First published on 6 June 2023 in Bonjour Paris
I’ve now lived in Paris for 32 years and, like most expatriate residents, I have a recurring problem: what to do with family and friends when they come to visit?
Of course I can always turn them loose to visit the city’s famous sights, but what if they’ve already seen them? Current exhibitions are only part of the answer, as I baulk at sending them to join long queues or worse still, having to queue with them. Ideally I want to take them somewhere authentically Parisian that most tourists won’t know about and to share with them the sense of discovery that is one of the great rewards of travel. So I have found that the best solution is to show them surprising little-known places I’ve recently discovered.
My latest find is at no. 55 bis Rue des Francs Bourgeois in the Marais, a street I have walked down hundreds of times. Last year I noticed a small gateway which I hadn’t seen before and on impulse went inside.
The entrance led past a tower, the massive base of which turned out to be an astonishing remnant of the 12th century city wall built by Philippe Auguste. Next to the tower was a pillar, an elegant fragment from the 17th century Hotel de Nouvion which once stood here, set on an earlier base with the date 1577 carved into it. The tower is at the corner of a hidden courtyard, with a café inside it, which was closed. I made a mental note to go back and try the café, but of course I never did.
Last week, walking down the same street, I saw a sign for ‘Crédit Muncipal’ above another, larger gateway. I assumed it led to a boring bank but went through it, past the security guards into a courtyard. There I read the fascinating history of the ‘Mont-de-Piété’, founded in 1637 as a sort of People’s Pawnbroker, offering credit at reasonable rates for objects deposited. The ‘Crédit Municipal de Paris’, owned by the city, is its direct descendant and operates on similar lines to this day, at the same spot. Then I noticed an archway at the side which looked vaguely familiar. It led into the courtyard with the tower and hidden café which I had found a year earlier.
This time I made a note of the address of the café which is opposite the forbidding-looking entrance to the ‘Archives Nationales’. Reflecting that I had never set foot inside that building either, and with a family visit looming, I went inside, expecting to find that it wasn’t open to the public.
But the immense circular courtyard led to a staggering building, the 17th century Hotel de Soubise, once the home of the powerful Guise family and now the repository of the nation’s most precious archives. It houses a museum with ‘Entrée gratuite’ encouragingly written over the entrance.
I climbed the grand staircase to the first floor to see the special exhibition about the royal family’s confinement in the Tuileries 1789-1792 and ended up losing all sense of time as I read the secret correspondence between Marie-Antoinette and her lover, the Swedish count Axel von Fersen, who arranged the doomed flight of the royal family to Varennes in 1791.
The letters were written in French in a code that has only recently been cracked, although some phrases which Fersen had carefully blacked out are still unreadable, even with the latest technology. The technical details of the code are clearly presented in French and English and cleverly brought to life in a video in which the faces of the Queen and Fersen are never shown. The camera peeps over their shoulders to show each stage of the coded letter-writing, lace-draped hands painstakingly writing out the draft with a quill, converting it to code and the whole process in reverse at the other end so that the letter could finally be read.
I was deeply impressed by the non-gimmicky but cutting-edge presentation, by the restored princely rooms on the first floor with painted ceilings rivalling Versailles, and pleasantly surprised by the uncrowded space.
There were far more visitors when I returned on a public holiday a few days later but nothing like the crowds at the big Paris exhibitions. Admission to the museum’s special exhibitions has recently been made free and the weekend opening hours extended. On my second visit I discovered an un-named secluded garden with a maze of hidden arbours, outside the Hotel de Rohan to the right of the museum entrance.
I knew that my family would love these places, which are just around the corner from the Centre Pompidou. And from past experience with them, other visitors and from readers’ comments, I also knew that at least one day trip to a little-known place outside Paris would be a highlight of their stay.
So one Sunday I took two friends, one a long-term resident of Paris, the other a frequent visitor from London, to the ancient hilltop stronghold of Château-Landon, 82 km south east of Paris in the valley of the River Loing. We took the train from the Gare de Lyon to Souppes, where we had lunch at a modest family-run restaurant in the market place.
I had phoned ahead to say that one of us was vegetarian so the patronne had obligingly added a pasta dish to the day’s menu. I could see that my friends were surprised and impressed by the un-Parisian warmth of our welcome and the ‘rapport qualité-prix’ (value for money).
But they were a trifle taken aback when after lunch I confidently led them down a narrow overgrown path next to a disused railway line. ‘Is it all going to be like this?’ one of them asked as we pushed our way through knee-high damp meadowsweet and buttercups so that our jeans were soon soaked. I assured them truthfully that this was the only wild part of the walk. Our jeans soon dried and I was gratified to see their growing pleasure and delight as we walked along the Canal du Loing and then along a country path full of wild roses, with the bell-tower of the 11th century hilltop church at Château-Landon gradually coming into view, soon followed by its spectacular abbey.
On reaching the town we made an unplanned detour from the riverside path to the church to follow the intriguing sounds of singing and dancing coming from a nearby park, where a Portuguese festival was in full swing.
The little town itself, as usual, was deserted and the café I had planned to take them to next to the church was closed, but the trusty Turkish doner-kebab takeaway in the market place was open. We were the only customers. We sat outside in the sun listening to the cooing of doves, drinking tea and sampling the patronne’s excellent home-made baklava before catching the last bus to Melun, from where we had a magnificent view of the palace of Fontainebleau, to connect with a fast train to the Gare de Lyon.
Here we decided to treat ourselves to a kir at the mythical Train Bleu restaurant, where the decor of lofty painted ceilings, curtains and mirrors always reminds me of a cross between a cathedral and a Belle Epoque brothel.
We were enjoying the contrast between our day in the country and our luxurious Parisian surroundings so much that we decided to stay and have supper there. It was packed with tourists, but they found us a table without raising an eyebrow at our unstylish walking gear.
As my London visitor later told me, it was the perfect end to a perfect day.