Newspaper article The Daily Mercury (Mackay, Australia)

Tourists Looking for Old Paris Charm and a Taste of la Vie En Rose Should Head to Belleville, a Largely Overlooked Part of the City and the Birthplace of Edith Piaf. Emma Vandore Reports

Newspaper article The Daily Mercury (Mackay, Australia)

Tourists Looking for Old Paris Charm and a Taste of la Vie En Rose Should Head to Belleville, a Largely Overlooked Part of the City and the Birthplace of Edith Piaf. Emma Vandore Reports

Article excerpt

Byline: Emma Vandore

ONLY five Metro stops away from Paris' town hall, Belleville has retained much of its working-class identity and still bubbles with concert halls, theatres and bars - some in which the famous Edith Piaf once sang.

Add to the mix successive waves of immigrants and young creative types out drinking, eating and carousing, and you get a funky atmosphere similar to New York's East Village.

It offers much for the visitor, not least a panoramic view over Paris that rivals Montmartre - but is blissfully free of peddlers and hawkers. Yet few tourists stray farther than Pere Lachaise cemetery, burial place for celebrities including Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Piaf herself.

Even the success of La Vie en Rose, which won actress Marion Cotillard a best-actress Academy Award and rekindled interest in Piaf's life, isn't drawing the masses to the neighbourhood.

"It's an area that hasn't yet been discovered by tourists," said Sophie Millot, a culture official from Paris' 20th arrondissement, or district, on the east side of the city where much of Belleville lies.

"At the moment, it's Parisians who are starting to explore."

Since Piaf's time, Belleville has suffered from a bad reputation, cemented by the 1952 film Casque d'Or (Golden Helmet), inspired by the true story of rival bands of Belleville thugs.

Near the site of a violent fight depicted in the film, Cyril Aouizerate, a philosopher-come-nightclub owner, has built a 172-room Philippe Starck-designed hotel called Mamashelter, which opened in September. He says the district is no more dangerous than other parts of Paris.

"People who come here like the cosmopolitan feel," Aouizerate said as he puffed on a cigarette.

Be prepared, though, for scruffier streets than the sparkling avenues and boulevards of central Paris. Once a hilltop village with a "belle vue" or beautiful view of Paris - from which the name is likely derived - Belleville was annexed to Paris in 1860 when city planner Baron Haussmann attempted to quash the locals' rebellious spirit cutting the village down the middle and splitting its administrative centre.

The man responsible for Paris' wide boulevards left the streets of Belleville largely untouched. Crooked roads that still wind their way around plots of land set out in the Middle Ages are part of the district's charm.

According to legend, Piaf was born as Edith Giovanna Gassion on the pavement outside 72 rue de Belleville in the depth of winter - attested to by a plaque outside the door.

Overwhelmed by contractions, her mother, cafe singer Annetta Giovanna Maillard, huddled in the doorway while Piaf's acrobat father went to call for an ambulance. On his way Louis Alphonse Gassion stopped in at various cafes and bars to celebrate, leaving two policemen to help deliver Edith on the footpath.

The reality, however, is more banal. Piaf's birth certificate states that she was born at the Hospital Tenon. …

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