Paris’ hidden side offer plenty of delights

Lara Baxter

Paris-Marie-Antoinette-HamletThe noise of the busy street fades as I shut the thick wooden door behind me, entering a crumbling old Roman amphitheatre in the Latin Quarter that’s overgrown with weeds.

Children play soccer in the open area, kicking up fine yellow dust.

High-rise offices and residential apartments tower over this once majestic building, yet it still manages to retain its awe-inspiring atmosphere.

Even though it’s just a few kilometres south of the famous Notre Dame cathedral, there are no crowds, no entry fees and no tourist buses.

It’s quiet and peaceful and it’s a side of Paris that many tourists never see.

According to the Paris Convention of Visitor Bureau, Paris is the world’s number one tourist destination, with 27 million visitors each year.

Which comes as no surprise.

Paris offers more than 970 art galleries, 143 museums, 463 parks and gardens, 17,500 shops and more than 1800 historical monuments or buildings, promoting itself as the arts capital of the world.

When I first decided to take a four-day trip to Paris while visiting family in Germany, I immediately thought of the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge and art museums like the Louvre.

But it was when I found myself a bit strapped for cash and therefore having to walk everywhere, that I discovered a whole new side to Paris I never dreamed existed.

On my first afternoon in Paris, I slipped on my trusty thongs and headed out from my tiny backpacker hostel to visit a nearby monument, the Place de la Bastille.

The monument is a symbol of the French Revolution, as well as the location where many executions by guillotine took place.

On my way there, I followed a nearby canal as it weaves through the de l’Entrepôt district.

An older man sits in the sunlight at the water’s edge, playing with a remote control sailboat.

In a park a group of young men lift weights, while across the road teenagers play basketball and skateboard.

Laughter floats across the canal from a small dingy shack on the waterfront, which serves as a pub.

I pass small groups of young people sitting along the canal edge, smoking and talking.

In another park, under a canopy of roses, older men play Pétanque, a French game similar to bowls.

I sit on a bench, facing the canal and eat a croissant.

I never make it to the Bastille.

In 2012, 45.3 million people visited various cultural sites in Paris.

Among the top five sites visited were Notre Dame Cathedral, the Sacré Coeur Basilica, the Louvre Museum, the Eiffel Tower and the Centre Georges Pompidou Museum.

I walk to all but Sacré Coeur in one day.

On my way back from the Louvre museum I get hopelessly lost, finding myself in the vibrant, noisy and colourful suburb of Sentier.

There’s not a tourist to be seen.

Black mannequins line the storefronts, displaying exotic clothing in bright reds and yellows.

Men with dreadlocks stroll through laneways, smoke is thick in the air and Rastafarian music underscored by drums drifts from cafes onto the street.

I order a hot chocolate and a raisin pastry from an arty cafe for half the price of those found outside the Louvre.

Later I Google Map my journey.

It’s 15km in total.

The next day I visit the more well-known suburb of Montmartre.

Here, the Sacré Coeur Basilica dominates the city from its perch atop one of Paris’ highest hills.

Nestled at its base is the Moulin Rouge, enticing revellers with its bright lights, feathers, glitter and exotic can-can dancers.

But just 100 metres away from the glitz and glamour I discover the Moulin Rouge’s darker side.

Dark, dingy apartments line the streets and men with shaved heads and sunglasses guard dimly lit doorways.

I feel unsafe and quickly move on.

It’s not until I’m back in Australia that I find out I have been walking through Paris’ prostitution area.

But things quickly improve.

Just a bit further on under a bridge I find a flea market in full swing.

Large groups of Parisians stand around sheets that have been spread out on the ground to display a variety of wares.

People shout over each other as they bargain and I buy some unique clothing and jewellery for a bargain price.

The next day, I take the Metro to Chateau Versailles, one of the most prestigious castles in the world.

Once the seat of the French royal court and government, the castle’s architecture has been recreated in castles around the world.

The inside of the palace is packed with tourists admiring the golden carvings, the heavy brocade fabric on the furniture and the ornate paintings.

A star attraction is Marie-Antoinette’s room, one of France’s most hated queens who reigned from 1774 to 1792 and was executed in 1793.

At the palace tourists can see the hidden door where she escaped during the revolution.

But it’s actually in Queen’s Hamlet, rather than the palace, that Marie-Antoinette spent much of her time.

It starts raining as I walk to the right of the palace, past immaculately trimmed hedges and later paddocks with horses and sheep.

An hour later when I reach the Hamlet the rain is bucketing down and there’s not a soul to be seen.

It’s a peaceful place, where Marie-Antoinette tried to recreate what she imagined to be a peasant life, in the last few years of her reign as queen, before her execution.

The buildings are made of clay and straw, and pink roses grow, clinging to the buildings.

Like most other places in Paris, it’s worth the walk to get there.

It’s perhaps no surprise that on my last day I find myself gazing up at the imposing stone walls of Notre Dame Cathedral.

After all, it is Paris’ number one tourist destination.

The Cathedral is the symbolic heart of Paris, with all road distances in France being measured from a point on the structure’s forecourt.

Built in the Middle Ages between the 14th and the 16th century, the Cathedral is the epitome of Gothic architecture, complete with 13-metre diameter stained-glass rose windows.

The cathedral is packed with so many tourists when I arrive that it’s almost impossible to move.

So I’m surprised when I go outside and see the line to climb one of the Notre Dame towers is so small.

But then I find out they only take 20 people up every 30 minutes and that the street where the line is acts like a wind tunnel.

I have to buy an overpriced jacket from a nearby tourist stand to combat the weather.

But, eventually it’s my turn to climb the small, spiralling stone staircase and when I finally get to the top I discover the wait is worth it, because the view is breathtaking.

Paris is spread out before me and Gothic chimera statutes gaze pensively at the horizon.

Nearby is the great Emmanuel bell, the bell from Victor Hugo’s famous book, The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Hundreds of metres below me I can trace everywhere where I’ve walked.

Eventually, I make my way back down to the crowded touristy streets.

As I begin my walk back home, I feel something strange on the sole of my feet.

I look down.

There are holes in my thongs.

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