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a book that will surprise even the veteran traveler to Paris
on October 25, 2007
For many travelers, Paris is Parisland. Here's the Eiffel Tower. Let's take a boat ride along the Seine. Ah, the Champs Elysees. Five museums on the list --- let's whip through them. And, late at night, we've got to find that nightclub where the girls kick up their ...heels.
Others --- that's my brood and me --- go to Paris for the quiet. We sit in cafes for hours. We settle on park benches. We take long walks on nearly empty streets. It's still Parisland, just another kind: an open-air library, a set for dreaming, an urban pillow for outdoor naps.
It's hard to imagine that a book called "Quiet Corners of Paris" would be a shocker, but this sometime Parisian was shocked --- and thrilled --- by what's in these pages. Many tour books promise to deliver "secrets" and never do. This one does. Many times.
Its secret: It does not stick to the four or five arrondissements where tourists congregate. Instead, it draws on the entire city --- and thus challenges you to leave your literal "comfort zone" and get out to neighborhoods where real Parisians can be found. And more: really quiet zones: villas, gardens, courtyards, fountains and passages.
The book is ordered by arrondissement, which means you start with the familiar. In the 1st arrondissement, we find the courtyard of the Louvre (check!), the Galerie Vero-Dodat (gotcha!), the garden of the Palais-Royal (good times!) and the Place Dauphine (been to almost every restaurant there!). But no sooner have we hit the 3rd arrondissement than the unknown intrudes: the Saint-Gilles-Grand-Veneur garden, Karsten Greve's art gallery, the Billettes Cloister. Oh, the time I could have frittered away in those beautiful settings.
I was charmed by the garden of a daycare center in the 4th. Busy and noisy? Not on weekends. I knew nothing of a library that specializes in the decorative arts; it's in a lovely mansion and has a tranquil garden. The Irish Cultural Center: how crowded might that be? And it's nice to know that the Hotel des Grandes Ecoles not only has a "flower-filled, tree-studded" garden, it's also "modestly" priced.
Have you visited the Arena of Lutece, the city's largest Gallo-Roman ruin? I haven't. And while I love obscure museums, the mansion dedicated to Delacroix eluded me. As did the garden of the French Lutheran Church in the 7th. And the rowboats you can rent at the bois de Vincennes in the 12th.
The further from Parisland, the bigger the surprises. I want to visit the Cité des Arts, in the 14th, where "the creme of the modern art world" lived. The "tract" homes of the Villa Santos-Dumont in the 15th are a welcome walk through time into Modernism's best representatives. I could easily spend an hour watching men play pétanque at the Square Blomet in the 15th. A Buddhist garden and Balzac's house in the 16th --- there's a reason to take the Métro.
More than 80 suggestions. All very high on my list of "musts" the next time I find myself in Paris with a good book, a fresh cigar, a few hours to kill --- and no desire to be anywhere near the Mona Lisa.