This city has long been associated with the finer things in life. Yet the French capital is not resting on its cultural laurels, as new trends emerge in the City of Light.

Paris has long been associated with the finer things in life – food, drink, art, music. Yet the French capital is not resting on its cultural laurels, as new trends emerge in the City of Light.

A greener city
For a city routinely described as one of the most beautiful in the world, Paris is oddly lacking in green spaces. Compared with the other great cities of Europe, its provision of public parks verges on the meagre, and none are used by local residents with the same regularity as, say, London’s Hyde Park. So, in the past decade, Parisians have started to take horticultural matters into their own hands via a new movement known as jardins partagés (shared gardens). Inspired by the 19th-century Parisian tradition of workers’ gardens, wherein plots of land near factories would be collectively tended by employees, enthusiasts of jardins partagés search for forgotten strips of real estate and transform them into small green oases.

The first area to get the partagés treatment – there are some 70 community gardens in Paris now – was at Clignancourt, an unloved no man’s land on the northern border of the city. This is Paris at its grittiest, where the boulevards begin to fray into the tower blocks of the suburban banlieue. There is minimal green space here, which made it an ideal target for a group of green-fingered local residents. A disused railway track runs underneath the main thoroughfare – a decade ago, it was a rubbish dump. Now, it is a foliage-hooded avenue lined with flower beds. Each bed has a chalk board showing who is responsible for its cultivation – schools, cafés, religious groups. The plants have even reclaimed the railway track itself – the old signal lights are wrapped in stems and leaves.

Denis Loubaton is the president of Les Amis des Jardins du Ruisseau, the group responsible for this metamorphosis. ‘The area was abandoned for years, and a place for garbage,’ he says. ‘But we saw the potential, and as we have started to develop it, it has become an important place for the local community. We have more than 300 members, who take collective responsibility – but you don’t need to be a member to use the garden. It’s for everyone.’ His point is proven by a stroll through the greenery. At one end, a group of middle-aged women sit eating cake. At the other, a gang of teenage lads are playing cards around a trestle table. In the middle, locally grown vegetables are for sale. An unloved crack in the urban sprawl has been turned into a fulcrum for a community.

Yet what happens in a place such as central Paris, where every spare yard of real estate has already been developed? The answer at Musée du Quai Branly, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, is to go up. The museum opened in 2006 to exhibit the art from Africa, Oceania, Asia and the Americas that struggles to get into more established museums, and the wall of the building that faces the Seine has been cultivated into a vertical garden. Pavement to roof, it is covered with plants, all growing at right angles. Press a hand against the building and instead of hard concrete you feel soft, damp soil. Designed by experimental botanist Patrick Blanc and watered by vertical irrigation, the garden is a surreal solution to Paris’s parkland deficit – a dreamlike flash of green stretching to the sky.

Art for a new century
Paris takes art very seriously – as well it might with the Louvre and Pompidou Centre among its cultural offerings. Budding artists pour into the city from around the globe, hoping for a bit of the old Matisse magic to rub off. Montmartre and the Latin Quarter, once home to big names, still pull in tourists. Yet high rents mean there’s no way that today’s artists can afford to join them. So, to get a sense of the current art scene, you need to head for the outer reaches.

Even their fiercest defenders would be hard pressed to call Belleville or Ménilmontant, the two districts running east of the Canal St-Martin, beautiful. However, this is living Paris, not a museum – these streets of Chinese supermarkets, African clothes stores and Turkish coffee shops are teeming with a multicultural energy that has made this area an artistic centre. The hilly streets of Belleville are rammed with studios, workshops and galleries; indeed, some of the streets themselves have been turned into a living exhibition space. Rue Dénoyez is a small alley metres from the Metro. Dotted with cafés, its walls are thick with a dizzying array of graffiti. Howling monkeys and flying cartoon super heroes cover the surfaces, and every crack in the wall is filled with art detritus – a doll’s head, shards of mirror, a Jesus toy, African sculptures. These walls are a space where the shifting concerns of the local art community are projected: one wall displays a portrait of Troy Davis, controversially executed in Georgia last year. This is not aggressive or excluding street art – the cafés remain packed with locals of all ages, while the swimming pool at the end of the street, built in part as a response to the attention the graffiti brought to the area, remains unblemished.

Each year the artists in Ménilmontant host the Ateliers de Ménilmontant festival, when more than 80 studios open up their doors. Hervé Chastel is the head of the collective and says that it is a crucial way of embedding art in the local community. ‘Our way of doing things is not traditional or institutional. We want art to be a part of everyday life.’ The festival’s trail takes you into the studios of sculptors and painters – spaces that often double as the artist’s home, as is the case with Laurent Debraux. Laurent lives on a winding street of pretty stone houses, workshops and cafés. His front room is full of his sculptures, themed around the idea of movement: a dead tree that he has attached to a scaffold of wires, making the branches sway and creak once more; rotating magnets dragging iron filings around a glass jar; a tiny truck clambering up a spinning rock. ‘This area was once full of craftsmen and fabric makers, people who made things with their hands,’ he says. ‘The artists here are continuing that tradition.’

