Is backpacking a craze only because it goes light on the pocket? The draw towards this type of travel is much more than the money factor. Even the Frommer’s-packing, Leica-wearing variations of our species overlook some of the most endearing experiences of a place.
A labyrinth of pristine chapels, works of art by Masters, engineering marvels, suave fashion boutiques, fine restaurants and historical landmarks. A turn left off mainstream Paris – for the casual traveler, there would seem little hidden by the mammoth shadows of the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. One could not be more wrong. The whole city is a sight in itself. These are the ones which a frugal traveler always catches.
At Le Grenier à pain
The day starts at around nine in the morning with that delightful Parisian air whiffing up all things pretty. If one closes the eyes and tries to think of Paris and something long and stately that is intrinsically attached to the city, what but naturally comes to mind is the baguette. The deliciously crispy, knobbly and sometimes meter-long loaf that moves around the city’s streets in brown paper bags and gives a stiff fight to the Eiffel Tower as far as recall value goes.
There is a boulangerie or bakery in every nook and corner in Paris. The divine ones, however, are found at Le Grenier à Pain on Rue Abbesses in Village Montmartre. It was the winner of the ‘Grand Prix de la Baguette de Tradition Francaise de la Ville de Paris’. Or simply put, “the best baguette in Paris”. Plagued on most days with serpentine queues but certainly worth the wait. The greatest smelling breakfast – under € 5.
While having that phenomenal breakfast, the next idea that comes along – rediscovering Montmartre on foot. The bohemian lifestyle shines out the best at two of my favourite locales in the neighborhood – Butte Montmartre (or the Mount of Mars) and Montmartre Hills. These are the places where Parisian artists and literary hopefuls (and some subsequent successful ones) thrived in a tax-free air, while Montmartre free-wheeled into decadence. Up came, however, many bars and a lively spirit.
The funicular takes one straight to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica but it pays to keep off the temptation. Hoofing it up the hill has its rewards. A better idea is to go for a guide. A little bit of local help never fails. Oriel Crane is just brilliant, and is commissioned with ‘Paris Walks’.
Village Montemartre turns out to be stalked with artistic intrigues. Bateaue-Lavoir might well be considered the birthplace of Cubism, where the Demoiselles was painted by none other than Picasso. At a small turn in rue des Trois-Freres is D’Avignon, where Amelie Poulain once shopped – the movie poster wrapped around the marche stands as proof. Former residences of Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Renoir too are lined – a little sneak-peek does not hurt. Not far is The Walker Through Walls; so deserving a camera if anything ever did!
And endless array of bistros, cafes and bars dot the tiny road sides. And, of course, at the end of the walk looms the grand Sacré-Cœur Basilica.
All that worthwhile walking – € 12 with Paris Walks.
The Marais District
Perhaps the most endearing neighborhood in Paris, and it does not count as one of the obvious ones. A shame, if you ask me. The Marais Distict is stock full of art stores (some of them quite funky), cafes and fashionable boutiques. The real draw, however, comes in the form of Place des Voges, right in the center of town. By far the oldest planned square in Paris, it is nestled amidst red-brick facades and vaulted arches. At a tiny corner, not far, is Maisons de Victor Hugo – an apartment-museum of the writer; he penned sections of Les Miserables here. The property is rich in artifacts, and opulence shines in the form of the ancient four poster bed among a myriad of other exhibits.
A retreat into Quartier Latin
In Latin Quarter, off Rue Geoffroy Saint Hilaire, is the place to taste the Oriental world amidst the glitter of the City of Lights. Here is the Paris Mosque. While this little sentinel of Arabic architecture and customs is an unlikely attraction by itself, it does not help by just marveling at the white facade with colorful stone ornamentation. Delving inside proves well worth it – a ticket to one of those tales of Arabian Nights that we so loved many moons ago.
The City Lights Books
Right across the Notre Dame and right in Latin Quarter is another legend – not at all religious this time. The City Lights or Shakespeare and Company, has helped blossom Parisian creativity since the ‘50s. This is what we bibliophiles call a Utopian store. Dedicated to the Bard himself, the interiors are sometimes apothecary and sometimes boudoir. A walk through those legendary green doors and we are inside a haven – creaky staircase, portraits of Shakespeare, old fading posters, and red-velvet plump chairs. And of course, titles; from the regulars to some unimaginable and priceless manuscripts tucked away in every possible corner.
The fragrances of Marche Aux Fleurs
Paris is a place which absolutely rides on cliches. Nonetheless, if cliches could ever be desirable, they are so in Paris. After art and books, it is the flowers. Marche Aux Fleurs, an ancient flower market that has been doing a remarkable job of perfuming Ile de la Cite for over two centuries. Riot of colours if there ever was one. Walking among the glass and the myriad of greens, reds, and you-name-its; it is a beautiful experience. Not just the flowers – sometimes musky and often heady aromas from those exotic fruits too. On Sundays, the petals are replaced by feathers; birds, and the likes. Cost – free.
A Saint Germain Dinner
Time to go to the Siene river. Walking past the banks, one cannot help notice the many tiny bookstores that dot the embankment. There is perhaps no other place than Paris where once small-time cafes, which were visited by literary gods, are ultimately elevated to the status equal to National Monuments. At the corner of Sain Germain des Pres are three of the great establishments that delve in gastronomical extravaganza – Cafe de Flore, Deux-Magots and Brasserie Lipp. Pick one; which one does not matter, they say. The cafes have classic black-boards outside with the menus on it. The most heavenly sandwich is called for. Dinner’s for €7.50
Café de Flore (Source: DarkB4Dawn)
The Seine River Cruise
San Francisco has the cable cars, Vietnam those wacko looking hats. Paris, it’s difficult to start. Considering the lazy after-dinner time, legs tired from the walks, the mind saturated with unbridled art, architecture, literature and gastronomic exposure, the thing that comes to mind is a boat-ride. There’s something about these that is beyond loveliness, more like a phenomena; be it here on the Seine or the Boshphorus.
There are as many as 37 bridges across the river and you may traverse from under them in many types of boats – from the glass encased uber (best keep out the German lingo while in Paris) luxurious rides, or the open and breezy versions. The batraux-mouches are a prime choice; popular and charming. Alternatively, there are the simpler hop-on and hop-off options. It pays to keep a look out for a very special bridge – the Pont Alexandre III. Ornamented with art-nouveau lamps, sylvan nymphs, and griffins, it does stand out. Pont-Neuf, the oldest bridge over the river, looks to be equally enchanting. A ride at € 11