Travel Europe

Sunday 25 February 2018

Paris like a local: How to experience the French capital like Parisians do

Airbnb Trips

No matter how many times you visit Paris, this extraordinary city still has the capacity to surprise and captivate
No matter how many times you visit Paris, this extraordinary city still has the capacity to surprise and captivate
Jamie Blake Knox on a Velib - the Parisian bike rental service and one of the best ways to get around the city

Jamie Blake Knox

Yesterday at Oscailte, Airbnb's annual gathering of Irish hosts, chief marketing officer Jonathan Mildenhall announced that "Trips" is being launched in Dublin.

These are designed and led by local hosts, and can range from city tours, workshops, cooking classes to dance lessons and treks through the countryside.

Dublin is the 28th city to expand into Trips, but a further 32 are set to launch worldwide before the end of the year. Travellers and locals can choose from more than 20 curated Dublin-based experiences, bookable through the Trips platform. Highlights will include 'The Liberties by day', a look at one of Dublin's most iconic neighbourhoods; learning how to cook traditional Irish recipes; and 'Lavender Walk', which is described as the ultimate walking tour of historic Queer Dublin.

Anxious to get a sense of what we can expect, I headed to Paris where there are apparently more Airbnb Trips than in any other city.

I arrived at my apartment in the late afternoon. It was spacious and tastefully furnished, and was located on Rue du Fauborg - right in the heart of Saint Martin, one of Paris's most vibrant and fashionable districts.

Airbnb had organised a number of cultural events so I could get a sense of what could lie in store for Dublin.

First on my itinerary was a concert by the singer Marine Williamson. Her performance took place in a top-floor apartment in Belleville. It was an intimate and relaxed atmosphere. Marine has been performing for more than 10 years and her style combines elements of folk and pop. She was accompanied on guitar by Romain Fitoussi, and her own compositions were interspersed with cover versions.

I was particularly taken by a memorable version of that seminal classic by 1990s band Ace of Base All That She Wants, which reminded me of Cat Power and Feist. After the concert, we enjoyed some light pastries bought from a nearby boulangerie, and tea.

The iconic Georges Pompidou Centre was nearby, and early the next morning I made my way to the Atelier Brancusi sculptures located just beside the main museum. Constantin Brancusi was born in Romania in 1876 but spent more than 50 years in France. He was one of the last century's most innovative and influential sculptors.

In his will, he left his entire workshop to the French state, and this has been painstakingly reconstructed. It features a unique collection of sculptures, pedestals, preparatory drawings, paintings and more than 1,600 photographic glass plates and original photos by the artist. It offers important insights into Brancusi's methodology and his journey towards pure abstraction.

Jean Paul Sartre once said that hell is other people. At its most crowded and frenetic, the Louvre can feel like that.

Although the gallery is adorned with countless masterpieces, its sheer scale can be somewhat overwhelming for the first-time visitor. Tours can become something to be endured, rather than enjoyed. I met up with Cedrik Verdure, a comedian and tour guide, who promised to offer an informal and more enjoyable introduction to some of the collection.

Our group was small, and while we saw some of the Louvre's star attractions, including, of course, the Mona Lisa and works by Delacroix, David, Michelangelo and Raphael, Cedrik also introduced us to minor but intriguing pieces that we might otherwise have overlooked.

He was not only well informed but also extremely witty - and his self-deprecating comments might have seemed somewhat uncharacteristic of a typical French man.

In need of some refreshment, I headed to Le Little, a cool petit bar serving potent cocktails and local craft beer from the Demory brewery.

It was the weekend of the French presidential election, and the nearby Place de la Republique was buzzing with activity and charged with tension. It seemed the perfect place to sit back and observe the final stages of the campaigns, sample a few blonde beers and enjoy a plate of cheese, ham, pate and cured meats.

I must admit that I am terrified of cycling, and the prospect of biking around Paris - a city notorious for its crazy and erratic drivers - filled me with dread. I needn't have worried. Our guide, Anto Montani, originally from Venezuela, has called Paris his home for the past seven years.

