Taking a walk in Paris

Paris, the City of Lights, nevertheless has some unsuspected and inspiring treasures and unexpected, enchanting and exotic secrets: a cloister converted into a studio, a gorgeous Art nouveau facade, places that were home to painters and writers... Romantic gardens, crypts, covered passageways and some astonishing museums...

There are, of course, the museums and monuments that have given Paris its worldwide reputation. But the capital is also home to a whole array of treasures that sometimes even Parisians are unfamiliar with. Very often it just means venturing into an unknown street or pushing open a gate to make a new discovery.

Guillaume Apollinaire was particularly fond of the stern, evocative atmosphere of the Aigle d’Or inn on rue du Temple in the city’s 3rd arrondissement. The place retains some superb traces from the time of Louis XIII and is now home to the Café de la Gare and a number of dance studios. Not far away, a plaque on the Quai aux Fleurs marks the location of the home of two famous lovers, Héloïse and Abélard, who met in the Ile de la Cité.

Every year since 1934, the Grape Harvest festival in Montmartre has celebrated the arrival of the latest vintages from the vines grown on the Butte itself. This is an opportunity for some enjoyable festivities over several days, including a costume parade by the various wine associations and organisations, concerts and above all the harvest of the precious grapes, from the sloping site of one of the vineyards at the corner of rue des Saules and rue Saint-Vincent.

Walking is practically an art in itself, with its own tricks, twists and turns. The Père Lachaise cemetery, in the 20th arrondissement, is a legendary place and a listed historic monument, but also one of the largest open spaces in Paris. It covers an area of 44 hectares planted with 4,000 trees and 6,000 shrubs beside 15 km of avenues and pathways along which two million visitors stroll every year. This is the final resting place of the elite from the world of literature, the arts and politics, from Molière to Balzac, Delacroix to Proust, and Chopin to Colette.

Facing the end of the Ile de la Cité stands the Hôtel de la Monnaie, the French Mint, between Pont Neuf and the passerelle des Arts. Tucked away behind the neoclassical facade of this superb building on the banks of the Seine are the workshops in which craftsman still produce coins and medals, including the euro. A true artists’ studio in the heart of Paris, with its foundry, kilns, presses, noises and smells, this is the place of work for 384 people including 248 manual workers, master engravers, jewellers, skilled foundry workers, stampers and minters.

On the way, there are plenty of surprises and rarities on hand for anyone who wants to find out more about the history of the area. In southern Paris, opposite parc Montsouris, on the other side of boulevard Jourdan, the Cité universitaire internationale international university complex is a 34-hectare oasis of greenery and the perfect spot for a refreshing change of scene. A true open-air architectural exhibition, the 40 buildings welcome 10,000 students representing 140 nationalities every year. Some of the buildings here were designed by renowned architects whilst others are listed or registered as historic monuments. And along rue Nansouty and rue Emile Deutsch-de-la-Meurthe, which border parc Montsouris, walkers will find some delightful narrow streets that make this area of the 14th arrondissement feel like a little piece of paradise.

The shops, restaurants and theatres in arcades and covered passageways have plenty of surprises in store. Aragon wrote: “The modern light of the rare and unusual reigns bizarrely in these kinds of covered arcades disturbingly known as “passages”, as though, in these corridors hidden away from the daylight, no-one were allowed to stop for more than a moment.” Some, such as passage Vivienne and passage Colbert, just a stone’s throw from the Palais Royal, have been displaying their splendour since 1826 in a neighbourhood brimming with history. Others, such as passage Brady, which connects rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis to boulevard de Strasbourg, continue to draw in the crowds. Everything here conjures up the sounds and colours of India and Pakistan. And the spices smell fabulous!

Underground walks are available 20 metres down for those who are tempted to take the plunge into the thrill of subterranean Paris to explore the labyrinth of the catacombs or sewers. Of all the cities in the world, Paris is the one with the largest and best network of sewers to meet hygiene requirements. Their history is as long as it is fascinating. The Musée des Egouts museum of sewers offers visitors the chance to walk through specially designed galleries, moving between the machines and tools of the time.

Venture a little further out than usual, take a look through an iron gate, turn into a dead end... Those with a little romance in their soul will enjoy the greenhouses in Auteuil or the Château de Bagatelle and its magnificent garden. Others will prefer the 13th century crypt in the church of Saint-Sulpice, a popular concert venue. Or perhaps the gorgeous Art nouveau facade on avenue Rapp in the 7th arrondissement, designed by Jules Lavirotte. Not forgetting Paris’s Grand Mosque in the Latin Quarter, close to the Jardin des Plantes botanic garden. The 33-metre high malachite-style minaret dominates the whole building. But magic also has its own museum in the Marais. Animated displays retrace the history of the art of illusion in a maze of vaulted cellars filled with colourful and unusual objects.

What is left of the city’s Gallo-Roman remains today? Until recently the Paris of the Gallo-Roman period was familiar to us through the Arènes de Lutèce amphitheatre and the Cluny thermal baths. Now the archaeologists at the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research have discovered traces of one of the earliest residential neighbourhoods in ancient Lutèce, dating from the 2nd century CE. One of the houses has its own private baths with tiling, an underfloor heating system and wall paintings. The site is close to rue Saint-Jacques, on the plateau of Mount Sainte Geneviève, in the city’s 5th arrondissement. A great way of looking at the French capital in a new light.

• Paris guides on line (site of the Paris Tourism Board):http://www.parisinfo.com/paris-pratique/nos-cityguides-paris
• Paris for you: http://asp.zone-secure.net/v2/index.jsp?id=1203/1515/45846&lng=en

Online 17/09/2014

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