Belleville is a traditionally working-class district in the east of Paris, straddling the 19th and 20th arrondissements.
I think I first heard of Belleville from Puccini’s opera Il tabarro (the first of the three short operas of Il trittico), in which the illicit lovers Giorgetta and Luigi discover that they both grew up in Belleville. This gives them something in common right from the start, and establishes their working-class background.
The singer Edith Piaf (1915-1963) grew up in Belleville and sang in the local music halls before becoming world-famous with such songs as “Mon légionnaire,” “La vie en rose,” “L’Hymne à l’Amour,” “Milord,” and “Non, je ne regrette rien“.
Above the door of 72 rue de Belleville is a plaque which reads: “On the steps of this house was born on the 19th of December 1915 in the most abject poverty EDITH PIAF whose voice later would astound the world.”
But her birth certificate says she was born in the Tenon Hospital, which is about a dozen blocks away near a small square which is now called Place Edith Piaf.
Another square named for a singer is Place Fréhel on Rue de Belleville, best known for its two large murals up on the walls of the buildings.
On the left is a mural that was made in 1993 by the artist Ben Vautier (born 1935). It shows two workmen (actually life-size puppets) lowering a huge blackboard with the words Il faut se méfier des mots = Beware of Words.
On the right is a huge painting of a detective, by Jean Le Gac (born 1936). A text on the painting reads: “Accustomed to the allusive style of the painter, the young detective understands that the message tells him to continue the chase along the street Julien Lacroix.” This is the street that goes off to his right (our left) and leads up to Belleville Park.
Place Fréhel, which could also be thought of as a vacant lot, came into being when some buildings had to be torn down during the construction of the tunnel for Métro line number 11 from Châtelet to Porte des Lilas in the 1930s. The square is named after the singer and actress Marguerite Boulc’h (1891-1951), whose stage name was Fréhel. (She was 24½ years older than Edith Piaf.)
One of Fréhel’s most famous songs was La Java bleue from the year 1938. La java was a kind of dance that was popular in Paris in the 1930s. Here’s the French text, in case you want to read it while listening to the song. She starts with the refrain before singing the first verse (and she changes three or four words while singing):
C’est la java bleue
La java la plus belle
Celle qui ensorcelle
Et que l’on danse les yeux dans les yeux
Au rythme joyeux
Quand les corps se confondent
Comme elle au monde
Il n’y en a pas deux
C’est la java bleue
Il est au bal musette
Un air rempli de douceur
Qui fait tourner les têtes
Qui fait chavirer les coeurs
Tandis qu’on glisse à petits pas
Serrant celle qu’on aime dans ses bras
Tout bas l’on dit dans un frisson
En écoutant jouer l’accordéon.
Chérie sous mon étreinte
Je veux te serrer plus fort
Pour mieux garder l’empreinte
Et la chaleur de ton corps
Que de promesses, que de serments
On se fait dans la folie d’un moment
Mais ses serments remplis d’amour
On sait qu’on ne les tiendra pas toujours.
If you climb the hill to Belleville Park — or ride up on a Velib’ bike, as I did — you can get some wide views out over Paris. I took these photos on a somewhat cloudy day, with the Eiffel Tower off in the distance on the right.
My photos in this post are from 2008. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: the nearby park of the Buttes-Chaumont.