Stroll through Pigalle & SoPi with Context Travel

This is a guest post by Lily Heise at Context Travel. They have shared some of their expert advice on some fun new ways to discover the City of Light. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do!

Over the past few years the streets just south of Pigalle, known as SoPi, have paved their way onto the cool map of Paris with locavore gastrobars, designer shops and hipster hangouts. However, this seemingly new bohemian blood has actually been flowing through its veins since the quartier’s inception two hundred years ago, when it went by the name La Nouvelle Athènes. Discover the eclectic history of this hip neighborhood on this little stroll, and why not stop to have a look at Savoir Faire Paris’ guide to the 9th arrondissement and some of the great boutiques along the way or finish with an artisanal beer?

With the shadow of the France’s defeat at Waterloo fading, coupled with an advancing industrial age and growing middle class, Paris began experiencing a resurgence in the 1820s. This grow naturally forced the belt of the city’s borders a notch or two wider. The prime real estate pocket just between the Grands Boulevards and the sleepy village of Montmartre became the hub of La Nouvelle Athènes and this nouvelle zone soon became the intellectual, political and artistic hub of the Romantic movement and, as such, critical to the social and artistic revolutions of the 19th century.

A perfect place is start your SoPi stroll is right outside the metro Pigalle at the square and street named after 17th-century sculptor Jean-Baptiste Pigalle. The artistic legacy of the area was carried on by those who would become the great 19th-century creative minds, living, painting and drinking in the vicinity. In fact, right at no. 9 (in the spot of the current Bio C’ Bon) stood one of the most popular artist hangouts: le Café de la Nouvelle Athènes. More of a late 19th-century artist haunt (captured on canvas by Edgar Degas), it being baptized after le neighborhood nickname illustrates the neighborhood’s importance to the creative minds of the time.

Taking rue Frochet, you’ll pass some of today’s hottest cocktail bars, many transformed escort girl bars, a “tradition” stemming back to the Nouvelle Athènes days. The nearby streets were also dotted with the boudoirs of infamous courtesans. Called Lorettes, after the quarter’s main church, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, their world is vividly depicted in Balzac’s The Splendors and Miseries of the Courtisans published in four parts from 1838-47, a potentially good read to shed more light onto the era. At the end of this short street, peek your head through the bars of the gate to Avenue Frochet, a quaint private cul-de-sac where Gustave Moreau, Toulouse-Lautrec, Alexandre Dumas père, Victor Hugo and Jean Renoir once resided. Virtually across the street at 25 rue Victor Massé was also one of the many short-term homes of Van Gogh who squatted here at his brother Theo’s apartment in 1886.

Turn right along Victor Massé taking a short detour to the Musée de la Vie Romantique on rue Chaptal. This lovely museum was the home of painter Ary Scheffer, who entertained friends and important figures of the Romantic era including Delacroix, Ingres, George Sand, Chopin, Liszt. Its exhibits, permanent displays and artifacts are an excellent way to immerse yourself in the time period. If it’s sunny, you can enjoy a coffee break in the courtyard garden, romantic in more ways than one.

Now circle back to rue Notre-Dame-de-Lorette which was the residence of one of the most influential Romantic artists, Eugène Delacroix, who lived here from 1844 to 1857. The street’s famed inhabitants also list Gauguin and Pissarro. As you walk down it, observe the buildings, many of which predate the uniformity of the Haussmann style and have delicate greek-style decorative features.

Further down the street you’ll come to the area’s epicenter: la Place Saint Georges. It’ll be hard to miss the small square’s two elegant private mansions. At no. 28 lived the Marquise de Païva, one of the grandest (and richest) of the aforementioned courtesans, evident in the palatial palais. Across the square is the former mansion of Adolphe Thiers, a French president during the second Empire, another symbol of the area’s prominence.

You’ll probably have been distracted by some shopfronts lining these streets, but if you’ve arrived near the bottom, your amble could end at the Musée Gustave Moreau (14 Rue de La Rochefoucauld). The studio and demure of the unconventional symbolist artist, his work falls outside the realm of most of the other artistic movements of century, but the wonderful mid-century building encompasses the style and energy of the Nouvelle Athènes.

Context can arrange historian-led custom tours of the Nouvelle Athènes. Contact france-spain@contexttravel.com for more details.
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