Paris’s creative expansion continues at Le 104, a cavernous new cultural space in the northeastern 19th arrondissement. Once this Crystal Palace-like structure was home to the city’s state funeral home, filled with hearses and stacks of coffins. Now it has been transformed into a covered, light-filled boulevard of shops, cafés, studios and exhibitions. Deckchairs are scattered throughout for locals on their lunch breaks to peruse works such as Leandro Erlich’s Bâtiment – a full-size façade of a house arranged on the floor, with a mirror angled above making those who walk on it appear to be walking up the wall. Clusters of students sit around on the floor, drawing the scene on their sketchpads, just as similar groups do in the Louvre – a sure sign that this impressive space is becoming a fixture of the Parisian art scene.

Home cooking
When a city is as sure of itself about food as Paris, there can be a tendency towards an attitude of, ‘Si elle n’est pas cassé, pourquoi le réparer?’ (‘If it ain’t broke, why fix it?’). Which is fair enough, when even the most bog-standard pavement bistro serves up a plate of steak frites to rival any top-end gastro pub in other cities. Yet this culinary surefootedness means that trying to come up with something new can be tricky on the established restaurant circuit. The answer? Go home.

The most exciting new food experiences take place in private houses. There have long been a couple of under-the-radar home restaurants here – places for people in the know to eat together – but the recent craze has upped the ante in terms of quality. US expats Braden Perkins and Laura Adrian were the pioneers, setting up Hidden Kitchen in 2007. Their menus proved so popular that after four years Hidden Kitchen stopped cooking home dinners and opened Verjus, a restaurant on the edge of the Marais. In its wake, however, a host of equally fantastic supper clubs have emerged, and none more wonderful than Celinha Miranda and Gustavo Mattos’s Chez Nous Chez Vous, held in the couple’s impeccably modern apartment, a short walk from the Eiffel Tower.

Celinha and Gustavo moved to Paris from their native Brazil in 2005. Back home, they were an English teacher and ad executive respectively, but a passion for fine food led them to jack it all in and head to France. After training at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, they worked in Michelin-starred restaurants for two years, before opening their home restaurant. Now their lavish dinner parties are pulling in the locals, as well as South American tourists looking for a slice of gourmet luxury, Brazilian style, while on holiday.

Tonight’s dinner party is an all-Brazilian affair, with the guests ranging from retired businessmen to a fashion designer. Dressed in chef’s whites adorned with a Brazilian flag, Celinha and Gustavo hop in and out of their kitchen, introducing each dish, expertly playing party hosts. Soon conversation is flowing as if everyone is old friends, rather than the complete strangers they were only half an hour ago.

The food is uniformly spectacular. Duck breast slow-cooked for 48 hours, foie gras on honey bread, cod so delicate it dissolves in the mouth, l’ouef parfait (cooked at 65°C for a creamy texture) – even the butter for the home-cooked bread is served with a sprinkling of rare volcanic salt. ‘This is my fifth visit,’ says Alessa Migani, the designer from Rio, in Paris for fashion week. ‘I don’t think there’s a restaurant in this city that can match the atmosphere here, or the food – and certainly not both together!’

Celinha says that it is the freedom a home environment brings that distinguishes the private supper clubs. ‘Parisian restaurants won’t accept anyone after 10pm, and they can be a bit uptight,’ she says. ‘Our guests are people who like to laugh and drink, and talk over dinner. We provide a home from home where they can do just that.’

The green fairy
The grown-up, measured approach of the French towards their alcohol is often used as a stick to beat the toilet-hugging habits of your average British binge drinker. Before getting too overawed by French sophistication, though, remember this: back in 1915, the French government decided to ban the sale of absinthe, the super-strong woodworm spirit. The reason? Some people were drinking 10 to 12 glasses of ‘la feé verte’ a day, which presented a public order problem to rival those of any British market town on a Saturday night.

‘The ban didn’t really work,’ says Luc-Santiago Rodriguez, owner of Vert d’Absinthe, a shop solely dedicated to the inhibition-dissolving green stuff. ‘Absinthe was still produced, but renamed “a spirit made from extracts of the absinthe plant”. So you could still drink it. But it did affect its image.’ In April 2011, the ban on absinthe was overturned by the French parliament, and it became legal to sell it without any semantic subterfuge.

