Unusual tours give view of Paris’ hidden corners
August 17, 2009 ·
You’ve posed for a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, checked out the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and walked to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. If you think you’ve done it all in Paris, don’t worry, there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path adventures for your return.
Away from landmarks, tourist crowds and flashing cameras, a few guides will take you on unusual tours behind the scenes, literally, in a movie tour, or to discover artists’ havens in Belleville, fountains of famous gardens and eco-friendly initiatives around town. Alongside curious locals, you’ll get a glimpse of a different Paris.
MEET THE ARTISTS AND RESIDENTS: http://www.paris-prm.com, $17 (12 euros), offered several times weekly.
Just a few metro stops away from the city’s major monuments lies an overlooked neighborhood that’s worth the detour, especially in the company of Angenic Agnero, who runs the nonprofit organization Paris par Rues Meconnues (Paris Along Unknown Streets).
Agnero has been walking the streets of the neighborhood for 10 years interviewing its residents. She now holds the keys — or rather the door codes — to many buildings, allowing visitors to discover a hidden side of the area. Walking up narrow streets, Agnero reveals flowery inner courtyards concealing old sculptures, where artist installations and murals have been added. Once the door closes, it’s easy to imagine you’re miles away from Paris, in the quiet countryside.
Although unknown by many, Belleville has had its share of fame. “La vie en rose” singer Edith Piaf reportedly started her career here singing in the streets. Olivier Dahan’s 2007 film “La Vie en Rose” with French actress Marion Cotillard tells the story of the poor girl who became the country’s biggest star. Many years before her, a young boy chased a balloon through the cobbled streets in the 1950s movie “The Red Balloon.”
Working-class Belleville is now home to many of Paris’ ceramists, mosaic artists and various artisans. Instead of lecturing on the area’s long history, Agnero introduces you to her friends and shares stories, including one about a man who traveled to France by boat illegally and named his bar Le Petit Navire (the small boat) to show his gratitude. While you’re here, pick up locally made hats, gifts and made-to-measure leather shoes.
WATER TOUR: http://www.pavillondeleau.fr, $7 or 5 euros, offered several times per week. Each tour departs from a different area.
A knowledgeable guide takes small groups on a walk through a chosen neighborhood focusing on water. Although not obvious at first, the water theme is present everywhere around the Jardin des Tuileries, designed by Andre Le Notre, a landscape architect, in the 17th century.
Here, artists made rivers come to life through sculptures. The Loire and the Loiret Rivers become a man and a woman.
“Water has always been a problem,” said guide Hugues Meles, explaining that although the Seine river provided plenty of water, it was also used as a sewer and unsafe to drink.
In 1807, there were only 56 fountains for approximately 647,000 inhabitants. Napoleon built the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Canal St. Martin in 1808, following advice that in order to make Parisians happy, you’d have to give them water.
Outside the garden’s walls, as if laid out on a map, eight statues represent the largest harbor cities in France. Marseille is a woman with grape headgear sitting on a boat, holding an olive tree branch, a symbol of peace and the Mediterranean.
At Place de la Concorde, Meles tells you about the obelisk — a present to Paris from Egypt — and the two fountains that surround it.