

    • 6 hmunro

      Thanks for your kind words, Edward! I’m very glad to think that I might inspire you to grab your camera next time you head out. And you are so right about Shakespeare & Co: It’s a bit of a rip-off, but they’ve provided me a few fun souvenirs over the years.

  4. Heather,

    If I never get to Paris, I can visit it vicariously through your always fascinating photos. –John


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