The Rue Montorgueil just north of the heart of Paris is a wonderful discovery. Its white cobblestones are regularly polished by shoes, rain, and the city workers’ neon green brooms, making it resemble a museum’s tiled floor. There is plenty of history here, too: many of the buildings lining the street display plaques describing their heritage going back hundreds of years.
But Montorgueil is no collection of dusty relics from a bygone era — it is alive and bustling with pedestrians: a father in his business suit walking his petite fille to school; silver-haired retirees gathered at their favourite café, savouring cafés crèmes, watching the people go by, and arguing over last night’s news; mothers pushing strollers, gathering the day’s needs — baguettes here, fromage there, some fruit — and what does le bucher recommend, the chicken or the veal, or perhaps she’ll get some fish two shops down. Apart from the locals, some tourists have made the pleasant discovery of Montorgueil on their own; perhaps, if they were lucky, they ended up in one of the many surprisingly inexpensive hotels in the neighbourhood.
Montorgueil is one of several streets that Paris has closed down to traffic, encouraging shopkeepers to display their wares on the sidewalks, and cafés to spread tables and chairs right out to the edge of the street. Promoting a pedestrian culture in the heart of a bustling metropolis has the effect of slowing life down — it is quieter without all the car engines, horns, and alarms, cleaner (those white cobblestones positively sparkle in the sun), and somehow even the air tastes better, although that might be an illusion overlapping from those other sensual pleasures.
The focus in Montorgueil is food, either the raw ingredients needed for just about any recipe, or a spot to sit and enjoy a fine meal at any time of the day. The side streets offer other choices, especially the nearby Passage du Grand Cerf, a gorgeous indoor arcade dating back to 1825 where the focus is on artists and artisans — locally made jewellery and clothing compete with antiques and ultra-current housewares. Or get a tattoo on the rue Tiquetonne which crosses Montorgueil near its south end.
The neighbourhood is a perfect base for exploring Paris. First, fuel up with a pain au chocolat, or perhaps a more substantial brunch at Au Rocher de Cancale, a 300-year old rustic eatery that swings effortlessly from breakfast café to lunch-time bistro to trendy dinner spot as the day progresses. It is a short walk south through the manicured gardens of Les Halles to many attractions along the Seine: the Louvre, Île de la Cité, Notre-Dame, and Pont-Neuf. Even the meandering warrens of the Latin Quarter on the Rive Gauche are only a twenty-minute promenade away.
The striking, irreverently designed Centre Georges-Pompidou is also a short walk southeast of Montorgueil. On the way there, take rue Saint-Denis, another pedestrian-only street. Instead of fruit stalls and cheese shops, Saint-Denis offers other sensual delights — sex shops and peepshows — along with trendy clothing stores, fast food restaurants, and cafés. You will still see families out for an evening walk: young couples pushing a stroller amid the flashing neon and tantalizing glimpses of skin, toddler and parents alike taking it all in with that innately Parisian sense of aloof disaffection that must be genetic.
Several metro lines pass through the Montorgueil area, so it is easy to get to destinations that are not close enough to walk to, like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Montmartre.