Paris is not all glamour and romance. And if I liked Paris at all, it wasn’t the glamour and the so-called “romance” that I liked, but the simple, unseen aspects of everyday life. A friend who was living in Paris told me about a little area in the city, hidden from the hustle of the urban center and away from the touristic crowds. In her words, it was “A village within a city, an enclosure of its own, sort of like connected courtyards behind a secret door, hiding a world of art and antiques.” But she didn’t tell me how to find it. According to my friend, she stumbled upon the place through a treasure hunt of some sort, carefully following instructions while not really knowing where she was going. And by the time she reached this “village”, she didn’t remember how she got there or how she got out. Intrigued, I decided to look for this mysterious place one afternoon as I had a few hours to kill in Paris before heading back to Bordeaux. I thought a good place to start would be the area around the metro station “Saint-Paul”, as the village itself is named, of course, Le Village Saint-Paul.
Usually, many signs point to prominent tourist landmarks, and you could be sure to reach these landmarks by following signs alone. Not the case with Saint-Paul. I suppose it wasn’t a place foreigners visited often, and while there were one or two signs around the metro station pointing to the direction of the “village”, they were vague and misleading, to say the least. I was prepared to enter a maze of quiet alleys in a quest to find Saint-Paul. And it did take a while. I was frustrated, turning corners obliviously without knowing where I was and where I was going, but at the same time, without knowing that what I was looking for could be closer to me than I had anticipated.
All around me were colourful banners with the label “Village St-Paul” written on them, so I knew I was close. Little did I know that all I had to do was turn and enter any of the numerous doors or corridors lined up along the side of the street, and I would enter a whole different world on the other side. Greeted with a deserted courtyard with an air of sophistication and artistic ardour, I was there, in Le Village Saint-Paul.
Essentially, the village is a collection of art galleries, antique shops, boutiques, home decoration shops – anything sophisticated that you could name. It was the end of December, a cold time of the year in Paris, with gray skies, and as a result, not many people were around. I felt like a lone intruder of peace, venturing into the enclosure, exploring every interconnected courtyard discreetly so as to not disturb the tranquility that was so well preserved.
And at one point I wondered if I really was the only one around, until I saw other people wandering like me. Signs of life, always reassuring no matter how quiet and tranquil a place is meant to be. I enjoyed the moments of silence as I immersed myself in the art-filled dimension that defined the village. My friend was right, this was an escape from Paris within the city itself, a secret to be kept to those who have found it.
At one point I saw inflated latex (I think) gloves hanging on the branches of a leafless tree. With the breeze, they swayed gently back and forth, back and forth. I kept trying to comprehend the meaning of this eccentric design, as there were no explanations of any sort to indicate whether this was a work of art of just a peculiar decoration in the courtyard. And I will not pretend to understand art in the minds of the spontaneous, unconventional artist. It just seemed bizarre to me, that was all.
Signs of age were apparent on the walls of Saint-Paul, as history seemed to be etched inside the courtyards. I was imagining what it would be like to come here during the summer, when surely the village would be less deserted and more lively and dynamic with art shows, yard sales, or just people relaxing in the sun.
Actually, many shops were closed during my visit. A little disappointing, but thankfully I wasn’t on a mission to shop for antiques or paintings or things of that sort. Finding the place was good enough for me that afternoon.
I guess the one word to describe Le Village Saint-Paul, other than peaceful (at least during December), would be “chic” – stylish, elegant, and classy. And to be quite honest, I would not be able to live up to that level of “chic”ness. I only went there to satisfy my curiosity, not to shop or to spend time at art galleries or to contemplate about art and culture and style. Leave that to the real artists.
I don’t remember at all what this was – a gigantic poster? A wallpaper? An advertisement of some sort? And for the life of me I don’t remember what’s in the image…wooden balls carved into different patterns? Shells? Buttons? Chocolate??? The wooden stick figure at the bottom did seem to have an opinion though…whatever he was trying to say! (It seems to yell out “Libère-moi! Fais pas le con!” which would mean “Free me! Stop playing around!” or something like that 😛 )
Finally, I exited the village through the same way I entered it – by going through one of the passageways scattered around each side of the courtyards. I liked this one particularly, glowing with a ghostly green that seemingly wanted to invite me to walk through it, leaving peace behind me and travelling back to a busier, more glamourous Paris. Worth a visit? If you want to stick to the typical picture-perfect Paris, then I’d suggest you keep to the Eiffel Tower and the Champs-Élysées. If you have the time and enjoy a more relaxed and unconventional experience even in the most popular travel destination in Europe, then drop by Le Village Saint-Paul for an afternoon stroll. Maybe you’ll like it 🙂