Gay Paree. City of Love. Existentialist Centre of the World. Paris is renowned for so many things, but when asked what I wanted to do when there on a flying visit to see friends, I actually had no idea. What I knew was that I didn’t want to see the Louvre, nor the Arc de Triomphe. What I knew was that if you’ve seen one Champs Élysées, you’ve seen them all. I didn’t have much interest, either, in buying a little gold painted key ring of the Eiffel Tower.
Image: Paul via Flickr
No, I was going to find the real Paris. Except that not having ever really looked at a map of Paris I wasn’t entirely sure exactly where the real Paris was located. Perhaps it is on one of the grimy metro platforms, or in the overpriced connection bus from Orly Airport. Perhaps it is in the mulled wine from a Christmas market that bizarrely makes you feel so thoroughly tipsy after one sip that you have to have a little sit down in some kid’s playground near the Centre Pompidou.
Or, perhaps the only way to find the real Paris is to get a tour from those in the know, and that have the good fortune of residing in the centre of town.
The 11th Arrondissement
Staying with friends who know the city well turns Paris from a stressful, ‘musée fatiguee’ experience into a delightful hidden city of little dusty shops, traditional yet undiscovered and non-traditional and a bit less undiscovered little restaurants, intriguing bars, delightful cobbled streets and, bizarrely, a lot of dead things.
I was staying near Place de la Bastille, in the 11th, a quiet area of narrow cobbled streets, independent shops and very Parisian cafés. This arrondissement is tipped to be ‘the new Left Bank’. Many, in fact, describe it as Paris’ answer to Shoreditch, only I would say its better, primarily because it has more croissants.
Image: JSquish via Wikimedia Commons
Our first morning was spent simply wandering, and thank God we did because this enabled us, en route from Bastille to République, moving gradually from the 11th into the 10th, to stumble across the most extensive network of taxidermy shops in any city in the world. Leaving a main road in this area is apparently akin to stepping straight through The Leaky Cauldron into Diagon Alley. I saw stuffed beetles, stuffed deer, stuffed sheep, stuffed spiders, stuffed “insert inexplicable animal name here” and, most horrendously, a stuffed cormorant. I despise cormorants, and all birds come to that, but because we were in Paris, and Paris is the city of love, I tried my utmost not to despise this one.
Image: © Andrew Quigley
Père Lachaise Cemetery
As if all that taxidermy wasn’t enough, we chose, on our second day, to visit the giant Père Lachaise cemetery, mainly because my companion had never been, despite having lived in Paris previously, and I, obviously, had never been, simply because I had never before sought out the real (dead?) Paris. Père Lachaise Cemetery contains the bodies of a considerable number of celebrity deceased, boasting such names as Bizet, Balzac and Bourdieu and many other famous people whose names did not commence with the letter ‘B’.
Image: extranoise via Flickr
Not actually realizing, at first, that I was trampling over the bodies of some of my favourite composers and authors lying in their icy tombs, I was able to appreciate the graveyard as a work of art in itself. Rows and rows, streets and boulevards, indeed, vast highways, of elegant, ornate, ominous tombs, which crisscross and sprawl over the vast plot of land on which the cemetery is situated, in Paris’s 20th arrondissement, a leisurely 25 minute stroll from Bastille. Some tombs are huge and ornate, the product of years, perhaps centuries, of family savings. Many families have purchased a plot forever, “à perpetuité,” because death, after all, is timeless.
I saw Oscar Wilde, and his tomb complete with a spattering of lipstick kisses, and I saw Chopin, because Chopin is great and I felt I should pay my respects. I also saw Claude Chabrol, a film director, but it is fast becoming apparent that I am the only person who knows who he is so I wont dwell on the matter. And the whole experience was pleasant, calming and humbling, and proves that death, when in the city of love, can be lovely.
Image: © Andrew Quigley
Eating in Paris
Of course, a visit to Paris would not be complete if I didn’t eat anything (read: everything) and, desperate to avoid an overpriced tourist targeted steak haché, I relied on those in the know to direct me to the best eateries around. Being in a somewhat ‘trendy’ area, it felt only right that we ate in a somewhat ‘trendy’ place, a curious little vegetarian brunch spot in the 10th, called Tuck Shop.
My wariness at eating in a vegetarian restaurant in the most vegetarian unfriendly country in the world was unfounded and it was literally a feast not only for the eyes, but for the mouth too. For 12 euros I enjoyed a Croque Madame with a difference, a delightful parcel of egg, cheese, avocado and potato, accompanied by a silky smooth cappuccino, a pineapple and mint smoothie that made me momentarily believe I was a lot healthier than I am, and a huge cookie for pudding.
I swore to only consume eggs and avocados for the rest of my life, an oath I maintained until my next croissant. Service is quick and attentive and an Australian runs the restaurant, so service is carried out accordingly, that is, with a smile. When the Antipodes meet France, you know you are on to a winner.
Canal Saint Martin
We could, equally, have eaten in the remarkable sensory, surreal experience, which is Le Comptoir Général. Entering through an unassuming, graffiti covered gateway by Canal Saint-Martin brought us to something resembling a bizarre mix of Hogwarts, Northumberland’s Beamish Museum, and a rainforest. It is an obscure old fashioned, arty, family oriented type place, which is an all day, easy going bar cum dining room cum museum cum shop cum exhibition space with a noticeable amount of flora and (dead) fauna scattered around.
Dusty, musty and delightful, families were enjoying cheap and tasty food alongside young people chatting over coffee and early starters (or perhaps mild alcoholics) enjoying a cold beer in one of the many big and archaic rooms, decorated with blasts from the past.
Image: vladislav.bezrukov via Flickr
Did I find the real Paris? I am inclined to believe I did. The real Paris does not consist of Louvres and and Arc de Triomphes and gold Eiffel Tower key rings. Inevitably, the real Paris consists of urine smelling streets, a horrendously organized metro, too many people to contemplate and a ridiculous lack of lifts in apartment buildings.
But, fortunately, the real Paris also consists of haunting taxidermy, dust, Ollivander’s Wand Shop-esque antique stores, beautiful graveyards, picturesque cobbled streets, dead Chopin and delightful food. Whether or not it is the city of love, you cannot help but fall in love with the city.
Image: © Andrew Quigley
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