From England to Ecuador and beyond

From England to Ecuador and beyond

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Alternative Paris - 8 ways to stray from the beaten path

Every city is home to some attractions that are indispensable must-sees. With Paris, of course, things like the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame spring to mind - but while even the most offbeat visitor could be forgiven for getting their token selfie with the city's most iconic landmark, why bother ascending to the top when there's a far better and cheaper way to see Paris from above?

To be 100% honest, I've been spectacularly underwhelmed by most of the main tourist attractions in Paris - the Champs Élysées was nice to stroll down but nothing special; the Notre Dame was impressive on the exterior but just like every other Cathedral on the inside (bearing in mind I've never been a church kind of person); and the Louvre was...well, just like I've seen it in pictures.

The two things I was pleasantly surprised by were 1) the Eiffel Tower - not the glorified electricity pylon I expected; instead I was totally psyched when I turned the corner to see it in all its magnificent glory, and standing directly beneath it & looking straight up was a pleasantly dizzying experience. Chilling on the adjoining green with the Tower providing an impressive backdrop is also a must-do. Give your camera a workout by going at sunset - that way you'll capture the city's most recognisable landmark set against a palette of purples and oranges, as well as brightly lit up in a dazzling white as dusk gives way to nightfall.

And 2) Montmartre at night. Boasting the visually stunning Sacre Cour, the Moulin Rouge and the city's red light district, Montmartre (18th arr.) is arguably one of the most touristy districts in Paris. Positively buzzing with swarms of people taking leisurely strolls, dining al fresco and basking in the evening warmth, Montmartre is a honeypot of bright lights, beautiful sights and top notch bites. The hive of activity makes it very safe to saunter through even at midnight - an extra bonus if you're travelling solo. 

Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and I'm sure plenty of people would jump to disagree with what I realise is a stark analysis of one of Europe's favourite cities. Whatever your thoughts on the principal tourist traps, I am a firm believer in going out of your way to discover the unique character of a place by delving into the alternative/underground/local scene just waiting to be tapped into.

So, if you like your cities with a generous helping of quirk, here's how to escape the confines of the tourist trail and enjoy a side of Paris that most visitors will completely miss.

1) Rue Denoyez

Tucked down an inconspicuous side street in Belleville, the incredible street art that flanks Rue Denoyez is not easy to find, but once you do you'll be glad you went to the effort. What used to be a typical Parisian cobblestone path has been claimed by incredibly talented graffiti artists, and it's a joy to behold. With the walls, bins and even the bollards decorated in a quirky fashion - think props as well as paint - the street is awash with colour and exudes a cool, edgy vibe. What's more, there was only one other tourist eagerly snapping away when I rocked up - way to escape the crowds and get some good pics that aren't framed by a random foot or back of a head.

Cost: FREE.
Directions: Alight at the Belleville metro station in the 11th arr. At the crossroads, take Rue du Faubourg du Temple (heading towards Place de la République). Keep an eye out for a tiled red pillar that marks the entrance - it'll be on your left.

2) Père Lachaise Cemetery

Spread over an incredibly vast area in the capital's 20th arr., this sprawling mass of ornate tombs may not radiate happy holiday vibes. However, on a sunny day it's a peaceful haven away from the hubbub of the city, and it's also home to the tomb of Oscar Wilde which makes it worth a visit in itself. Be warned: it's very easy to get lost here. The complex, which houses a chapel and a cemetery along with countless burial chambers, is so big that it's split into avenues. As well as watching out for cars rolling past, visitors are advised to pick up a map before venturing inside, otherwise you might find yourself there longer than you bargained for.

Cost: FREE.
Directions: If you're going with the sole mission of finding Wilde's tomb, use one of the last few entrances on Rue des Rondeaux in the 20th arr., heading towards Avenue Gambetta. There may be a small 'crowd' gathered (there were no more than 10 people when I went), which will put you on the right tracks.

A lipstick mark on Oscar Wilde's tomb

3) Pont St. Louis

When I saw a small bridge outside the Notre Dame Cathedral cluttered with padlocks, I assumed I was at Pont des Arts, the bridge famous for its thousands of 'love locks'. However, I later realised - after using Pont des Arts as my reference point to visit Saint Chapelle and getting hopelessly lost - that this was merely a copycat. The idea is for a couple to write both their names on the padlock, snap it shut then throw the key in the Seine, symbolising everlasting love. Whether the prospect makes you cringe or want to rush out and buy your own padlock, the bridges are quite a sight and with the Notre Dame as a formidable backdrop, Pont St. Louis offers up some epic photo opps.

Cost: FREE.
Directions: Round the back of the Notre Dame, connecting Île St Louis with Île de la Cité. 

