Street Smarts

Street Smarts

Rue des Martyrs is one of those Paris streets that visitors dream of stumbling upon—the focal point of a genuine Parisian neighborhood with character, vitality and a cornucopia of eclectic boutiques, cafés and restaurants. Straddling the 9th and 18th arrondissements—basically Montmartre and the colorful Pigalle area—the bustling market street takes its name from the martyred 3rd-century bishop of Paris, Saint Denis, who, after being decapitated on the hill of Montmartre, is said to have picked up his head and walked away, to the place that is now a Paris suburb named after him.

Today the rue des Martyrs reflects the Parisians who have adopted it—artists, writers, filmmakers and bobo (bourgeois bohemian) families. Yet even with the recent influx of boutiques à la mode, the old neighborhood fixtures still remain—the flower shops, fromageries, pâtisseries, butchers, fruit and vegetable vendors and specialty food shops that give the street its village atmosphere.

To avoid an uphill climb, start at the Métro stop Abbesses, a block from the upper end of the street, and work your way downhill. In true Parisian style, we begin with a slight diversion, just two steps from the rue des Martyrs on the rue de La Vieuville, where Paris fashionistas have beaten a path to the door of Spree. Husband and wife team Roberta Oprandi and Bruno Hadjadj pioneered the Martyrs area ten years ago with the notion of giving talented young designers an outlet. They later branched out into fashion elites—Margiela 6, Isabel Marant, Comme des Garçons and Tsumori Chisato. What’s great here is that the staff has done all the work for you—the expertly chosen inventory of big-name designers alongside fabulous finds from labels you’ve never heard of seems almost curated. There’s also a choice selection of accessories and jewelry, along with notable pieces of mid-century modern furniture and lighting; a revolving exhibition of original artwork by local artists completes the gallery atmosphere. 16 rue de La Vieuville,

Heading down the rue des Martyrs you can’t miss Gillery, where all that glitters is indeed gold. Gold leaf, to be precise. Forty years of experience in the acquisition and restoration of precious antique frames, mirrors and especially antique barometers has cinched Gillery’s reputation. Founded by her father, the business is now run by the voluble Laurence Gillery, who hand-sculpts missing pieces, does repairs and applies gold leaf, often burnishing it to match ancient patinas. She also graciously takes the time to show curious visitors how the barometers have operated since the 17th century. Most of the resplendent models in the shop date from the late 1800s and cost anywhere from €1,600 to €6,000. While an intricately carved rococo mirror may not be practical to carry home, an ancient gilded barometer makes a superb souvenir, and your home will finally have something in common with a French palace. 97 rue des Martyrs,

Across the street, on the corner of the rue des Martyrs and rue Yvonne le Tac, Loft Design By… houses the men’s, women’s and children’s clothing designed by Patrick Frèche. The name’s ellipsis is a gentle reminder that you are the creator of your own look—he’s just there to help. And that he does, offering top-quality, wearable clothes in chic but classic styles in luxury fabrics at an affordable price. The palette is restrained—mostly white, beige, gray, navy, black—but that’s all the better for finding wardrobe staples that mix and match easily. Velvety, whisper-thin cotton separates can be worn year-round depending on how they’re layered, and light cashmere and cashmere-and-cotton pullovers and cardigans range from waist to knee length. I’ve seen more than one piece here reminiscent of an A-list designer, but nicer, and at a quarter of the price. Not to say the clothes are in any way derivative; they’re straightforward, ultra-stylish and among the most comfortable separates around. Ditto for the menswear, and there is also a limited selection of adorable, sturdy pieces for kids, from newborns on up. An extra bonus: you won’t find the label anywhere back home in the US. 20 rue Yvonne Le Tac,

Emmanuelle Zysman‘s handsome boutique is decorated in somber shades of gray, highlighting her gorgeous line of ultra-feminine jewelry, handmade on the premises. Zysman, a true Parisian, is a passionate, self-taught artisan with such far-flung and varied influences as the chansons of Jeanne Moreau, Japanese literature and 1st-century Afghan tribal jewelry. Displayed under domed cloches, her delicate designs, some with a single rough-faceted diamond drop or semi-precious gemstone, are irresistible. Forced to choose, a girl couldn’t go wrong with the Seven bracelet, a slip of a bangle slightly flattened on top and set with seven tiny diamonds, or the Forever necklace, a mere wisp of a chain on which five rough-cut black diamonds nestle discretely at the clavicle. The canny Zysman knows how to make pieces that work for everyday and keep happy clients coming back for more. 81 rue des Martyrs,

For decor ideas it’s likely that Zysman just popped across the street to L’Objet Qui Parle, which houses a splendid collection of glass domes, large and small. The tiny shop is a major trendsetter; hip interior designers looking for inspiration flock here for its astonishing array of finds, including gilt mirrors of all shapes and sizes, 19th-century religious icons, old school maps, antique apothecary jars, crystal-decked sconces, 1940s vintage plates from the Paris Grand Hotel, a stuffed swan, boar or crow, and a whole lot more. Prices are reasonable, but don’t be afraid to bargain—it’s all part of the fun. 86 rue des Martyrs,

L’Objet Qui Parle’s exuberant chaos is nicely complimented by Et Puis C’est Tout‘s orderly yet obsessive collection of 1950s-1970s furniture, barware, lighting and even key chains. For lovers of French brand-emblazoned goods, it’s a hoard of treasures, with an ample collection of objects from Pernod and Ricard, including ashtrays, pitchers and glasses; Perrier and Campari glasses and French café water carafes in all shapes and sizes. Most small items can be had for under €20, but there are a few rare gems, like a handsome assembly of lighted glass world globes from the 1960s, once standard issue in French high schools. As for the key chains, there are hundreds to choose from, mostly brand-specific, logo-emblazoned and iconic models. Don’t get attached to the Air France model planes, though—they’re not for sale. 72 rue des Martyrs,

Across the elegant, leafy Avenue Trudaine, rue des Martyrs begins its transformation from a boutique beat into a market street, where you can pick up anything and everything for a snack, picnic or cold supper—a nice quiet treat if you’re staying in a hotel. Try the great pâtisserie Arnaud Delmontel, or pop into the Rose Bakery, for lunch, tea or takeout. The bakery’s organic salads, pizzas and homey desserts are local favorites; try to get there early on Saturdays when lines can extend way out the door. Because the market section of the rue des Martyrs is pedestrian only between 10 am and 1 pm on Sunday mornings, it’s a great place to go when much of Paris is closed or still sleeping. Delmontel, 39 rue des Martyrs,, website; Rose Bakery, 46 rue des Martyrs,

Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of France Today.

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