Not So Secret Paris
Are there any secrets left in Paris anymore? With the advent of the Internet, I venture to guess there are far fewer than there used to be. Still, we’d like to share some of our favorite places that most tourists might miss, places of color, quiet, intimacy or sensory delight.
Royal Gardens behind Comedie Francaise
Photo by MoonSoleil, 2007. originally posted to Flickr at http://flickr.com/photos/8027316@N02/803733466 under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Photo edited for clarity.
Have you been to the Palais Royal Gardens? Our daughter tells us that these gardens have recently been inaccessible due to work, but are now open. Compared to the Tuileries, Bois de Boulogne and the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Palais Royal Gardens are intimate, discreet, and even more classically beautiful. The Duchesse of Orléans, sister in law of Louis XIV, had them installed. There is an alley of trees, large rose plantings, and children’s playground, and one may have a little picnic in this “tucked away” corner, across from the Comédie Franćaise. Sit and imagine the royal children playing among the flowers, followed by anxious nannies, and Louis XIV entering the courtyard to visit his sister in law and nieces.
Sunrise on Sacre Coeur
Il y a belle lurette, or a long time ago, one of my French friends, Bénédicte, told me about going to see the sun rise over Paris from Montmartre - Sacré Coeur to be exact. She and her brother ascended the hill in the not so wee hours (the sun rises quite late in Paris in the winter), and watched as the light began to spread over the city. There had been a little bit of snow, and the effect was magical. It was quiet, and still, and there were few people up and around. Afterward, she and her brother found a little café - quite easy in that neighborhood- and warmed up with hot chocolate. It remained one of her favorite memories.
I too can attest to the magic of the stillness as the yellow-pink rays of light advance over the city, lighting it up quartier by quartier. I remember getting up (relatively) early, and climbing up the steps, to see the “rosy fingered dawn.” There’s never been a better description than Homer’s so we’ll leave it at that. It’s as though Paris belongs to you, and only you, when you can take in the sight with solitude. As the sun completed its ascent, we turned to go, and saw a beautiful young woman, in her bathrobe and slippers, hurry across the street to fetch her bread. It’s good to know that Montmartre is still its own little neighborhood, where families live and work, oblivious to the tourists crawling over Sacré Coeur. Fortunately for them and us, certain times of the day remain private and still, if we make the effort to find them.
Swedish House, or Le Café Suédoise
And no, we don’t mean the band! The Swedish Institute in Paris was established in 1971 as a unique cultural center for Swedes abroad. It hosts expositions, concerts, films, theatre and of course, courses in Swedish. Situated in the Marais, its café is a congenial place to meet friends, and offers delicious Swedish tea treats and meals in its folkloric tea room. At Christmas-time, the courtyard is decorated with a huge version of the traditional straw Swedish horse, found on Christmas trees and holiday decor.
You can find the Café in the Hôtel de Marle, at 11 Rue Payenne, in the Marais. Look for the stone courtyard and the blue door. Alternatively, follow the aroma of the fresh Swedish pastries and brioche made by the staff. The café is open Tuesday through Sunday, from noon to six pm.
The Great Mosque of Paris
The Mosque isn’t quite as well kept a secret as it used to be, but it’s an out of the way respite where you will be warmly and graciously welcomed, in an exotic and mysterious atmosphere. Perfect on that rainy Paris afternoon when the streets are gritty and your feet are tired!
The Mosque was founded in 1926, as a token of gratitude, after World War I, to the Muslim tirailleurs from France’s colonial empire, of whom 100,00 died fighting against Germany. And, let’s remember that during World War II (in which France was occupied by Nazi Germany) and The Holocaust, under its rector Si Kaddour Benghabrit, the mosque served as a secret refuge for Jews, being persecuted by the Axis powers, providing them shelter, safe passage, and fake Muslim birth certificates.
Many aspects of the Mosque are open to the public. There is a fabulous restaurant, where you can experience tagines, couscous and pastries. If you want a break, treat yourself to the Salon de Thé, and imagine yourself in a moorish cafe, surrounded by beautiful, intricate tile tables and walls. The waiter will bring you mint tea or coffee, and you can indulge in sweet, flaky North African pastries. The Salon de Thé is open 7 days a week, from 9:00 am to 11:30 pm.
For the more adventurous, the Mosque offers baths for men and women (strictly segregated) and a souk, or bazaar. You can get a full virtual visit at www.la-mosquee.com.
Share your favorite secret spots in France...
À la prochaine,
All photos unless otherwise noted ©Parlez-Vous Provence.