Not long ago, I spent a week walking around Paris. Before you yawn jadedly, let me clarify: I walked all the way around Paris. I began each day by donning a pair of beat-up Sauconys, consuming a prodigious breakfast at my hotel near the Porte Dorée, tucking a notebook and pen into my pocket, and proceeding on foot in a counterclockwise direction along the perimeter of the oval-shaped metropolis.
I did not visit the Latin Quarter, the Marais, or Montparnasse. I skipped the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. I neglected to slurp oysters at Le Procope, eat ice cream at Berthillon, or stroll along the banks of the Seine — although I crossed the oxbowed river several times along un-famous bridges. In all, I notched some 35 miles (resuming my journey each morning by taking the Métro roughly to where I’d left off the previous day), a trek that included centrifugal excursions into the collar suburbs and occasional dips into the outer precincts of the city proper.
During six days of wandering under miraculously cloudless skies this past May, I saw a Paris that was at turns familiar — the workaday brasseries and tabacs, the bakeries with their yeasty aromas and morning chitchat, the busy traffic circles — and eye-poppingly new to me: a vast and messy urban agglomeration that’s home to the great majority of metropolitan Paris’s 10 million residents.
The walk had been conceived as a lark, a free-form perambulation in a city I’d spent so much time in that I’d ceased to see it with fresh eyes. But it turns out I’d stumbled into a full-fledged civic movement. In fact, an extensive effort is afoot to redraw the political, social and cultural boundaries of Paris, to explode what author Mira Kamdar, who lives in the suburb of Pantin, has called “the implacable logic of center and periphery, of included and excluded.”
Plotting the course
Anyone who has taken a cab into the city from the airport has seen the physical manifestation of that logic: the clogged, multilane ring-road known as the BoulevardPériphérique, which, in the 1970s, replaced the last vestiges of Paris’s 19th-century Thiers Wall and has arguably become a more impenetrable barrier. Inside the Périph reside the picturesque splendors of the City of Light. Outside it: la banlieue, as the suburbs are collectively known, with their housing projects and cheap kebab shops and social unrest. Or so things often appear in the public imagination.
The reality is more complicated, of course. The edges of Paris and the patchwork of towns just beyond are fascinating and variegated, ranging from dense immigrant enclaves and repurposed industrial sites to leafy bastions of bourgeois comfort. Yes, I encountered imposing high-rise apartment blocks, but just as often I found myself strolling through a wooded park, along a disused rail line reclaimed as a pedestrian thoroughfare, or down a sleepy main street that could have belonged to a market village in rural France.
Appreciating what’s popularly known as Le Grand Paris — essentially, “Greater Paris,” with a similarly hopeful double meaning — has become nothing short of an evangelical cause for a growing number of public officials and activists. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the most zealous among them are Renaud Charles and Vianney Delourme, founders of the cheekily named website Enlarge Your Paris, whose tagline is “Le site qui vous fait oublier le Périph” (“The site that makes you forget the Périph”). They are also the co-editors of a book, an English edition of which will be published in 2019, called “Guide des Grands Parisiens,” a 208-page compendium of whimsical things to do and see across Île-de-France, the administrative region encompassing Paris and its environs.
I emailed Charles and Delourme before my trip, and they invited me to meet them at their “temporary offices in petit Paris,” which turned out to be a cafe on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis. Over the course of an hour and a half, the two bearded 40-somethings — one a journalist, the other a film and TV producer — engaged me in a highly caffeinated disquisition about the heralds of a new era for Le Grand Paris: a suburbs-only Métro line under construction beyond the outskirts of the city; the extension of the 12-year-old beltway tram circuit; the recent elimination of concentric fee zones for public transportation; the new Jean Nouvel-designed Paris Philharmonic, which stands in the shadow of the Périph; a massive government reshuffling called Le Métropole du Grand Paris, which has given outer municipalities a greater voice in decision-making; and on and on. Not surprisingly, the two men also heaped upon me dozens of suggestions for my exploration.
About that exploration: It yielded the kind of unexpected discoveries — virtually all of them easily accessible by Métro or tram for those uninterested in a 35-mile ramble — that I had all but given up hope of finding in hyper-gentrified tourist magnets like Paris. To cite just a few (a handful of which I owe to the Enlarge Your Paris guys, the others to happenstance): I hiked in a forest, had a close encounter with the actual embalmed heart of Louis XVII and listened to a cumbia band in an immense former marble factory alongside French hipsters drinking American IPAs. I gazed in awe at some of the most ugly-beautiful brutalist buildings I’d ever seen, ate an exquisitely poached filet of whiting with spring peas at a serene restaurant where the bread comes in a miniature burlap sack, and ambled around an empty museum filled with sleek 1930s furniture that, in the absence of any other visitors or even (as far as I could tell) a guard, I found exceedingly hard not to sit on.
My first mistake: Wine at lunch. (Soon repeated.)
