Country village charm in the heart of Paris

With more than a hint of rural charm, the often-overlooked picturesque pockets of Mouzaïa and La Campagne à Paris evoke a city from days gone by.

Far-removed from Paris’ typical tourist sites, Mouzaïa and La Campagne à Paris (the countryside in Paris) are two of the French capital's most charming but little-known quarters ­­– rare oases of calm within the city limits. With more than a hint of rural charm, these picturesque pockets, located in the outer and often-overlooked 19th and 20th arrondissements respectively, are like something out of a storybook, largely undiscovered by visitors and by many locals as well. Beginning life in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries as modest subdivisions for the working class, these much-coveted neighbourhoods are now home to the city's bourgeois-bohemian, but nevertheless retain an authentic atmosphere that evokes a Paris of days gone by.

Quartier Mouzaïa
Nestled on a gentle slope between Buttes Chaumont park and the Square de la Butte du Chapeau Rouge, Mouzaïa’s narrow, cobblestoned alleyways are lined with candy-coloured maisonnettes that tumble down the hill from the rue de Bellevue, coming to a stop just beyond the rue Miguel Hidalgo. Some houses are slightly ramshackle and delightfully bohemian, others handsome and knowingly grandiose. There are bold, cheerful facades with whimsical trimmings, while others are partially hidden behind neat hedges, climbing ivy or fragrant rose, wisteria and lilac bushes. 

The first houses, a few dozen red brick cottages nudging the rue de Bellevue, were constructed in 1889 on the site of an old gypsum quarry known as the Carrières d'Amérique. The unstable nature of the ground dictated that houses were no higher than two storeys. “There is nowhere else in Paris like it,” said Colette Bourdache, a Mouzaïa resident for more than 40 years and president of the community association. “There are 400 houses here. Houses are rare in Paris and even fewer have gardens.”

The most colourful abodes can be found on the streets Villa Bellevue and Villa des Lilas, while the original 19th-century brick exteriors and mosaics remain clearly visible on Villa Émile Loubet. The houses overlooking the leafy rue de Mouzaïa are also quite charming, including the canary yellow and winter green-hued residence at number 42, with its quirky trompe l'oeil.

And the easy country village atmosphere extends beyond the houses. The snack chains and fancy restaurants that are omnipresent elsewhere in the city are absent from Mouzaïa's streets, which are instead peppered with a handful of low-key spots for eating and drinking.

Chez Kim (3 rue de Mouzaïa; 01-44-84-00-14) is a local favourite for its authentic Vietnamese cuisine, while just around the corner on rue du Général Brunet, La Table de Botzaris serves up sophisticated French cuisine in a cosy setting, perfect for a romantic tête-à-tête well off the beaten path.

Steps away on the Place Rhin et Danube, both the Brasserie Le Danube (3-5 Place Rhin et Danube; 01-42-38-66-10) and the Café Parisien (2 Place Rhin et Danube; 01-42-06-02-75) are sought after for their sun-dappled terraces. A few minutes walk southwest will lead you to one of the city's most magnificent parks, the Buttes Chaumont, where Parisians come to stroll, jog, picnic or lounge in the beer garden at hipster hangout Rosa Bonheur. The park's steep slopes house cliffs, caves, streams, waterfalls and an abundance of native and exotic trees. At the heart of its 61 acres, a craggy island towers over a lake and a panoramic lookout provides sweeping views across Paris all the way to the Sacré Coeur.

La Campagne à Paris and Charonne
Within the boundaries of the ancient village Charonne (which merged with Paris in 1860), the 100 or so low-rise houses perched on a small hill northwest of the Porte de Bagnolet are collectively referred to as “the countryside in Paris”. Completed in the 1920s, the almost identical but elegant millstone and brick cottages, each with a small portico and wrought iron fence, are huddled along the cobblestoned streets of Irénée Blanc, Jules Siegfried and Paul Strauss. A short climb up some steep stairs brings you to the quaint and peaceful residential area, leaving behind the bustling streets below.

“The place was cleaned up and tidied up over the decades, thanks to a new generation of owners who invested more in the houses, and by the 1990s the area was very much in demand ” said Angenic Agnero, tour guide and co-founder of Paris par rues Méconnues (Paris by little-known streets). “Today only a few descendants of the original working class residents remain. Now you'll find lawyers, doctors and engineers living there.”

A short stroll south to what was the heart of Charonne, the rue Saint-Blaise lies in the shadow of grim social-housing towers built in the 1970s. But it is also home to a myriad of artists' workshops and warehouses. At its northern end the Saint-Germain-de-Charonne church dates back to the 12th Century. Look beyond the neighbourhood’s slightly scruffy appearance and you will find secret alleyways, cul-de-sacs and courtyards such as the pretty Square de Grés, which is tucked off the rue Vitruve. 

As you head down the rue de Bagnolet, past trendy hotel/bar/restaurant and Philippe Starck creation Mama Shelter, the rustic pavilions of the Villa Godin (85 rue de Bagnolet) and the Villa Riberolle (35 rue de Bagnolet) make you forget, even if for a brief moment, that you are in Paris. The rural ambiance continues at the jardin naturel (“natural garden”); a veritable haven of biodiversity in the heart of the city. Covering more than 6,000sqm, the garden is awash in ferns, wildflowers and bushy undergrowth, while a tranquil pond is home to wildlife such as frogs, newts and dragonflies. A visit to this unique green space can be paired with a trip to the neighbouring Père Lachaise cemetery, famous for being the final resting place of stars such as Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde.