Ah, Sundays in Paris. I’ve been here for nearly six years and I still haven’t worked out where everyone gets to. It’s like somebody pulled out the plug just under those large taps in that crazy fountain at Châtelet and sucked the residents into some sort of French Bermuda triangle for the daylight hours. Worse than that, my brain still hasn’t learned the trick of remembering to go to the supermarket a day before that laziest of weekend days, leaving my cupboard barer than Mother Hubbard’s and those overpriced corner shops the only available option if I want to eat something other than a pasta sandwich.
But it’s not as desperate as all that, as I discovered when I lived in the southern part of the 18th arrondissement a few years ago and fell upon Rue des Martyrs, to this day one of my favourite roads in the capital. Here all the punters were, pushing their strollers, enjoying the view and stocking up on supplies from the many shops that were open. On a Sunday. Rarer than a Frenchman raving about English food. Not only were they having a fine old time, but they were brazenly wandering about in the middle of the road, the road seemingly closed to traffic, Paris’ cars terrorising pedestrians in another part of town.
Popping my eyes back into their sockets, I scooped up some bounty for lunch and headed back home to do some research. Had the local residents protested their hearts out until the shops were forced to open? Or was I in an alternative dream world in which Paris was actually behaving the way I wanted it to for once?
Well, neither of the above. This miraculous happening was also playing out in many other parts of the city, as part of an initiative known as Paris Respire, or ‘Paris Breathes’, in which certain roads and quarters are closed off to traffic, meaning that flâneurs, cyclists, dog walkers and rollerskaters can circulate in complete peace and tranquility, without losing the skin off their heels crossing a zebra crossing thanks to an impatient motorist. With hordes of potential customers passing their premises, many shops decided to open to take advantage of this stellar opportunity, and thus you’ve got until 13h to stock up on food, booze or even clothes; whatever is your retail poison.
There are 14 areas in total, sometimes a mere street as in this case, in other arrondissements you might find a whole neighbourhood throwing out the vehicles and welcoming your custom with open arms, with the Marais and Montmatre being two of the most popular. Down by the Seine you get to breathe properly for once too, with lengthy stretches of the banks proving to be a hotspot for leisurely joggers, afternoon strolls and intense marathon training.
In the summer four more areas follow suit, including Rue de la Roquette and parts of the Canal Saint Martin, so when the sun’s turned up to full, your only Sunday challenge is to get round all of them before the colder weather kicks it in to touch. So whether you’ve been trying to work out how to sate that roasted rotisserie chicken addiction that plagues your post Saturday night recovery, or your feather brain has forgotten to buy a present for your afternoon birthday party host, then here’s your answer.
If anything, some of these parts of the city are the best places to find those darling independent shops you thought every man and his dog shopped at in France (no, supermarkets rule here too, just like everywhere else), and even if your wallet stays securely bolted together, the scenery if more than worth it. More than that sacred lie-in until noon perhaps?