by Marcus Leach
Paris is one of those cities where every known superlative has been used to describe it, and all of the treasures it holds within its mystical streets. It is awash with grand architecture and blessed with enough buildings and monuments to serve two cities, let alone one.
But there is a magic to Paris that goes beyond the obvious; a magic found in quaint side street cafes, in traditional bistros packed full of local gastronomes, in quiet parks away from the hustle and bustle of the tourist attractions and in people for whom this is home. It was with that in mind, and just forty-eight hours in the city, we (I say we as I was travelling with my wife) set out to discover a Paris not seen in the guidebooks and tourist guides.
It helped that this was not our first trip to what is one of Europe's finest cities, and thus there was no fear of missing out on the 'big' tourist attractions. In fact, having seen them all before, we both wanted to see what else Paris had to offer this time, to get a feel of the real Paris, the one seen by those Parisians for whom it is home. I sensed this would be a lot easier given that my wife speaks fluent French, and it was with her linguistic skills and our joint sense of adventure that we set off to discover a different Paris.
Getting There: For someone who is based in London by far the easiest way of getting to Paris is on the Eurostar from King's Cross St Pancras, which is precisely what we did. If you plan your trip carefully, and book in advance, it is possible to get a return for as little as £69. This might not be quite as cheap as certain flights but it is certainly a lot easier than the journey out to one of London's airports, and the subsequent hassle of getting through said airport and onto your flight. And best of all you end up in central Paris when you arrive, not all the way out at Charles de Gaulle Airport, and thus can maximise your time in the city.
Where to Stay: This has to be the first time I have set off on a short break not knowing where I was going to be staying, not at least until we had arrived on French soil and were hurtling along towards Paris. That's because we were using the HotelTonight app, which provides easy mobile bookings at greatly discounted prices so long as you book after 9am on the day you intend to stay at the hotel. Despite a few worried moments where we thought we might not get a hotel, it's a first come first served basis, we ended up with a superb four star luxury boutique hotel in the heart of the Marais district.
Hotel Bourg Tibourg is stylish, classy and very sexy, as one would expect in Paris, yet homely and full of warmth at the same time. The rooms are intimate but make use of what space there is to superb effect, giving the feel of being in a luxurious boudoir. It is impossible not to slip into the feel of the hotel whilst there - when the rest of Paris can be busy and bustling this hotel, and its surrounds, can be calm, quiet and seductive. We paid £143 for the night, but if you are not using the HotelTonight app it will be more in the region of £220.
Getting Around: As with all modern cities these days Paris has a fantastic underground network, The Metro, but hopping on and off all day can be both exhausting and restrictive, given that you can't see the streets above you and can't always get exactly to where you want to be. So, what better way to discover Paris than on a scooter. By hiring a scooter for twenty-four hours we had so much more freedom to get away from the tourist spots and head further afield to discover some hidden gems. Whilst there are any number of companies offering rentals, the guys at Left Bank Scooters offer good quality Vespas at a competitive price and with superb customer service.
What to Do: With the freedom of a scooter we achieved what we set out to do, discover Paris away from the crowds of tourists. Our first stop was Parc des Buttes Chaumont in the city's 19th arrondissement, where there is a waterfall (manmade but lovely nonetheless) and the impressive Temple de la Sibylle, which sits atop the rocky outcrop known as the Île de la Belvédère. It is well worth the walk to get to the Temple, as from here one has great views over the city, and in particular the Sacré Coeur. Full of locals enjoying the summer sunshine we both had a feeling of calm and peace as we strolled around the many paths, which can sometimes be a little misleading but then where is the harm in taking a wrong turn here or there.
A stone's throw from Parc des Buttes Chaumont is the Butte Bergeyre, a quiet hilltop village hidden away from the rest of the city, where one feels so far removed from Paris it is almost like you have been transported out of the city altogether. Whilst the overall views from the Temple de la Sibylle are superior, there is a much better view across to the Sacré Coeur from up in this little village, especially at sunset when it is illuminated by the burnt orange of the setting sun. It is also here where one of the city's last vineyards can be found, not something the average tourist to Paris will get to see.
If like my wife and myself you are content to be a part of the scene rather than trying to see it then Paris is the perfect place to spend a few hours sat at a traditional Parisian cafe watching the world go by. We chanced upon a quaint little cafe in the Marais called L'Etoile Manquante. Situated at an intersection of two bustling side streets from here you can sit back, relax and soak up the atmosphere whilst enjoying a glass of wine and a plate of rillettes or a platter of cheese.
There are any number of markets in Paris, although sadly due to the increase in chain stores and supermarkets not all are quite as majestic as they once were. But there are still a handful that retain some of the old magic, not to mention the fantastic array of fresh produce that one comes to expect from French markets. So why not head down to , get a selection of meats, cheese, some fresh bread and a chilled bottle of rose and head off to Jardin des Tuileries for a picnic in the tranquil surroundings.
No trip to Paris, whether you have been before or not, would be complete without taking in at least some of the main attractions of the city. However, this doesn't mean joining the masses and queuing for hours on end to gain entrance to them. Instead wait until later in the evening, when the skies are dark and the streets a little less busy and head out on a night time sightseeing tour on your scooter (providing you hired one that is). Not only are the attractions crowd-free late at night you get the added bonus of seeing them lit up and looking even more impressive than in the day time. Of course, should you want to go in, or up as is the case with the Eiffel Tower, you will need to join the queues in the day, but for those who are happy to simply see the attractions this is your best bet.
Where to Eat: Paris and food are synonymous with each other, so much so that nearly every street you walk down will have either a traditional Parisian cafe, a boulangiere, or a bistro. As such there are places to cater to all budgets and desires. For us the quest was to find somewhere distinctly French and popular with the locals, which was easily accomplished thanks to our having the scooter. Up in the north-east of the city, situated on a non-descript side road leading from the Rue de Belleville sits La Baratin, something of a Parisian institution.
Simple in approach it serves fantastic hearty French food that would make any Frenchman proud. A starter of veal's tongue with a herb sauce and fresh salad leaves might not be to everybody's taste, but it was delicious. This was followed by a chicken casserole that was bursting with delicate flavours, a dish so good that I could have eaten it three times over. A choice between cheese or panna cota with a summer fruits coulis was a simple one for me, but given my wife doesn't eat goat's cheese I was able to sample both choices. We were the only non-Parisians in the restaurant yet were welcomed with as much warmth as everyone else as we marvelled at the various plates of food that we being brought to the tables around us.
As the late author Margaret Anderson said 'Paris is the city in which one loves to live', and based on the time I had the pleasure of sharing with my wife there I can safely say she was right. Paris is a city where you truly feel alive, it is a city where one can't help but to fall in with the pace and way of life there, that is providing you are prepared to get off the beaten track a little and find the real Paris.