Batignolles lies in the southeastern portion of the 17è Arrondissement. The streets have witnessed centuries of French history. On her way to liberate Paris from its English occupiers, Jeanne d'Arc marched her army along the forerunner of rue de Lévis. For hundreds of years before the Revolution, nuns processed along rue des Dames to go from their convent to the holy shrines atop Montmartre. To the north, rue des Moines served the same purpose for monks traveling from their monastery. The few blocks' distance between the two parallel streets kept the genders separated and theoretically lessened the worrisome temptations of the flesh. Religious pilgrims traveled through the entire area on their journey to the Basilique St-Denis, the great Gothic masterpiece and final resting place of all the kings and queens of France since Charlemagne.
After several rather unpleasant experiences of being besieged by enemies, both foreign and domestic, the Bourbon kings prohibited the construction of large-scale settlements within a wide strip of land encircling the walls of Paris. This acreage was officially reserved for small farms that could grow food for the Capital's residents in the event of a prolonged attack. The land was converted to residential use only after Paris' safety was seemingly guaranteed under the rule of the Emperor Napoléon. Seeking to escape the oppressive heat and odors of post-Revolution Paris, bourgeois families built small country houses with cottage gardens throughout the area. These were quickly followed by small apartment buildings--the traditional housing of choice for Parisians. During this period, around 1825, rue Truffaut was laid out, taking its name from the family that owned the land through which it passed.
After the Bourbon restoration in 1814, the popularity of Batignolles continued to grow among the bourgeois merchant class. The parish church, Ste-Marie des Batignolles, was given to the village as a personal gift from King Charles X and his devoutly religious daughter-in-law, the Duchèsse d'Angoulême. She was, incidentally, the only surviving child of King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette. The royals' generosity wasn't without measure, however, the villagers being required to pay for their own steeple. Apparently, the villagers weren't especially generous either, and the small size of the church's belfry was a community embarrassment for generations. During a recent renovation, however, the bell itself was discovered to be a product of the Imperial foundry and is now considered one of the finest bronze bells in Paris.
The church itself was designed in the austere classicist manner of early 19th century devotional architecture, and is loosely based on an ancient Greek temple. The area behind the altar features a stunning bas relief sculpture depicting the Assumption of the Virgin and decorated entirely in shades of cream and Wedgwood blue. The altar was once graced with a solid gold statuette of the Virgin, but it "disappeared" during the German occupation following the Franco-Prussian War, and hasn't been seen since. Bowing to the pressures of modern times, the church's roof now hosts a webcam just to one side of the belfry. It broadcasts the comings and goings along the full length of rue des Batignolles 24/7. If you don't mind being the ultimate tourist, you can schedule a time for your loved ones at home to go online, and you can stand in the street and wave to them via the Internet.
Batignolles, along with the nearby neighborhoods Epinettes, Monceau and Ternes, was annexed to the City of Paris in 1860. In the following years, Batignolles became an industrialized center thanks to its proximity to continental Europe's first railroad tracks--those that can still be seen in the deep canyon running along rue de Rome from Gare St-Lazare.
Batignolles continued to attract more working class residents, often opening its arms to those who had more talent than money. The small Café Guerbois served as a meeting place in 1867 for a handful of painters known dismissively as the "Batignolles Group." Many of the regulars at that table, all residents of the surrounding apartment buildings, went on to achieve some modest success. You may have heard of them--Manet, Dégas, Pisarro, Sisley, Fantin-
Latour, Vuillard, Renoir and Bazille. Visitors to the Musée d'Orsay can enjoy a large Fantin-Latour canvas showing the artist's painter friends gathered at his atelier on rue de la Condamine. Meanwhile, other great men toiled away over sheets of paper. The poet Paul Verlaine lived on rue Nollet and Emile Zola, who lived all his life in Batignolles, wrote his first incendiary novel at 23 rue Truffaut.
During the darkest time of the last century, the residents of Batignolles were the first Parisians to displace their Nazi occupiers. Among the oral histories collected by the local mairie are these that speak of the very moments when Nazi headquarters were seized and their storerooms thrown open.
There was some of everything--wine, alcohol, butter, flour, jam...and 10,000 cartons of condensed milk for our children.
We were in front of the mairie des Batignolles where the tricolor had been flying since dawn--the flag we hadn't seen for four years. A crowd gathered and, crying with joy, began singing la Marseillaise.
The price they paid is remembered by the bronze plaques reading "Mort pour la France" ("Died for France") that are affixed to the sides of buildings in our neighborhood and through the Paris. Nearly 70 years later, they're often still adorned with small bouquets of fresh flowers tied in blue, white and red ribbons. When you pass one, take a brief moment to reflect on the struggle and sacrifice of Paris' civilian resistance.
Batignolles has lately regained its fashionable luster without sacrificing its bohemian qualities. Younger families in search of affordable housing (if such as thing actually exists in Paris) and a more relaxed lifestyle have moved into the neighborhood. They've been followed by trendy cafés and boutiques. An old railroad repair depot, the last large piece of undeveloped land inside the city boundaries, has been transformed into an urban park, curiously named "Parc Martin Luther King, Jr.--Cardinet." The park has been designed to create zero energy impact. If you look carefully, you'll see the windmills and solar panels that power the park's lights, fountains, irrigation pumps and other amenities. Over the next five years, the site will welcome a pair of residential skyscrapers and a new judicial center.