Here’s one thing to know before trying to walk the perimeter of Paris in a week: The city and its pleasures will no doubt conspire against you. On my very first day, after a morning spent pushing north from my hotel along the Boulevard Soult, past a locksmith business, a car-insurance agency, a shoe repair shop and other emblems of everyday Parisian life, and after a foray into the unlovely suburb of Bagnolet, I found myself very badly in need of lunch. So I plunged a few blocks into the city and installed myself at an outdoor table at a busycafe in the 19th arrondissement called La Pelouse. One 11-euro plat du jour, a carafe of chilled Brouilly and a crème caramel later, I found the idea of rising to my feet — much less continuing my trek — less than appealing, especially with the ever-entertaining human pageant playing out before me on this busy corner in Belleville. After that, I made a promise to myself to exclude wine from lunch for the remainder of the week. (It’s a promise I would fail to keep.)
If a single observation stands out from that first, long day’s walk, which ended just before sunset in Pantin, alongside the recently restored and promenade-lined Canal de l’Ourcq — a site Delourme had referred to more than once as “the Champs-Élysées of Le Grand Paris” — it’s that Paris’ edge areas have for the past century served as a vast laboratory for bold and occasionally bonkers architecture.
Beyond the Boulevards des Maréchaux, the inner ring of surface streets that mark the limits of the Paris most visitors know, the uniform ranks of Haussman-era buildings give way to a crazy-quilt of styles and eras, from the orange-brick HBMs (“Habitations à Bon Marché”) erected near the city limits in the 1920s and ‘30s as affordable dwellings — no longer very affordable at all — to their much-maligned successors, the megalithic postwar housing projects known as HLMs (“Habitations à Loyer Modéré”). The latter represent the most visible if not the most loved aesthetic legacy of architect and urban planner Le Corbusier, whose Leviathan visions of collective living haunt the outer areas of Paris like pre-cast-concrete ghosts. (Speaking of Le Corbusier, on the fourth day of my walk I would happen upon his home and studio in a western suburb; the building is perfectly human-scale and pleasant. Go figure.)
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Sitting at the edge of the canal in Pantin as the sky darkened, I stared open-mouthed for a long while at the modular-looking neo-brutalist structure housing the Centre National de la Danse. Designed as a municipal building in 1972 by Jacques Kalisz, the gray concrete behemoth somehow radiated childlike exuberance and dystopian menace at the same time. A few days later, I would be similarly blown away by Edouard François’s 2-year-old M6B2, a 17-story balconied residential building at the edge of the 13th that’s wrapped entirely in mesh, onto which hanging plants have been encouraged, with debatable success, to grow.
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Certainly, picturesque churches and other jewels of France’s historical patrimony can be found outside central Paris, although they’re fewer and farther between. On my second day, limping slightly because of a nasty blister on my left pinkie toe, I followed a market street bustling with North and West African vendors hawking their wares — iPhone cases, sunglasses, handbags, all of it spread out on blankets and folding tables — and emerged onto the vast parvis of the Basilique Cathédrale de Saint-Denis.
Inside, I explored the church’s magnificently creepy necropolis, which houses the remains of France’s kings dating back to Dagobert I in the seventh century. I found being surrounded by hundreds of dead monarchs to be exponentially more interesting than my visits to Paris’ more renowned basilica, Sacré Coeur, which receives 10.5 million visitors a year in comparison to Saint-Denis’ mere 134,000. To wit: I was able to enjoy several uninterrupted minutes in the presence of a child-king’s shriveled heart, so close my breath was fogging the vitrine.
Led astray by Google Maps
I should point out that not every segment of my walk was filled with such memorable moments. In fact, if I had to put a fine point on it, Day 3 was pretty much devoid of them: a sun-hammered slog along warehouse-lined streets that took me much deeper into the northwestern suburbs than I’d planned to go, thanks to a series of ill-considered route choices based on cursory glances at Google Maps on my phone. That day’s journey ended with a sore-footed, late-afternoon arrival at La Défense, its sparkling glass towers rising above me with monolithic indifference. Exhausted, I descended into the Métro and rode Line 1 for nearly its entire length, west to east, across Paris’ midsection to get back to my hotel. There, I had dinner at a cheap sushi place, collapsed on my bed and fell asleep with the TV on.
By comparison, the next day — which began with another long ride on Line 1, this time east to west, depositing me back at the La Défense terminal — brought abundant splendors and comforts. Foremost among them: the Bois de Boulogne. What a tonic this 2,000-acre urban forest and prairie is, with its coolly shaded footpaths snaking through stands of Austrian pine.
And what a strangely exhilarating sensation it is to emerge from those woods and behold the Fondation Louis Vuitton. The Frank Gehry-designed art museum, completed in 2014 at a reported cost of $900 million, thrusts skyward from its bucolic surroundings like a hallucinatory yacht. A 14-euro, reserved-in-advance ticket admitted me to a series of white rooms featuring the works of superstar contemporary artists grouped around a theme that, to quote an exhibition brochure, “references current questions about the place of humans in the universe.” My favorite part of the museum, which I found both visually arresting and strangely soulless, ended up being the roof deck, where I peered past Gehry’s sail-like glass-and-steel panels at the Bois de Boulogne’s ocean of trees, the Eiffel Tower and La Défense, which from this vantage point looked for all the world like the skyline of Houston.