There are bike stations spread throughout the city, and, like Dublin, they are very easy to use. There are now more than 800km of cycle lanes, and, in an attempt to curb urban pollution, cyclists have been given increased protection from other traffic.

Anto was full of suggestions, but he also listened to our group's interests and tailored our journey accordingly.

After a strong coffee, we began by cycling up to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th arrondissement. It is the biggest cemetery in Paris with more than a million inhabitants (if that is the right word).

The cemetery is the final resting place for some of the city's most famous and infamous residents, ranging from Honore de Balzac to Moliere, from Frederic Chopin to Jim Morrison, and from Georges Seurat to the surrealist Max Ernst.

Some of the graves and tombs are quite remarkable, and they come in a bewildering variety of styles that range from the pompous and grandiose to the humble and intimate.

I was especially taken with the tomb of the 19th century Belgian physicist, stage magician and practitioner of phantasmagoria, Etienne-Gaspard Robert. It was suitably creepy with gothic carvings of winged skulls, grinning owls and skeletons reaching out to the living.

As the Eurovision finals were fast approaching, I thought it would be appropriate to visit Oscar Wilde's tomb. The poet - who died in self-imposed exile in Paris in 1900 - was initially buried in the Cimetiere de Bagneux outside Paris: a social outcast in a pauper's grave. In 1909, his remains were disinterred and transferred to this prestigious cemetery inside the city.

In 1914, the sculptor Jacob Epstein was commissioned to design the tomb. His glorious modernist angel drew inspiration from the winged Assyrian bulls in the British Museum. It was originally complete with male genitalia, which have since been vandalised and their whereabouts are unknown.

In the late 1990s it suffered a different form of vandalism after someone decided to leave a lipstick kiss on the tomb, and it was soon covered in thousands more.

Wilde once wrote that "a kiss may ruin a human life". It seems it can also ruin the stonework of a tomb. Every cleaning caused a bit more of the stone to wear away. It is now protected by a glass shield which is routinely cleaned. It remains a point of pilgrimage and is regularly visited by thousands of admirers every day.

After a quick lunch, we headed on through the picturesque Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, which seemed almost impossibly idyllic. It was hard to imagine the park once had a sinister reputation; a notorious place where the decomposing bodies of hanged criminals were displayed. The neo-classical Temple de la Sibylle, sits perched on a cliff 50m above the waters of the artificial lake.

Further along is the Philharmonie de Paris which was only opened two years ago. Escalating budgets, seemingly endless delays and bitter public rows saw its architect Jean Nouvel boycotting its inauguration.

It is hard to know what exactly to make of this gargantuan mash-up of various styles. At times, it looks like a menacing starship clad with interlocking bird-shaped aluminium tiles; at other times it is strangely captivating.

All this was thirsty work so I made my way to the Paname Brewing Company. Sadly, there aren't many microbreweries in Paris, but Paname makes up for that, with a stunning selection of local and international beers.

Sitting right on the Bassin de la Villette, it seemed a perfect place to contemplate everything I had seen.

No matter how many times you visit Paris, this extraordinary city still has the capacity to surprise and captivate - even during a bitter and divisive election campaign.

GETTING THERE

Trips is a people-powered platform that brings together where you stay, what you do, and the people you meet. Dublin is the 28th city to expand into Trips, with a further 32 set to launch. For visitors, Trips is a way to immerse themselves in communities. For cities, Trips can help to diversify tourism away from busy centres, and allows local people to participate and benefit from tourism.

Travellers and locals can now choose from over 20 curated Dublin-based experiences, bookable through the Trips platform. Highlights include exploring Dublin’s historic neighbourhoods, cooking traditional Irish recipes and trawling through the social, cultural and political life of LGBTQ Dublin. Experiences cover music, art, nightlife, food and outdoors.

Starting from €23 pp, Dublin experiences are now available through the Airbnb website or app. To book, or to become an experience host, visit www.airbnb.ie

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