La Butte-aux-Cailles … Gangsters and Grapes with your Grilled Quail …

Paris’ 13th arrondissement has never been one of the chic areas of Paris. From the 1930s to the end of the 1950s it was gangsterland. The arrondissement’s Rue Tolbiac that runs west-east (Paris’ streets are numbered from west to east) through it was where the mobs roamed and ruled. The mobsters weren’t vicious.  They didn’t […]

Paris’ 13th arrondissement has never been one of the chic areas of Paris.

From the 1930s to the end of the 1950s it was gangsterland.

The arrondissement’s Rue Tolbiac that runs west-east (Paris’ streets are numbered from west to east) through it was where the mobs roamed and ruled. The mobsters weren’t vicious.  They didn’t shoot you dead for a shot of shit (police lingo for hashish and heroin), but were considered rather glamorous, made so by Jean Gabin, Lino Ventura and Eddie Constatine movies.

In the 1960s the arrondissement changed.

Factories south of Rue Tolbiac moved out to the grande banlieue (suburbs) for financial reasons and real estate promoters began to construct tall apartment blocks  – not skyscrapers but buildings of 15/18 floors which the Parisians called a tour – tower – nonetheless. Those were the years of Vietnam and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians flocked to Paris to seek asylum with their former colonial master (De Gaulle told both President Kennedy and Johnson not to go into Vietnam because it will be a war they would not be able to win – but that is another story) and joined the Chinese immigrants who were already here, and as the tours of the 13th were standing unoccupied because the French refused to live in them, that was where the French government housed the Asian refugees. And so that part of the 13th became Chinatown.

Meanwhile, the other end of Rue Tolbiac, on a hill, had remained a peaceful village of narrow three or four floor apartment buildings dating from the end of the 19th century and two-floor houses, some of them half-timbered on narrow, winding and climbing streets.  So, it still is today.

And this is the Butte-aux-Cailles – Hill of the Quail(s).

If you live in Paris and you’ve not been there, then go, and if you plan to visit Paris, do put it on your list of must see. You will love it. Believe me, you will love it because it is a most delightful area of Paris.

There are two versions of the origin of the name Butte-aux-Cailles.

One is quite lyrical.

Once – around the 17th century – many quail had roamed on this hill; it was a particularly green and shady area because of the Bièvre River that twined its way around the hills. The Bièvre River, by the way, has gone underground – yes, man’s mindlessness has caused this river to dwindle away until it had become what it is today: an underground stream. As for the word butte, it means hillock or mound or knoll, and there are another two famous hillocks in Paris – Butte Montmartre and Butte Chaumont.

The other version of the origin of the name, which is now taken as the correct one, is that in 1543 one Pierre Caille, a wealthy man, had bought a parcel of limestone knolls south of Paris and had started to plant vines and to make wine. After him his son Clément had bought more of the hilly land and a small commune had sprung up. The area had become known as the Butte de Caille (Caille’s hill), then Butte Caille (Caille Hill) and then Butte-aux-Cailles – Hill of the Quail(s).

The Butte had a moment of glory on November 21, 1783, when the French chemist, physicist and nobleman, François Pilâtre de Rozier landed, or rather made a bumpy landing, on the hill after the world’s first ever flight in a hot-air balloon which was designed by the Montgolfier brothers. (De Rozier was to die in another hot-air balloon crash which obviously had been more than just a little bumpy.)  If you are an aviation enthusiast and you want to stand on the very spot where De Rozier had landed that November day, it is on Avenue d’Italie (at No. 20) at the entrance of the parking bay of Italie 2 (formerly Galaxy) shopping mall.

The Butte also had a moment of suffering in 1871 when a fierce battle had broken out on the hill during the Commune when Paris’ workers had risen up against the government of Napoleon III, France’s last monarch. (I won’t go into what the Commune was about other than to say one of its causes was the Franco-Prussian War during which Prussia besieged Paris forcing the starving Parisians to eat rats.)

The easiest way for you to get to the Butte-aux-Cailles is to go by Metro. It is Line (ligne) 5 and you descend at Corvisart station. You then walk into the long, narrow and climbing Rue des Cinq Diamants and you are on the Butte. When you get to the top of the street whichever way you then walk will be the right way. Follow your heart, go right or left, and right again. You will see charming little shops, bistros, restaurants, houses. All will be small – quaint.  There is Rue de la Butte aux Cailles itself, and Rue de l’Espérance and numerous cobbled alleyways.

Know that the bistros and restaurants become very crowded at lunch time because, as I said, they are all small with just a few tables each. And know that if you plan to have dinner up there, the upper end of Rue des Cinq Diamants and all of Rue de la Butte aux Cailles are very noisy. If you do not mix food and music, you better descend to Rue Tolbiac or Avenue des Gobelins to dine in one of their very many and good restaurants. If not, you may just have a Serge Gainsbourg wannabe belt out Élisa in your ears. (If you do not know who Serge Gainsbourg was, consider yourself lucky.)

In fact, the Butte has become so noisy at night that the arrondissement’s mayor, Jérôme Coumet, passed a rule at the beginning of this month (June 2011) banning drinking of alcohol on a public thoroughfare (sur la voie publique) when not actually sitting at a table having a snack or a meal. What had been happening was that patrons have been standing on the narrow sidewalks and narrow streets, glasses in hand, drinking, and keeping the locals, many of them elderly and old, awake deep into the night.

Consuming alcohol on a public thoroughfare  – that is consuming alcohol in a non-licensed public place like a street, park, beach, malls and so on – is not illegal in France but it can be forbidden by the local authorities – the Mayors of communities. (I will give you a list of where you can drink on the street in Paris at the end of this blog entry.)

This bistro owner wants cell (mobile) phones to be switched off

If you want the Butte-aux-Cailles all to yourself, go there on a Sunday morning at around 10.30/11. The locals will still be indoors, asleep, and in the bistros and restaurants the waiters will be clearing up after the Saturday night revelers. You will therefore have the butte all to yourself. You will be able to walk around, linger and take photos. I took these photos on a Sunday morning, so you will see that few people were around.

Now about drinking in a public place. One can consume alcohol on a public thoroughfare in Paris’ 14th, 16th and 19th arrondissements.  As for the other arrondissements, some of them have forbidden the drinking of alcohol on a public thoroughfare on some streets but only between 4 p.m. and 7 a.m. They are: Boulevard de Sébastopol (1st); Rue Mouffetard (5th); Avenue des Champs-Elysées (8th); Rue Oberkampf (11th) and Boulevard Barbès (18th). One is also not allowed to consume alcohol along Canal Saint-Martin (10th) after 9 p.m. until 7 a.m.

Graffiti... on the Butte ...

If you are wondering about that word bordel on the notice requesting cell (mobile) phones to be switched off,know that it translates as brothel, but the French use it to express exasperation or anger. It’s like exclaiming, Hell! Or Bloody Hell! Or dammit! This bistro owner is therefore imploring: Please, Switch off your cells/mobiles.  Bloody Hell!


Marilyn Z. Tomlins

2 Responses

6-13-2011 at 15:06:29

Another excellent and informative article, Marilyn. Chapeau!

6-16-2011 at 06:26:17

It is a most delightful part of Paris.

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