The hurdy-gurdy player

19th arrondissement - corner rue de Belleville/Blvd. de Belleville

The rue de Belleville, which runs down from the Porte des Lilas, marks the border between the 19th and 20th arrondissements. The meeting of the Boulevard de Villette (19th arrondissement), the rue de Belleville, the Boulevard de Belleville (20th arrondissement) and the rue du Faubourg du Temple (10-11th arrondissement) formed the limit between Paris city and its suburbs until 1860. Up until then - and after - Rue de Belleville, being outside the city limits, was the venue for some of the most disreputable guingettes selling tax-exempt alcohol that ringed the French capital.

Two famous cafés guarded the entrance to the rue Belleville before it climbed north-eastwards: Au Point du Jour and La Vielleuse. Au Point du Jour has gone (like much of this area's European population), to be replaced by an anonymous office building, while La Vielleuse remains (staffed and frequented largely by North Africans).

During the Commune of 1870-1871, La Vielleuse (which is really in the 20th arrondissement - we're cheating again) was used as a meeting place for les clubs rouges, revolutionary groups of different hues of red. Here are part of the minutes from a meeting held on February 2, 1871 : .... "The socialist democracy of Belleville holds its electoral meeting at La Vielleuse. The public is more numerous and more tumultuous than ever. The candidates are all reviewed, and Victor Hugo comes under examination. One speaker agrees that Victor Hugo has served democracy well by standing on his small island rock [Hugo was in exil on Guernsey at the time] for the past 20 years as a living protest against the empire (some applause); but Victor Hugo is not one of us. ("Right enough! He's a toff"). He belongs to the bourgeoisie. ("We don't need them!") He's a man of the past, what we need are men of the future. (General signs of agreement). Victor Hugo's candidacy is put to the vote and unanimously rejected. (Applause)". The Communards built a huge barricade at the crossroads outside La Vielleuse to defend this traditionally working-class area, but it was swiftly brushed aside during the Semaine sanglante that put an end to Paris self-rule in May 1871.

La Vielleuse (which means "the female hurdy-gurdy player") was to suffer further outrages of fortune in June 1918, when shrapnel from a shell fired by the giant German cannon called Groß Bertha situated over 100km away managed to crack a mirror containing precisely an image of La Vielleuse. The cracked mirror (above) has been religiously conserved since then, with the following defiant words painted above it: "Malgré Bertha qui la blessa le 9 juin 1918, elle n'a jamais cessé de jouer l'hymne de la victoire." The damage wrought by Groß Bertha is commemorated elsewhere in Paris, notably in the courtyard of Charlemagne college in the Marais, which was struck by a shell around the same time, and at Madeleine church in the 8th arrondissement, where Saint-Luke remains headless since being hit by shrapnel on May 30, 1918 (see photo left). Much greater carnage was caused at Saint-Gervais church, behind the Hôtel de Ville, which took a direct hit during Mass on Good Friday on March 29, 1918. Casualties came to 77 dead and 91 wounded.

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