What is your experience of Paris? Crowded streets, Long Queues, that feeling of getting nowhere fast?
Would you believe me if I told you that on a recent weekend break, my better half and I experienced none of those things, despite being very close to some of the city’s main attractions.
We discovered the best way to see Paris was to head towards where Parisians live and work. The city is split into 20 arrondissements. Our visit found us meandering through the 3rd, 4th and 10th of those districts. Each has their own characteristics, architecture and sense of community.
To get our bearings, we joined an Eating Europe tour, which promised to show us the Hip Eats and Backstreets. Starting off at the Canal St Martin and finishing at Place de la Republique, we visited locally-run businesses and sampled wine, cheese, charcuterie, cous-cous, patisserie and my favourite, which is the food I see as the epitomé of French cuisine. The Croque Monsieur and I go back a number of years to family holidays in Brittany, followed by my attempts to re-create the famous dish at home during my school years – of course a lack of Bechemal Sauce and Gruyere cheese meant I was just making a cheese and ham toastie. Haute-Cuisine it was not. However, the modern take on the Croque containing Dried fruit, Chives, Honey and Goats Cheese we sampled while sitting on the canal wall was a taste sensation. We learned that Moroccan cuisine is high up on the last of most Parisian palettes. Visiting an authentic Cous-Cous restaurant was a great opportunity to sample a dish I had never tried before. The tour wasn’t all about food, we discovered how to date buildings in the area by their particular architecture and even whether or not they had housed some of the first lifts, and some of the richest people, in Paris back in the day. Having heard about the history of the area and visited shops and restaurants mainly frequented by locals, we actually felt quite Parisian by the end of the tour.
As dusk set in, we felt it only proper to catch sight of the Eiffel Tower and its famous hourly light show. Of course there is nothing more romantic than sharing that experience with thousands of other people trying to get that one photo which either gives the impression they are the only folk there or are indeed holding the tower in their hands. They obviously haven’t heard of photoshop! However, there is something quite beguiling about wandering down the steps of the Trocedero, across the bridge over the Seine to the base of the tower, particularly during the hourly light show. A word to the wise though. While you are looking up, keep an eye to where your feet are at the same time, otherwise you may demolish the career of one of the many street vendors who lay out their wares on the footpath. As it transpires, those tourist trinkets don’t survive well when stood on by a Size 11 shoe.
Our second day found us starting off at Sacre Couer. Yes, it is a tourist magnet, and was very busy from early morning, but it meant we valued the fact that we could escape the crowds by wandering through Square D’Anvers and as we had nowhere to be in a hurry, were able to make our way through the quiet residential streets of Faubourg Montmartre, stopping off at a local patisserie and then a café terrace to people-watch alongside the locals. The numerous historic covered Passages around the Grand Boulevard are like stepping back in time. The marble floors, unique shops, window displays and glass architecture can be easily missed but I recommend keeping an eye out for them as they are worth a walk through.
The nearby Musee Grevin offers an entertaining break from the norm. Showcasing wax models of hundreds of famous figures, from the history of France through to the present day, the majestic building the museum is housed in is worth the visit in itself. A word of warning though, as some of the wax dummies may not be as immobile as they seem. The video I captured of my better half realising that fact is worthy of a spot on “You’ve Been Framed”.
Our stroll continued to Chatelet Les Halles, which sees close to a million commuter’s using its underground metro station on a weekday, and the nearby Pompidou Centre, famous for its “inside-out” architecture and once described as being a town within a building.
Having spent a good part of the day walking around near-deserted streets, it was somewhat of a culture shock to arrive at Pont Neuf over the River Seine and discover where all the tourists had been hiding.
We aimed to spend our evening on the Left Bank, in particular Rue de la Huchette. Yes, it is very “touristy” but as the restaurants are in such completion with each other it means there are some great deals to be found on the menus. Also, as a place to people-watch, it really can’t be beaten.
Getting around Paris is not too difficult. Whilst we chose to walk most of the time, clocking up 25 miles over two days, the Metro and RER system is really to navigate if you are needing to move across the city quickly. The Paris Visite card is a useful purchase so you don’t have to worry about carrying change .
On this weekend trip we stayed at the 5* Renaissance Arc de Triomphe. Little clue is needed as to which landmark can be seen from the floor to ceiling contoured windows in rooms on the upper floors. If you guessed the Eiffel Tower as well as the obvious one, you would be right! The building’s unique design is something to behold. The hotel is situated a few minutes’ walk from four metro lines and the RER A, meaning there is easy access to all areas of the city as well as the Airports. There are also some wine bars and restaurants in the area that are not on the main tourist trail, so are worthy of a visit.
For many, their experience of Paris is as described at the start of this piece, crowded with queues everywhere. However my ing-standing advice is to get lost, in the nicest possible way, explore places off the tourist trail and enjoy the city like a local. That way, you get to experience Paris your way.