4) Montparnasse Tower

Why scale the Eiffel Tower when the view from the top leaves a gaping hole in the skyline - the very structure you've just climbed? Make for Montparnasse Tower instead, where an elevator takes you up to the 56th floor observation deck - it not only provides stunning views of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame at night but is also a cheaper option (14.50 euros for adults or 11.50 if you can blag a student ticket, compared to 21 euros to go up the Eiffel Tower). It's no Empire State Building - for starters, it's nowhere near as high and you enjoy the view from inside the building (tip: the far right-hand corner is the best place to avoid any pesky window reflections) - but it certainly does the job.

NB. Puffing and panting your way up the 300 stairs to the Sacre Cour also provides a decent view of the city - for free! It's not as good as the panorama at Montparnasse but it'll save you a few euros to put in the booze bank later on. Swag.

Cost: 14.50 euros for an adult ticket.
Directions: Hop off the metro at Montparnasse Bienvenue (14/15th arr.) and go up the stairs on your right for the ticket desk.

5) La Petite Ceinture

With its fate left entirely in the hands of time, some sections of the Petite Ceinture - a disused railway running around the city which has been out of service for years - have almost been lost to the grassy shrubs that are slowly staking their claim on this hidden historical treasure. Home to almost 300 species of plants and animal, la Petite Ceinture is the city's very own secret garden, the glorious silence making it the quirky traveller's perfect place for quiet reflection. The splashes of graffiti, barricaded tunnels and padlocked gates along the way give it a bit of a dangerous, forbidden edge - which makes the experience all the more exciting!

Cost: FREE.
Directions: With every result in my Google search for 'La Petite Ceinture entrance' providing a different answer, it took me AGES to find a section of the track open to pedestrians. I was teased with tantalising glimpses and fenced off stairways on Avenue Jean Moulin and Rue des Plantes (14th arr.) and by the time I'd reached the 15th arr., I was about ready to give up. I made my best decision all day and took a rest break in Parc Georges Brassens, where for some reason a super sweet French girl sat on the same bench as a crazed English tourist frantically poring over three different maps and proceeded to give me precise directions to what I'd spent the past two hours searching for - hallelujah! It took just a few minutes to reach Rue Oliver de Serres - then if you're walking from the park go past the Orange building and the staircase and elevator are two streets further up on your right. It can also be accessed via nearby Rue Desnouettes and Rue LeBlanc. While the track runs around the city and can be spotted from various bridges (for example in Parc des Buttes Chaumont), access points to walk along the track are few and far between - a lot of Parisians actually told me it was impossible to do this. 

6) La Promenade Plantée

This elevated pathway above the city bears some similarities to New York's High Line (indeed, la Promenade Plantée was the inspiration behind the redesign of New York's unusual linear park), although being situated slap-bang in the middle of tourist hot spot Bastille, la Promenade Plantée lacks the raw, edgy isolation of NYC's aerial greenway. That's not to say you should forgo it; the Promenade is a nice place for a leisurely stroll on a lazy afternoon, offering a small flower garden, romantic archways carpeted in green and a sizeable park in the middle.

Cost: FREE.
Directions: Leave the metro system at Bastille taking the Opera Bastille exit, and it's a short walk down on your left - look out for a staircase.

7) Quai de la Seine/Loire

On a warm summer's evening, the city's canals are awash with activity. With people chatting, dancing and smoking shisha - not to mention cool al fresco dining areas and even a beach - the quays make perfect people watching spots. Take a book, a friend or a botttle of wine and enjoy a couple of hours away from playing the tourist to chillax canal-side.

Cost: FREE (obv).
Directions: Just like Joseph never said, any quay will do - probably. I just happened to stumble upon these two because they're behind my hostel. Hop off the metro at Jaurès (19th arr.) to people watch the night away. 

8) Quayside salsa

Every evening in the warm summer months under the unassuming Pont de Sully, locals congregate along the canal to get footloose and fancy free. With speakers busting out rhythmic beats and the easygoing, fun loving atmosphere drawing quite a crowd, all you need is a rum-based cocktail and you could easily believe you're in Cuba. Whether you put your dancing shoes on or you're happy spectating, these energetic outdoor parties powered by the city's salsa community are a fabulous and original way to spend a summer night in Paris.

Cost: FREE.
Directions: Jardin/Square Tino-Rossi, under the Pont de Sully (Sully bridge). Leave the metro system at Sully-Morland.

Don't let the dust kicked up from dashing madly between key tourist hot spots shroud the lesser-known gems Paris has to offer. If even just for half a day, put the map down and let your instincts be your guide - you never know what you might discover!