A “usual” exploration of Paris would demand visits to the historic Eiffel Tower, the art-filled Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, the iconic churches Notre Dame and Sacré-Coeur, and the shop-lined avenues such as Champs-Élysées and Rue Saint-Honoré.
It might also be filled with tastings of exquisite French wines and scrumptious foie gras, cheese or pastries in famed restaurants or trendy cafés, where jostling in lengthy lines is to be expected and reservations are not.
My pre-pandemic visit to the City of Light was far from usual, however. I had broken my shoulder and underwent surgery, which caused the cancellation of trips to Quebec Provence in Canada and Vail, Colorado. But I would be damned if I would nix this getaway to Paris with my husband, Tom, who would be making his first visit, in spring no less. I couldn’t wait to introduce him.
Ever the loving spouse, he lobbied to postpone our travel, to give me more time to recover. I won that war of wills, but conceded that we’d skip the top attractions and walk wherever possible to avoid crowds. It wasn’t much of a concession; I’d learned long ago that walking and immersing oneself in a destination’s day-to-day community life results in the best memories.
I had my angst. Still tender, swollen and bruised from surgery, I feared being elbowed in a crowd or falling. So I took a few simple precautions to assuage my concerns. I booked an airport wheelchair and a car service from the Charles de Gaulle Airport to our lodging. A one-bedroom rental apartment in the 5th arrondissement, the famed Latin Quarter, on the river Seine’s left bank put the best of Paris within easy reach. And thanks to the apartment building’s tiny elevator, we escaped hauling luggage to the second floor.
We set one or two major ground rules for venturing out: No standing in lines and no visiting crowded venues in order to avoid accidental bumps or brushes against my shoulder that would cause pain or worse. No Louvre, no Notre Dame or even use of the crowded Métro subway for us. Instead, we favored quieter byways and less congested streets. We ducked into inviting galleries, small museums and tucked-away cafés, and detoured into nooks, crannies and alleys in whatever neighborhood we might be. We covered 3 to 8 miles every day during our six-day stay, rarely taking a direct route. We began each day with a rough plan, but spontaneity and serendipity invariably won out, with our daily paths resembling a child’s scribbles on a map.
Even before we began our exploring, the memory-collecting commenced when we stepped into history during a stock-the-kitchen shopping trip on Rue Mouffetard, one of the city’s oldest streets, a few blocks from our apartment. Romans marched along La Mouffe, as locals call it, and its street scenes inspired novelists Honoré de Balzac, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, as well as renowned street photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. Centuries-old houses, cafés, greengrocers, meat and fish shops, bakeries and other delicious finds line this narrow, cobbled pedestrian street, and the lower part doubles as a market. It’s not only an immersion into history but also into daily city life. We overheard little English and relied on my rusty French, facial expressions and gesturing to purchase fresh greens, cheese, charcuterie, a baguette, chocolate and a bottle of wine.
We began our actual exploring even closer to home at the Jardin des Plantes, the main botanical garden in France, across the street from our apartment. Founded in 1653 as a royal garden of medicinal plants, this garden wasn’t even on our radar until we passed through the gate. Our early spring visit coincided with orange, gold and white poppies and purple and white pansies blooming in seasonal beds, and the gentle scents of pink and white cherry tree blossoms dancing on the breeze. We shared wide paths with joggers, families ambling with strollers, entwined couples promenading and businesspeople striding with purpose.
The Grand Mosque of Paris, also steps from our apartment, rewarded us with the unexpected, too. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, the Muslim community sheltered Jews, Allied airmen, Resistance fighters and escaped prisoners of war in its subterranean passages. The tea salon at this still-active mosque became our regular place not only for the Turkish coffee, mint tea and scrumptious Middle Eastern pastries, but also for the authentic North African décor. Indoors we sat at copper tables surrounded by colorful mosaics and tiles and carved woodwork; outside at blue-tiled tables under olive trees in the courtyard.
