Insider’s guide to Paris — top ten quirky day-trips
(Published in The Malay Mail on 2 June 2014)
Paris is the hottest holiday destination on the planet, welcoming more than 30 million visitors a year who come to bask in everything the City of Light has to offer.
I’ve crossed off some of the 59 monuments listed in my Paris Museum Pass booklet over the past year, but I’ve still a long way to go. And what knowledge I’ve acquired has just been put to the test: an American client of my husband has asked for advice on “off the beaten track adventures” for his family’s trip to Paris this summer. No pressure … but clearly I’m going to have to rise above the usual foolproof recommendations of the Tour Eiffel, Louvre (to see the Moaning Lisa, as my kids call her), La Sacré Coeur and the Notre Dame.
So, with a little digging, and some ‘obligatory’ trips to the latest, shiniest of exhibitions that have opened for l’été, here’s my top ten alternative hit list for enjoying the most beautiful city in Europe:
1. Musée du Quai Branly
America’s tattoo artist Ed Hardy flew to Paris for May’s opening of a funky new exhibition called “Tattoo”. It showcases an extensive collection of photographs, tribal masks and curious art works — like the remains of Ötzi, a tattooed Neolithic iceman found in the Alps in 1991, and 2000-year-old Egyptian mummies tattooed with mythical creatures. This spellbinding exhibition shows how ink-on-skin pictorials were used as statements of protest, culture, beauty, religion, death and politics through the ages and indeed nowadays, where tattoos have become mainstream. Runs through to 18 October.
2. Musée Rodin
Join ‘The Thinker’, Rodin’s trademark sculpture, to ponder life’s mysteries among the fragrant rosebushes before heading to enjoy an interesting narrative created by the museum’s new exhibition ‘Mapplethorpe/Rodin’. It neatly juxtaposes American artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s (1946-1989) famed black and white nude photography with sensual works created the renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). Runs through to 21 September.
3. Musée Gustave Moreau & Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature
Mega-museums like the Louvre can be overwhelming. Sometimes, it feels right to go small, and these two petit museums offer a more personal and atmospheric experience. Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau (1826-1898), known for his vivid works depicting biblical and mythological scenes, started turning his own home into a museum in his mid-thirties. I love the ringlet-like staircase that leads to Moreau’s bedroom, where his collection of family portraits, one by Edgar Degas, bring the walls to life.
Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (hunting and nature museum) is fabulous for touchy-feely kids. Mine loved opening drawers to discover what wolf poo looks like, admiring Napolean I’s rifle, a ceiling created by a dozen owl pelts and striking poses with stuffed polar bears, lions and gorillas. Totally politically-incorrect, and at times, a little gross. As I said, it’s ideal for kids.
4. Canal Saint-Martin
You can do the usual River Seine Batobus tour along with a zillion other tourists, but I’ve been told the offbeat boat ride on Canal St. Martin, part of which runs underground, is way better. Its 4.5 km stretch — opened in 1825 as a means of providing fresh water to the city’s growing population — is a firm favourite for novelists, film directors (notable films include Amélie and Hôtel du Nord) and singers (gravelly Edith Piaf sings about the canal in “Les mômes de la cloche”).
5. Picpus Cemetery & Paris’ eerie catacombs
There’s much to be learned about a city by lingering a few hours in its past. That’s why a visit to Paris’ more unusual burial grounds hits my list: Picpus Cemetery is the city’s largest private cemetery and holds the remains of 100s of French aristocrats and tombs of Paris’ notables guillotined during the French Revolution (1789-1799) and The Terror, an era of pure bloody violence post Revolution.
The Catacombs of Paris, or the ‘Empire of Death’ as inscribed in its stone entrance, were built back in late 18th century. Millions of skulls, bones and rotting corpses were transported in carts under the cloak of darkness from unsanitary city cemeteries to their new designated resting place. King Charles X apparently threw wild parties among the skull-walls, and the French resistance made it their spooky headquarters during WWII.
6. Musee Martmottan
Created in the 19th century by art historian Paul Martmottan, this museum holds the largest collection of works by France’s best known impressionist Claude Monet — including part of his own personal art collection bequeathed by his son and a family friend. Better still, there is an excellent exhibition currently running until 6 July entitled ‘les Impressionnistes en privé’ which contains many never-before-exhibited impressionist paintings.
When in Paris, do what the locals do. And I am reliably informed by walking tours veteran Maggie Rossi that this hilly park, while a little out of the way, is the place to be if you want: “A relaxing day spent with local Parisians” as opposed to the likes of tourist-ville Jardin du Luxembourg and Bois de Boulogne. This charming park has a lake, waterfalls, a Roman-style temple and plenty of shady trees.
8. Shopping LUXE style
There’s more to shopping than Galerie Lafayette, and I have no qualms in handing you over to my funny, yet glam, pocket-sized companion — LUXE PARIS — for the sharpest, and most eclectic, of shopping itineraries.
9. Palais Garnier (Opéra de Paris)
“Very cool”: a trip to Paris’ famed opera house. Tours are led by English speaking former ballet performers (Palais Garnier is now mainly used for ballet, the newer Opéra Bastille for opera) who are intimately acquainted with its opulent architecture — don’t miss the Marc Chagall painted ceiling — and history (used as the setting for ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ novel, film and subsequent Andrew Lloyd Webber musical).
10. Jardin des Plantes Quarter
A little more mainstream than the rest, but it sneaks onto the list because the gardens are quite spectacular in the summer months and unusually, you can hit three Parisian attractions in one day. ‘Jardin des Plantes‘ was created in 1626 when King Louis XIII asked his two physicians to establish a royal medicinal herb garden. Now France’s largest botanical garden, it is also home to France’s oldest Ménagerie (zoo), certain to captive children and adults alike with its impressive collection of exotic animals including Chinese panthers, Seychelles giant tortoise and red pandas.
If you have time, nip into the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle also situated in the gardens. The museum’s highlight is the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution.
Still with me? Then, my final advice to round off your newly found insider-knowledge, is to skip a trip to the expensive Moulin Rouge cabaret and head for supper at the super hip Hotel Costes. Its cavernous, velvety-red rooms are also the secret haunt of many a ‘mainstream’ celeb (Owen Wilson, the Kardashians), and, quite possibly, ‘alternative’ starlets too.
Other usefuls: Dr. Kelly Spearman (a highly recommended English speaking art historian/experienced walking tour guide)
Check websites/call ahead to avoid disappointment in accessing some of the smaller museums/Picpus as hours can be erratic.