All the Light We Cannot See: Discovering the Unsung Wonders of the French Capital
Exploring the most energetic, diverse neighborhoods in Paris alongside our tour guide, Alex Toledano, Paris
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It’d be hard to find a better guide of this oft-unsung part of Paris than Alex Toledano, art consultant and specialist in the history of post-revolution France.

Alex did his Ph.D. on the ground covered in our tour, which traces the path of the ancient Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis—a prime route of pilgrimage for city-dwellers on their way to the Basilica of Saint Denis, and now a central thoroughfare in a rapidly gentrifying area. “This is a market street,” says Alex. Despite its burgeoning popularity with young creatives, he says it’s still impacted most significantly by the thousands of commuters who enter the city daily at the Gare du Nord, our starting point. “This neighborhood offers a chance to see a vibrant place that defies the stereotype of Paris as being an old-fashioned city that looks backwards,” he shares. “Paris is a busy, exciting place, and the majority of all the life in the streets here comes from outside of Paris.”

Map of the Parisian Sights

Gateway to the Center

Gare du Nord, 18 Rue de Dunkerque

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We begin at the Gare du Nord—not only Paris’ busiest railway station, but also, as our guide notes, the busiest in the world outside of Japan in terms of daily passenger traffic. The name suggests its focus, with many services running to the capitals of Northern Europe. However, the inspiration for Alex’s tour is the daily expeditions into Paris by the sizable portion of passengers who travel from less far-flung locales, like Saint-Denis, Drancy, and elsewhere along the city’s suburban belt. Alex suggests heeding the station’s dual purpose. “The main entrance hall is where the majority of the big trains come in—bringing people from London, Brussels, Amsterdam, Lille, and other major cities in the north,” he says. “And then on the east side of the station, you have the regional train lines—the RER [Réseau Express Régional]. It’s important to see both.” That said, it’s with this second set of passengers that we’ll be spending our time. “The RER is the funnel into Paris. If you look back at days when there were full strikes on the RER, this part of Paris – the 10th, 18th, 11th, 19th arrondissements—was deserted,” Alex says. “Stores just didn’t open. Without that link, it’s just not possible for people to get into the city.”

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The World in one District

Saravanaa Bhavan, 170 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis

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We exit beneath the station’s commanding Beaux-Arts facade, heading south, toward central Paris, down the hill upon which the station sits. First stop: food! “If you’re getting out of the Gare du Nord, this is without a doubt the easiest, best food right next to the train station,” Alex says. We’re off to Saravanaa Bhavan at 170 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis. “It’s part of a larger international chain that serves South Indian fast food,” says our tour guide, who’s included this stop on our route for its candid snapshot of this neighborhood’s diversity. “The people who work there are part of the biggest Tamil community in all of France,” Alex says. “They came from Sri Lanka and fled the civil war there. One theme in this neighborhood is that a lot of people who are part of these communities, or their parents, were political refugees.”
We go down the Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, where Alex explains many Pakistanis and Bangladeshis have settled, and head further down to the area where many residents are left-wing Turks who fled after the successful military coup in the 1980s, as well as Kurdish groups who, our ever-informed tour guide says, were kicked out of or fled Turkey. He also mentions a number of ex-Yugoslav communities that emigrated from what is now Serbia, as well as Croatia and other places.

Old History vs Modern Ambitions

Square Alban-Satrange, Boulevard de Magenta

“Paris is a busy, exciting city, and the majority of all the life in the streets here comes from outside.”

For our next stop, we continue our way along Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis, stopping at Square Alban-Satragne “This is a basic, kind of nondescript park, built in the 80s, but it’s interesting because it allows you to see a large arc of the history of the neighborhood,” remarks Alex. “There was a convent [on the site] called Saint Lazare, dating back to the medieval period, and they knocked down the entire front of it to build the park. It’s an opportunity to see really stunning, old church architecture that’s been refashioned.”
Here, it’s been transformed into the media library Médiathèque Françoise Sagan, its modern ambitions grounded by its centuries-old history. “This area was outside of Paris. When the king died back in the day, they’d start the funeral procession at Notre Dame and walk up the Rue Saint-Denis toward the basilica [north of the city, in Saint Denis]. It was an important processional route – and the first stop along the way was here, at the église Saint Lazare,” explains Alex. “This road has been around for a very, very long time – if you look at a map of the city, it’s one of the only parts outside of the city that had been built up.”