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The Fondation Vuitton has been elevated, rightly, in the French media as a gleaming symbol of an outer-Paris renaissance, as has the almost-as-costly Philharmonie de Paris, which opened at the opposite extremity of the city in 2015. That evening, after returning to my hotel to swap my Sauconys for a fairly new pair of Converse that would have to pass as dress shoes, I’d see the Paris Orchestra perform there. Ensconced in the Parc de la Villette, Jean Nouvel’s creation cuts a striking silhouette: a wedgelike, vaguely biomorphic rejection of symmetry that’s approached via a wide uphill esplanade paved with tiles in the same bird shape as those cladding the orchestra hall itself. The whole setup creates a convivial feeling of pilgrimage as throngs of well-heeled, perfumed Parisians stroll en masse from the tram station to the entrance.
On the recommendation of the Enlarge Your Paris guys, after leaving the Bois de Boulogne I found my way to La Table de Cybèle, an airy restaurant on a quiet street in the staid suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. It was here that my moratorium on midday wine came to its premature end, with a taut Lirac, poured with wordy exposition by my willowy server, who might easily have stepped off the boat from Northern California, except she was speaking French. Later the chef — she of the miniature burlap sack of bread — came around and introduced herself to guests, in the American fashion. Which made sense, considering she actually was from Northern California and had moved to the Paris suburbs a few years ago.
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After lunch, my forward momentum once again slowed by wine and dessert, I wandered somewhat aimlessly around Boulogne-Billancourt, which is how I found the superb Musée des Années Trente (Museum of the Nineteen-Thirties), the site of my solitary communion with vintage furniture. It was one of several museums I had more or less to myself during my visit. Another is the Musée de l’Histoire de l’Immigration, housed in a monumental art deco palais at the edge of the Bois de Vincennes, where I was able to catch an exhibition of Eugène Atget’s early-20th-century photographs of the Roma encampments that were fixtures of Paris’s perimeter up until World War I.
A night in the ‘Brooklyn of Paris’
If central Paris were a face, my route on Days 5 and 6 would look like a frilly ruff collar, swooping back and forth across the city’s southern boundary. By this point, I’d really hit my stride. My blister had healed, my pace had quickened and interesting things seemed to present themselves with uncanny frequency.
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In the suburb of Montrouge, I visited a shop earnestly named La Boutique du Futur, which sold notionally useful novelty items — made by a freelance industrial designer and a former IT professional in a cluttered workshop in the basement — like a corkscrew made from a cow bone and (their best-seller) a baby spoon shaped like an airplane. (Its name: Babyplane.) In Gentilly, the next suburb over, I discovered an enormous but impeccably curated wine-and-spirits shop, called Caves Fillot, housed in a former winery that still had the bewitching, musty smell of aging barrels.
A little to the north and east, just inside the Périph near the river, I chanced upon a burgeoning arts corridor, anchored by a handful of spartan-looking galleries devoted largely to graffiti. Down the block, I met a middle-aged punk rocker named Benoit Maître — aka Ben Spizz — who showed me around his street-art boutique, Le Lavo//matik, which sells artist monographs, custom T-shirts, LPs and original graffiti artwork, and, overall, evokes the feel of the East Village in its 1980s heyday, except the place is much cleaner.
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Beyond the river lay the homestretch, a jaunt of less than a mile that took me from Left Bank to Right across the Pont National, then past an immense SNCF train yard and what appeared to be a homeless encampment — complete with tents and cook fires, a sight that harkened back to Atget’s photos of Roma families — and, finally, on toward the Porte Dorée and my hotel.
That night, the last of my trip, I decided to take the Métro back to the eastern suburb of Montreuil, which I’d heard described, for better or worse, as the “Brooklyn of Paris.” I’d skirted it on my very first day but hadn’t noticed much beyond takeout joints and graffiti. Now, as I popped out of the Métro, the suburb seemed transformed: A small public park behind the town hall was heaving with young families, many of them clustered around a makeshift bar that had been strung with holiday lights and furnished with what looked like lawn furniture.
A few blocks beyond that was La Marbrerie, the marble factory-turned-music venue, a spot that a Parisian friend of mine had recommended. The cumbia band was in full swing, and a few dozen people, ranging in age from 20 to 60, were dancing with the kind of joyful abandon I typically associate with weddings.
After a couple of beers, the physical rigors of my weeklong trek started to make me feel like I had sandbags lashed to my limbs. So I splurged on a cab back to the hotel. As the driver eased onto the Périph, flowing smoothly at this late hour, I had the thought that the highway, which I’d crossed over and under so many times on my walk, no longer felt like much of a barrier at all.