TIP: Talk to Strangers (Butte Bergeyre)

Not your typical Paris apartment

A few weeks ago when I was traipsing around the 19th to make sure my favorite places were still my favorite places for a guest post, I stumbled upon a neighborhood I’d never been to before.

Easy to see why. You have to stumble up 100 meters to find it. Butte Bergeyre might just be the most secret hill in Paris.

Luckily I had my walking shoes on and I climbed the many steps to arrive on Rue George Lardennois, the main street of this micro-village. I couldn’t believe what I found: calm, cuteness, and a clear view of the Sacre Coeur.

I passed a community garden, but it was padlocked. I couldn’t tell whether it was still open to the public or not; the sign was so faded it seemed from another era. I wanted to ask the one gardener I saw milling around, but then I noticed he was taking a leak. Hmm. And moving on. (The garden is apparently open from 2:30 to 5:30 PM Wednesdays-Sundays, I later found out).

Community garden of Butte Bergeyre

Right next to the garden stood a small vineyard on a steep hill. Wow! I knew there were vineyards in Montmartre, but not here! There didn’t appear to be any entrance to the vineyard accessible.

Few people were out on the street, giving it that surreal feeling. In due time, however, an older gentleman walking his dog ambled by. Finally! Someone to accost! I just had to know in what magical place I had found myself.

The vineyard and view

“Excuse me, sir, do you know if this is open to the public?” I asked him, waving my arm expansively to encompass all that was before me.

“Ah,” he said, “this vineyard belongs to the City of Paris. They closed it because otherwise it would be overrun with sunbathers.”

No kidding, I thought. A quiet place in the sun overlooking a vineyard with a straight view to the Sacre Coeur. Lots of people would probably be here if this were open.

The kindly gentleman sat down on the bench next to me. I, of course, began peppering him with questions. In turn, he regaled me with a wonderful history.

“See that building?” he said, pointing to a slightly run down square block of a place to the right of the vineyard. “Corbusier’s son designed that.” (Well, that’s what I *thought* he said. Thanks to reader Adam for correcting me. The building is actually the Maison Zilvelli, designed by Jean Welz, who worked with Le Corbusier for a time. Le Corbusier didn’t have any kids!)

The Maison Zilvelli. When I walked to the other side later on, I saw two people working with some sort of sound/video system. Definitely intriguing this neighborhood!

“The most famous designer in the world has a house here, too. [The Australian designer] Newson,” he said.

“And Jean-Paul Goude? You know him?” (Goude is a photographer perhaps best known for his relationship with Grace Jones and a decade-long campaign for Galeries Lafayette).

“Wow, there are a lot of famous people here,” I said.

“Yes, it’s a quartier aussi privilige.”

Who else lives in these houses?

It wasn’t always that way, he assured me. Built in the 1920s, “it used to be a simple neighborhood, but then the Swiss and the Russians started renovating.”

Early in our conversation, he had asked what I did besides wandering around Paris. I told him I was a writer, though wandering around Paris seems as apt a description of what I do as any.

He talked about books. How there were so many out there now. Were they any good? We talked of the difference between New York and Paris. Why do people love that city so much? he wanted to know. I always hear about it, New York this, New York that, but I’ve never been.

“Can you talk to people in New York? People don’t talk to each other any more in Paris,” he said.

“Yes! I know!” I said. “That’s one of the things I miss about New York. The diversity, the energy. I talked to so many different people there. It’s not as easy in Paris.”

Yet here we were, two strangers on a bench, talking.

“You haven’t told me what you do,” I said. Given all he had told me about the neighborhood and its residents, it wasn’t lost on me that he might be renowned, too.

He cupped his hand around his mouth and leaned towards me like he had a secret. “Peintre/sculpteur.”

“I bet you’re famous, too!” I blurted out before I could stop myself.

“Me,” he said, waving me off. “I’m nobody.”

I can’t say I believed him, but I let it go. Did it matter, really? On a bench high above the city, we had given each other a gift. For me, serendipity and good stories. And the friendly anonymous artist? What did I give him? Maybe a reminder of old Paris, where you could stop a stranger on the street then sit talking to them for awhile like there was nothing in the whole world either of us would rather be doing.

My friendly painter/sculptor stranger wouldn't give me his name or let me take his picture. But his dog was willing to pose. Meet Paddy, named for the Irish whisky.

What’s the best conversation you’ve ever had with a stranger? P.S. You know I almost didn’t want to reveal this spot, right?

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22 Responses to “TIP: Talk to Strangers (Butte Bergeyre)”


  1. 1 Lindsey May 4, 2010 at 11:01 am

    What a find! Paris is full of secrets and surprises. There’s a part of the 20th that has one of the most charming streets I’ve ever seen in Paris. It’s like being in a different city!

  2. 3 Alison May 4, 2010 at 11:59 am

    What a great conversation! I’m normally to shy to talk to strangers; Andrew is the outgoing one in our relationship. But this makes me want to chat up the locals more :)

    • 4 parisimperfect May 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm

      I know! It was delightful and surprising. Believe it or not, I can be quite shy, too. But curiosity often gets the better of me – and luckily so! It may not be conventional wisdom, but I highly recommend talking to strangers :)

  3. 5 pariskarin May 4, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    What a wonderful story, Sion.

