The Rue Less Traveled
Take time to experience the local markets, quaint neighborhoods and quiet side streets of Paris
By Stacey BrandonIt started off like many a tourist's typical first day in Paris: a mad dash to the Eiffel Tower.
You'd have thought we were racing the Tour de France in the final leg, neck and neck with Lance Armstrong, considering the speed at which my husband, Gregg, a first-time visitor to Paris, got us out of the airport, checked into the hotel, and out the door on our way to the iconic monument. We climbed the 674 steps to the second level only to wait in line for nearly an hour to catch a ride on the small glass elevator that ascends to the summit.
Too exhausted to fully enjoy the panoramic view by the time we finally made it to the very top, he asked, "Is this what it's going to be like the whole trip?"
"No... but you are just going to have to trust me," I told him.
Having spent my fair share of time in Paris on previous occasions, I promised to take him on a tour of Paris where we wouldn't have to stand in long lines or crowded elevators. Knowing that he was apprehensive of missing out on the sights and attractions that he had come to expect of this radiant city, I assured him that he would experience the true charm of what makes Paris Paris. For it is the lesser-known sites, the hidden treasures lurking around every corner unbeknownst to the majority of tourists, that epitomize the magic of Paris.
Once he realized that we could not go on a whirlwind sightseeing tour of every major attraction this city has to offer, he decided to trust me in taking the road less traveled. Paris is bursting with nooks and crannies just waiting to be discovered: an old, uneven cobblestone street leading to an unknown destination, a pedestrian-only market street full of mouth-watering delights, or the peace and quiet of a cozy bungalow tucked away in this city of 2 million. Paris is a city of neighborhoods, each with its own undeniable charm.
After our descent from Paris' most famous landmark, I explained to my husband that going off the beaten path would be much more rewarding in a city full of tourists. While the famous landmarks and attractions are a must-see for any first-time visitor, they certainly are not the only thing to see. In a city best known for its impressive museums and towering structures of iron, the real treasure is exploring the undiscovered havens that are symbolic of the quintessential Parisian lifestyle.
Walking back toward our hotel in the seventh arrondissement, we decided to take a detour from the main road that our map suggested. Getting "lost" in Paris is one of the best decisions we made. Travel guides put aside, we wandered the cobblestone streets, arm in arm, and stopped to admire the ornate decorations of the 19th-century buildings and attractive shops with their original painted glass windows illuminated by the setting sun. At a sidewalk cafe, we shared a bottle of wine as we watched the locals stroll by.
Unlike the fast-paced daily life at home in the United States, many Parisians live a more laid-back lifestyle. Most small shops close for several hours in the afternoon as their owners take time to be with their families. Friends meet in cafes, where they greet one another with a kiss on each cheek before sitting down to chat for hours over coffee and cigarettes. Well-dressed businessmen take their shoes off and lay in the grass in a nearby park, truly taking the time to enjoy the views of this breathtaking city. Gregg and I joked that we would never see this back home, where life always seems to be on the go. We felt as though we were living in a dream.
The next morning, we awoke to the smells of fresh pastries, fruits and cheeses on the small market street below us. The Rue Cler, a pedestrian-only street for the past 20 years, is the essence of what Paris is all about. One of the more upscale market streets around, Rue Cler offers all the necessary stops for the perfect picnic. We picked up almond croissants at the corner boulangerie. Across the street, the sweet-smelling raspberries were too tempting to pass up. And a few doors down at the fromagerie, where many of France's celebrated 400 varieties of cheese are brought right out into the street on a canopied cart, we were able to sample a taste before making our decision.
By the time we reached the end of the short four blocks, we had enough food to last the entire day. Unable to wait any longer to taste these sinfully tempting delights, we plopped down on a bench right on the Rue Cler. Other than the occasional "mmmm" or "ahhhh," we ate our picnic in complete silence as we watched an elderly man hobble down the street on his cane and pick up a bouquet of fresh flowers from the corner market. Catching me staring, he tipped his beret in my direction and smiled before going on his way.
Next up, we decided to head over to the Marais district, on a tip from our waiter the night before. Situated between the third and fourth arrondissements, it is one of the oldest quarters in the city. Uninhabitable until the 12th century due to its swamplike conditions, today Le Marais is Paris in all its grandeur: narrow cobblestone streets, trendy boutiques, hip cafes and historic museums. Renovated mansions hide behind massive wrought-iron gates protecting the intricately sculpted courtyards. Every street bursts with splendid color and ornate detail, a photograph begging to be taken around every corner.
Perhaps the real gem in this aristocratic neighborhood is the Place des Vosges. A charming square situated along the rue des Francs-Bourgeois, it was the first planned development in Paris. A perfect square lined with symmetrical brick, the Place des Vosges is not only an architechural masterpiece but also a peaceful retreat in the heart of the city. Shaded by chestnut trees over a sprawling green lawn, it is popular among the locals as a place to lounge in the grass or catch up on a good book. A favorite among mothers and children, shopkeepers on their lunch breaks, or lovers canoodling on a park bench, the Place des Vosges is a perfect example of why taking the road less traveled is the way to go.
It's amazing to find such coziness in the heart of the city. We sat for hours in the crisp green grass, listening to the birds chirp in between sets of the classical string quartet playing in the corridor across the street. The tranquil sights and sounds created a small villagelike atmosphere, so much so that we forgot for a while that we were in one of the world's largest cities. We wondered, perhaps, if this was the very spot where Victor Hugo sat when he dreamed up his great classic, "Les Miserables," which he wrote while living at his home, now a museum, in the southeast corner of this square. Here, it was easy to become spellbound by the Romanticism for which Hugo became famous.
The rest of our trip was spent exploring winding streets and courtyard squares, sipping coffee and eating croissants, meeting locals and engaging in the true Parisian lifestyle. While we did visit a few of the more touristy attractions, the real treasure was uncovering places that no guidebook could lead us to, places we wouldn't be able to find again if we tried. Part of the fun of going off the beaten path was discovering a new culture and a new way of life. It's ironic that we had to travel halfway across the world to step back and slow down. For we realized that at any given time, back home, we could just as easily sit at an outdoor cafe or on a park bench for hours, watching the world go by. But there's just something about Paris that makes you want to stop and smell the roses.
And so, in this great city best known for its impressive monuments and world-renowned museums -- I, I took the road less traveled by, et il a fait toute la difference!
Affordable Paris: Independent tour packages in Paris offer a superb value, combining airfare and hotel accommodations into one price that's paid upfront. Often included are transfers to and from the airport, a half-day sightseeing tour, and access to a local host who can answer questions. Sometimes, passes to museums and for public transportation are also part of the deal. Best of all, you'll have plenty of time to explore the city at your own pace.
To learn more about independent vacations in Paris, as well as escorted tours that visit the City of Light, click a link or call Vacations To Go, (800) 680-2858.
The information in this story was accurate at the time it was published in January/February 2006 . Please visit Vacations To Go or call (800) 680-2858 for current rates and details.