Unexpected finds in churches
As I gained confidence in sharing sidewalks with others, our trips radiated outward. My love of old churches steered us into many, and serendipity rewarded us again and again. While weaving through the narrow streets on the island Île Saint-Louis, we were charmed by a piano concert we chanced upon in Église Saint-Louis-en-’Île. As if the music wasn’t pleasing enough, this church that dates from 1664 also houses fine paintings.
Another day, following whim and whimsy in the 6th arrondissement, we came upon the Baroque-style Église Saint-Sulpice, where the Marquis de Sade was baptized and Victor Hugo wed Adèle Fouché. Second only to Notre Dame in size, it was built in the 17th century over the foundations of a 12th-century church. Among the prizes we discovered within: three huge murals painted by Eugène Delacroix and its 7,000-pipe organ, which an organ lesson brought to life during our visit. The music swelled over the murmurs of visitors, filling every crevice in the church and reverberating in my soul.
Inexpensive restaurants and souvenir shops draw many to touristy Rue Saint Séverin in the Latin Quarter, another ancient yet still vibrant street. Few detour into its namesake, Église Saint-Séverin, one of the Left Bank’s oldest churches, but we did. Local history holds that in the 6th century, an oratory was constructed over the tomb of Séverin, a hermit monk. The current building dates from the 11th century, with flamboyant Gothic elements — flying buttresses! gargoyles! — added in the 15th century. A laminated guide introduced us to the church’s other notable features, including three 14th-century stained-glass windows. We also learned that the first kidney stone surgery took place here, in January 1474. Louis XI promised to release the patient, a prisoner condemned to death, if the surgery proved successful, which it did.
My favorite surprise came at the Romanesque-style Church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, founded by King Childebert in 542 and later enhanced with Gothic additions. The melodic tones of Gregorian chanting welcomed us inside. While admiring the striking murals, paintings and stained-glass windows, I followed the chanting deeper and deeper into the church until I came upon a small choral group rehearsing. Hearing this ancient form of music in an equally ancient church with remarkable acoustics brought heaven to earth.
Much more rambling
Our rambles included small museums and galleries, too. We bridged strolls through the Tuileries Gardens and along Champs-Élysées with a visit to Musée de l’Orangerie to view Monet’s Water Lilies and works by other Impressionist masters. Indulging Tom’s love of photography, we visited the Henri Cartier-Bresson Foundation photography museum, the European House of Photography, La Hune gallery and the Polka Gallery.
In the 12th arrondissement, we happened upon the Promenade Plantée. Built in the mid-19th century, the Bastille viaduct supported a railway until the mid-20th century. In the 1990s, visionaries converted it to an elevated greenway with pocket gardens of lush shrubbery and vines, trees, flowering plants, trellises and pools. The original arched brick vaults supporting this linear park now house galleries, studios and restaurants. We explored both above and below, playing an elevators-and-stairways version of Chutes and Ladders to connect them.
Although I knew Georges-Eugène Haussmann masterminded contemporary Paris, I didn’t know much about him — until we walked by the Pavillon de l’Arsenal in the 4th arrondissement. A sign outside promoted a free exposition covering the history of Paris as told through its landscape design and architecture. Enticed, we entered for a peek but stayed for more than an hour, fascinated by an exhibit explaining how Haussmann redesigned Paris during his 1853-1870 tenure as Prefect for the Seine under Emperor Napoleon III.
Of course, we also nibbled, noshed and sipped our way through the city. We took tea at a Mariage Frères tea salon; twice prayed at the temple of Angelina Paris, home of the richest, thickest and creamiest hot chocolate; and purchased sweets at Le Bonbon au Palais, which specializes in candies from throughout France. Our stop doubled as a geography lesson, with signs identifying where each candy originated and a wall map making it easy to match the location.
These days, when we recall our trip, we joke that we’ll always have Paris, just not Bucket-Trip Paris. Rather, it’s our own Paris, an unexpected one. My broken shoulder didn’t put the kibosh on our trip. Instead, it changed the way we traveled, opening our eyes to another side of the city that so many other visitors never see.
Maine-based Hilary Nangle is the author of three Moon series guidebooks to her home state and contributes to the Boston Globe, National Geographic Traveler and Yankee.
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