The ban had contributed to absinthe’s mythology – its supposedly hallucinogenic qualities and a romantic association with artists and writers, such as Gauguin and Rimbaud. ‘I don’t think there’s anything inherently creative about absinthe, but it was very popular at a time when France was full of poets and painters, and so features in work that is still important today,’ says Luc-Santiago. Not that he is complaining about the cool aura of the drink. ‘We get young people coming in, attracted by the “drug effect”. Yet older people, who remember their parents drinking it, want to try it themselves, too.’

There’s something appealingly ritualistic about the absinthe-drinking process. The best place to partake is at La Fée Verte, which, as the name suggests, is a specialist absinthe bar, a short walk from Bastille (108 rue de la Roquette; 00 33 1 43 72 31 24). The Art Nouveau mirrors and a bar stocked with 15 types of absinthe evoke fin de siècle Paris – an ambience that is only enhanced by the silver absinthe fountain, filled with ice and water, and with four protruding taps, delivered on request to your table. A silver spoon with intricately carved holes in the curve is placed on a glass filled with a shot of Verte de Fourgerolles 72, one of the bar’s most-requested tipples. A sugar cube is balanced in the spoon, and a couple of drips of ice water are released, dissolving the sugar into the glass. A thick aniseed scent fills the air as the lime-green absinthe turns cloudy. Only now should you start to drink. Once you do, it’s clear that this is a liquor to savour. ‘You have to take your time with this stuff,’ says Luc-Santiago. ‘It’s a drink to enjoy, like a fine cigar. Compared with absinthe, other drinks are like hurriedly smoking a cigarette outside a Metro station.’

Jazz under the bridge
To find the musical heart of Paris, you have to leave the glory of the Seine and Haussmann’s boulevards far behind, and head north. A 10-minute walk from Porte de Clignancourt there is a busy motorway bridge, chock-full of traffic and fumes. Not the kind of place to stick on the front of a postcard perhaps, but this less-than-lovely structure holds just as prestigious a place in the cultural history of Paris as the Rodin Museum or Sartre’s favourite, Café de Fiore. For it was in a caravan under this bridge that a young guitar player named Django Reinhardt invented jazz manouche, or ‘gypsy jazz’ – the true sound of Paris.

Imagine a black-and-white film which is set in Paris in the 1920s or ’30s. A young couple – he in a chic suit, her in a flapper dress – are doing a quick step, swinging each other around a dance floor to whipsmart guitar, violin and double bass. The characters are moving just a little too fast and the screen flickers and judders. The music that springs to mind is jazz manouche – outlandish acoustic guitar licks, walking basslines, offbeat rhythm guitar – irresistible in its nostalgia for a pre-WWII culture of impossible glamour and suavity. Django developed his instantly recognisable style after a fire in his caravan left him with severe burns to his left hand, only two fingers of which could then be used to play the guitar.

Jazz manouche is rapidly becoming the sound of 21st-century Paris. La Chope des Puces, a venue and restaurant dedicated to Django’s legacy, is close to where his caravan once stood. The walls are covered with photos of Reinhardt and the other top players who followed him. A band is practising on the stage, the beret-wearing lead guitarist bouncing around to the bass as he bursts into a fret-skimming solo. Manager Sylvie Lacombe says that it was the 100th anniversary of Reinhardt’s birth, which occurred in 2010, that reignited his reputation. ‘Ever since, we’ve had lots of young musicians coming in, wanting to learn how to play. But it takes years to master, to start to express it from the heart. And no-one has ever got near Django. That’s why none of the musicians want their pictures next to his on the wall. It’s respect.’

It’s telling that jazz manouche developed here, on the border of the city. In Django’s day, Romani gypsies weren’t welcome in Paris, and so generated their own culture in their own space. The city positively welcomes the association, and it’s no surprise to find that the other place to put on the best jazz manouche is in the tourist-packed Gare du Nord in the centre of town. Tonight the stars of Le Bouquet du Nord are brandy-swigging quartet Csangojazz, speeding through Django classics, breaking off only to sing Happy Birthday to a party on the tables outside (85 rue de Maubeuge; 00 33 01 48 78 29 97).

Alain Rolland is the lead violinist. He’s played here for 15 years and says that he’s not surprised jazz manouche has returned to prominence. ‘This music is like a fire,’ he says. ‘The coal is always very red, but sometimes the fire starts to burn again. This period, it has been relit.’ Alain says that he sees people from the ages of seven to 77 coming to hear his band. ‘The older people like it because they remember the songs from when they were young. And the young ones enjoy it because for them, gypsy music represents freedom, travel, meeting new people.’

One section of Parisian youth have taken the jazz manouche template and combined it with hip-hop and electro beats. Now, frenetic ‘electro-swing’ nights are cropping up across town, channeling Django’s two-fingered outsider genius in new directions.

The article 'Vive l’évolution in Paris' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.