    I Google Mapped the area and realized I have walked past that area a bunch of times on the Av Simon Bolivar side. In fact, this past Saturday, Paul, the kids, his mom and I walked up that way to the Parc de Belleville, and no kidding, I noticed the grapevines about which you wrote poking through the buildings as we went up the hill. I had forgotten I’d seen and noted it — I think I even commented to Paul about it — until I read this here and thought, “I bet the community garden is what I was looking at!” Who knew.

    And here I was, thinking that the 19th was so “ghetto” when in fact there are these pockets of prestige in and around the arrondissement. What a great find. I’m so glad you were able to have a conversation like that, too. Wonderful stuff.

    It’s good to be able to have some time to catch up on your blog. :)

    Take care, Sion!
    Karin
    (an alien parisienne)

  4. 6 pariskarin May 4, 2010 at 4:38 pm

    “I bet the community garden is what I was looking at!”

    I meant, “the vineyard.” But you probably knew that, lol. ;-)

    • 7 parisimperfect May 4, 2010 at 5:19 pm

      Hi Karin. Yes! The 19th has so much to offer. You probably have walked by this area a bunch. But you have to really go out of your way to walk *UP* to actually get to the cool part of it. Definitely check it out! Oh, and while you’re there, make sure to talk to a stranger. That was the best part for me :)

  5. 8 Adam May 4, 2010 at 9:37 pm

    Ah, but did you know that before there were houses on this ‘butte’ there used to be the two ‘buts’ of a football stadium? It was the home of Olympique de Paris and was used in the 1924 Olympic Games.

    Secondly, I think that’s the maison Zilvelli in your photo, designed by Jean Welz, an Austrian who worked with Le Corbusier for a time but certainly not his son! In fact, Le Corbusier never had any children.

    It is a fantastic site up there. I go up quite regularly, especially at sunset. The sun drops down right behind the Sacre Coeur.

    • 9 parisimperfect May 4, 2010 at 9:55 pm

      Hey there. I actually *did* know it used to be a football stadium. But obviously did NOT understand correctly about Le Corbusier! Thanks once again for your near encyclopedic knowledge of Paris! (Let this serve as a warning for readers: trust me to be somewhat poetic in my renderings, but not always factually correct!)

      Thanks, Adam. I really like this site, too. Maybe I’ll bump into you there one of these days :)

      • 10 pariskarin May 5, 2010 at 2:48 pm

        Adam knows *everything*, I swear!! :) What a guy!

        I bet it is so pretty with the sun setting behind the Sacre Coeur. Maybe we’ll all see one another up there, lol.

  6. 11 parisimperfect May 5, 2010 at 2:57 pm

    Haha, Karin. I *totally* agree. Adam does know everything! Basically, he’s like my fact-checker after the fact :)

  7. 12 Tina May 5, 2010 at 11:33 pm

    Wonderful story, Sion! Very well done and put a smile on my face.
    Tina

  8. 14 PigletinFrance May 6, 2010 at 11:30 am

    What a lovely story and how nice of him to take some time to speak to you. I love it when people share their knowledge and I love that you shared that with us here.
    My list of places to visit in Paris is constantly growing!

  9. 15 Lydia Martindale May 6, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Aren’t friendly old people great! Especially mysterious artistic sorts! You can learn so much from strangers on park benches. I once had a facinating conversation with a south Korean diplomat on a bench outside Notre Dame de Paris. I still have his number in my phone book, but have never dared ring him!
    All the best
    Lydia

    • 16 parisimperfect May 6, 2010 at 9:50 pm

      Yes, I love these kinds of conversations. And I think there’s something even more touching and wonderful about them because they’re spontaneous and ephemeral; no need to call when you have that great memory! (Though I might, after all, call the mysterious artist just to find out who he was if I had the chance!)

  10. 17 clive from Cape Town May 8, 2010 at 9:41 pm

    Hi Sion, the ‘not your typical Paris apartment belongs to my South African born sister -in -law and her husband and she is currently the head designer of Manual Canovas. I call the house the ‘cuckoo clock’ because of its narrow appearance. On the other side of the hill is a beautiful parc des buttes chaumont paris another gem in the area. The area does have a totally diffrent feel to the other areas around there. As you say a real gem in the city.

    • 18 parisimperfect May 9, 2010 at 12:08 am

      Wow, Clive. Incredible! This neighborhood just keeps getting more and more remarkable the more I learn about it :) I know and love the Buttes Chaumont park, but had never stumbled onto Buttes Bergeyre before. Really wonderful. Thanks so much for stopping by and telling me more! Your sister-in-law is lucky to be living there!

  11. 19 Thomas May 26, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    I visited this “micro-village” last summer, and it was one of my favorite sites in the entire city. The secret is out, though, since it was recommended as a walking tour in one of my Paris guidebooks. I wouldn’t have known of it otherwise.

    • 20 paris (im)perfect May 26, 2010 at 5:22 pm

      Yeah, it’s high on my list. Too bad the secret’s out, though (though I guess I’m also spreading the word, too!) I kind of like keeping the best of the best off the tourist map, but I guess if it’s already making it into guidebooks, it might all be over. Of course, people have to walk up that big hill, so there’s a chance not *everyone* will make it! :)


  1. 1 Croissants and Montmartre « Tanya in Transition Trackback on May 5, 2010 at 11:02 am
  2. 2 The End of May, Part One « An Alien Parisienne Trackback on June 11, 2010 at 5:19 pm

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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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