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Cosmopolitan Sounds

New Morning, 7-9 Rue des Petites Écuries

Alex’s next selection is New Morning, a concert venue at 7-9 Rue des Petites Écuries. “It’s one of the most important concert venues for jazz and music from around the world,” he mentions, and reports having seen “15 or 20 shows” at the hall – best among them, he says, was the afro-beat group Antibalas. “It’s really intimate, it’s small, it’s packed. There are usually tables up front, while in the back you can stand. It’s not a cavernous place where it feels like there’s a distance between the performer and their audience – it’s intimate. I’ve seen musicians play at the top level here.”
New Morning’s vital present belies a rich past. “It opened at a time in the neighborhood’s history when all the manufacturing places in the area disappeared – there were a lot of vacancies as all these old clothing manufacturing buildings came to be used in different ways,” Alex says. New Morning was among them: It’s on the site of a former printing press of influential French newspaper Le Parisien.

Café Connections

La Ferme, 5 Rue des Petites Écuries

“This neighborhood offers a chance to see a vibrant place that defies the stereotype of Paris as being an old-fashioned city that looks backwards.”

Before or after taking in a show at New Morning, you’ll want a drink next door at the café La Ferme. “If you want to get a good spot at New Morning, you’ve got to get there early, and there’s usually a line,” advises Alex. “This is the perfect place to grab a drink.” It’s one of his personal favorites: “The family that runs the bar and restaurant here has been incredibly kind to me over the years – they introduced me to so many people when I was writing my dissertation. That’s how it is when you run a bar like this in the neighborhood—you know everyone. The father of the family was born in Algeria and they moved to Paris. All of his sons and their cousins work at the place and run it now. What I love about it is that it’s not trying to be trendy.” That, of course, is an increasingly rare quality around here. Alex recommends staying for a meal—ideally the couscous. “They serve fantastic, fantastic North African food,” he says. “It’s just pleasant to be in without feeling like you need to be cool to be there. They just welcome everyone.”

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Chin Chin

Le Syndicat, 51 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis

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Head back to Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis and continue downhill to No. 51, the cocktail bar Le Syndicat. “This is one of those new trendy places,” Alex says. “It’s super hip—the place that’s being written up in Condé Nast Traveller.” Don’t let that dissuade you: “It’s worth mentioning because it’s actually good. The cocktails are fantastic and their concept is great: They only use French liquor. That means you’re getting to try a lot of classic drinks that have been reinvented to make the best use of these very different spirits.” The staff, he reports, are kind as well: “It doesn’t have any of the pretension that some of the other ones do.” His suggestion: “Their version of a gin and tonic, with a French juniper-based drink that is related to gin but transforms this drink. It’s a little bitter, much more subtle—a transformative gin and tonic.”

At History’s Doorstep

Passage du Prado, 12 Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis

For our final stop, we come almost to the foot of Rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis: At No. 12, we find the Passage du Prado, one of the few still-standing arcades built in the 18th century. “These are covered, private passageways that were open to the public during the day, where people could go shopping,” Alex says. The history here is more checkered than elsewhere. He continues, “Historically, this wasn’t one that people much wanted to go check out—it was considered a place of lots of drug dealing. But over the past few years it’s cleaned itself up a lot, and now it’s home to a lot of random things: barbershops from Pakistanis, a Turkish café, Urdu translation shops for people to get their official documents translated into French, a Mauritian restaurant, Bollywood film and music shops—it’s a great opportunity to see the diversity of this neighborhood.”
As the tour concludes, don’t miss a look at the Porte Saint-Denis, a monument celebrating the battlefield successes of Louis XIV. “This is the end of the street – once the edge of Paris and near the Porte Saint-Martin, which together made up the two ways to exit or enter Paris and were built in the 17th century by Louis XIV,” Alex says. “The Porte Saint-Denis is the more beautiful of the two, and it’s a perfect starting point of the street.”

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Thank you, Alex, for introducing us to this interesting and diverse district of Paris. You can find more stories from Paris here.

This portrait is part of Companion Magazine, a project developed by FvF for 25hours Hotels. Read more about the current issue #8 in the FvF Journal.

Text: Diane Vadino
Photography: Robert Rieger