A day around Montreuil and Vincennes
Nestled side by side, Paris's eastern suburbs offer woodland, a medieval château and a coveted antiques fair...
If you're a Paris old-timer, or you're just looking for a fresh angle on sightseeing, consider this day itinerary, which takes you across the périphérique to Paris's closest eastern suburbs, Montreuil and Vincennes. The former is famed for its rough and ready flea market, Les Puces de Montreuil, open all day Saturday, Sunday and Monday; while Vincennes is home to the post-card perfect Château de Vincennes, which contains Europe's tallest medieval dungeon. Both are accessible by Métro, and lie just 15 to 20-minutes apart on foot.
Despite this proximity, Montreuil and Vincennes have distinct personalities:
Montreuil (on Métro line 9) is a former agricultural-turned-industrial quarter dotted with reconverted factories, garages and warehouses. It was also the cradle of cinema: In 1889 Emile Reynaud invented the 'praxinoscope à projection' here, an optical theatre that projected moving drawings - precursors of cartoons. And George Mélies built the world's first film studio in his garden in 1896 - a glass conservatory (no longer in existence) he called his 'workshop of cinematographic shots' (l'atelier de prises de vues cinématographiques).
Though less pretty than Vincennes, Montreuil's population has a distinct arty streak, visible in the town's numerous galleries, artist's workshops and graffiti clad walls.
To learn about the area's agricultural heritage, the Tourist Office runs free tours around the labyrinthine murs à pêche (peach-growing walls) - 19th-century throwbacks to a time when Montreuil's St-Antoine quarters were dedicated to peach farming (Sun 2.30-4.30pm; access via 23 rue Saint Just - Impasse Gobétue; bus 102 or 121 to Danton, or bus 122 to Saint Just). If you decide to visit the walls, you can reverse this itinerary.
A world away from fruits and industry, chic Vincennes (Métro line 1 and RER A) is steeped in royal history, with Charles V's royal castle and dungeon, and the Bois de Vincennes (officially part of Paris since 1929), a lake-studded, former hunting forest, now frequented by weekend pleasure seekers, dog walkers and families.
Start at the Puces de Montreuil, where you can easily spend a couple of hours rifling for bargains. Then walk through Montreuil to the Château de Vincennes (approx. 20-mins). Once you've been around the dungeon and admired Charles V's former living chambers, make your way back to Paris through the Bois de Vincennes, where, upon arriving at Porte Dorée, you can visit the Cité de l'Immigration (immigration history museum). Or hop on the Métro at Vincennes to Nation, where you can fill up on hearty bistro fare and wine at Chez Prosper.
If you've followed this itinerary in reverse, or just fancy a night out in Montreuil, we recommend Le Mange Disc bar, with its cool retro rock vibe and Montreuilloise beer (made in Montreuil, of course).
Tip: Because of the flea market's opening days, this trail is best followed on weekends.
Less famous (and charming) than its older brother up north in ‘t’ St-Ouen, Montreuil’s flea market is where real folk rifle for antiques nowadays; mostly because it’s off the beaten tourist track so you can still get a bargain and find the occasional treasure. You’ll find pretty much everything, from vintage clothes and toys to old cutlery, 1940s light-fittings, furniture and antique glassware. Just be patient: you have to walk past stands selling arrays of junk before you get to the little square where the best dealers are (at the end of the alley alongside the periphérique). Haggling is par for the course bien-sur, so put on your best French accent and don’t give up until the price is right!
- Porte de Montreuil, 20e and Montreuil
An imposing curtain wall punctuated by towers encloses this glorious medieval fortress, which is still home to an army garrison. The square keep was begun by Philippe VI and completed in the 14th century by Charles V, who added the curtain wall.Henry V died here in 1422, and Louis XIII used the château for hunting expeditions and had the Pavillon du Roi and Pavillon de la Reine built by Louis Le Vau. After years of renovations, the château has finally re-opened to reveal Europe's tallest dungeon tower. Although much of the fine detail has been lost, you still get a haunting sense of what life might have been like for Charles V who lived in the tower's upper floors. The castle's 14th-century chapel, the "Sainte-Chapelle" is stunningly beautiful - a flamboyant structure built by Charles V (although he died before it was finished leaving it to be inaugurated by Henri II in 1552) intended to house the relics of the Passion and thus turn Vincennes into the second capital of the kingdom.
- Avenue de Paris, 94300, Vincennes
This is Paris's biggest park, created, like the Bois de Boulogne in the west, when the former royal hunting forest was landscaped by Alphand for Baron Haussmann. There are boating lakes, a Buddhist temple, a racetrack, restaurants, a baseball field and a small farm. The park also contains the Cartoucherie theatre complex. The Parc Floral is a cross between a botanical garden and an amusement park. Amusements include Paris-themed crazy golf, with water drawn from the Seine, and an adventure playground. Next to the park stands the imposing Château de Vincennes, where England's Henry V died in 1422. Jazz concerts take place in the Parc Floral on summer weekends.
Set in the stunning, colonial-themed Palais de la Porte Dorée (built in 1931 for the World Colonial Fair), the permanent collections here trace over 200 years of immigration history. There are thought-provoking images (film and photography), everyday objects (suitcases, accordions, sewing machines and so on) and artworks that symbolise the struggles immigrants had to face when integrating into French society.Don't miss the permanent exhibition area, Repères (bearings), that looks at why many immigrants chose France, the problems they faced upon arrival, and the way sport, work, language, religion and culture can ease integration. One of the most moving areas is the Galerie des Dons - a collection of personal memorabilia donated by individuals whose families came from foreign countries.
- 293 avenue Daumesnil, 12e
Chez Prosper, in Nation, welcomes punters all day long with that simplest of gestures: a smile. Yes, even when squeezing past people queuing for a spot on the sun terrace, the waiters are positively beaming. The traditional dining/drinks area - tiled floor, large mirrors, wooden furniture - is run with military precision, and orders arrive promptly. The steak-frites and croques (served on Poîlane bread) are hearty, and the naughty Nutella tiramisu is worth crossing town for.
- 7 avenue du Trône, 11e
Now there’s another reason to head to Montreuil apart from the Marché aux Puces, in the form of great new neighbourhood bar Le Mange Disc. One major draw is the sun terrace, while the main attraction is the old-fashioned and charming rock’n’roll ambiance that harks back to the 1980s rockabilly revival. At the bar, a record player blasts out doo-wop, teen rock and rhythm and blues, while a bartender with slicked-back hair asks warmly, ‘What can I serve you, pet?’ (or rather, ‘mon p’tit loup’, ‘my little wolf’). You can enjoy cheap, original beers (Rince-cochon or Montreuilloise, for example) but watch out – they pack quite an alcoholic punch. A few too many of those and you might end up making a tit of yourself in a table football match against the practiced regulars. There’s also a calendar of exhibitions, DJ sets and concerts, despite the grumbles of the neighbours.
- 50 rue de Romainville, 93100 Montreuil