Paris: Find peace in the city of quiet delights
Forget queuing for the Louvre or battling the crowds at Sacré Coeur – a new book reveals where to seek out the hidden sanctuaries of Paris
Paris is one of the world's most beautiful cities, with astounding architecture, richly endowed museums, chic boutiques and a huge variety of gastronomic and visual delights. The city is not only fascinating, but also quite compact. It's possible to visit the medieval Museé de Cluny in the morning, ascend the imposing Montparnasse Tower for a panoramic view over lunch and then take an afternoon walk round the ambitious Grande Arche de la Défense.
With so many guidebooks written about the fascinations of the French capital, it might seem impossible to discover anywhere new that hasn't already been visited en masse. Walking around, I wondered whether we are now less familiar with losing our way and coming across places by benign accident, rather than preordained design, especially with the emergence of roaming technology. There are ways to slip under the net of the tourist map, however, even in such an abundantly photographed metropolis.
So where are the ideal places to escape the hustle and bustle of this lovely city?
Musée de la Vie Romantique
16 Rue Chaptal
(00 33 1 55 31 95 67; paris.fr)
Free for permanent exhibitions, €7 for temporary. Open: daily 10am-6pm except Mondays.
Métro: Saint-Georges, Pigalle, Blanche, Liège.
Although the idea of Romanticism sounds a little frivolous, this museum offers a fascinating insight into the lives of 19th-century literary figures. Housed in a grand villa, formerly owned by the Dutch artist Ary Scheffer, the setting feels surprisingly rural. Wandering around restored period rooms you might come across some unexpected and revealing objects. In one glass case the plaster cast of the writer George Sand's arm can still be seen – perhaps she held hands with Chopin walking round the small but delightful garden. An enticing tea room in the conservatory is open from mid-April to mid-October, serving tisanes (herbal teas), coffee, light lunches and pastries.
Bibliothèque Sainte Geneviève
10 Place du Panthéon
(00 33 1 44 41 97 97; www-bsg.univ-paris1.fr)
Open: 10am-10pm daily except Sunday.
Métro: Cardinal Lemoine, Maubert Mutualité.
Imagine a huge reading room with curved iron roof braces in the style of the Eiffel Tower and you'll get a good impression of this magnificent 19th-century library. In fact, this was the architectural project Gustave Eiffel was commissioned to design just prior to his more famous Parisian landmark. The Sainte-Geneviève University Library has been described as encyclopaedic and it is hard to argue with this one-word description. Even if you don't intend to carry out research in the stunning Labrouste reading room, guided tours (in French) are possible in small groups. You can also visit on your own between 9am and 10am on the days it is open. Bring a passport or some other form of ID if you want to obtain a reader's card.
Parc de Bercy
Near Quai de Bercy Street access from Rue François-Truffaut, Rue de l'Ambroisie and Rue Joseph-Kessel. Free admission.
Open: May to August. Monday-Friday 8am-9.30pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am-9.30pm. Métro: Cour Saint-Emilion.
This modern park on the edge of the city is full of surprises. From the picturesque ruins near the Cour Saint-Emilion metro entrance to the wooden log "hotel" for flying insects, there is plenty to see during an afternoon ramble. Highlights of the park are the gardening school, with its diminutive glasshouse and specialist library and the large kitchen-garden used to teach horticultural students how to grow vegetables. There is a realistic-looking scarecrow standing in the cabbage plot – forever immobile and very, very quiet.
64 Rue de la Folie-Méricourt
(00 33 1 58 30 12 50; lechappee.com).
Hammam access €35, treatments from €40; reflexology €70.
Open: Monday and Friday 11am-9pm, Wednesday and Thursday 11am-11pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am-7pm, closed Tuesday. Métro: Oberkampf, Parmentier.
Once inside this sophisticated spa, it feels as if you are far removed from the clamour of urban life. It's larger than many Parisian health centres, the almost monochrome interior design subdued yet urbane. Ask for a reflexology treatment here; it is sublime – the subtle, tender movements around one's feet and ankles are indescribably beautiful.
The art shop
La Maison du Pastel
20 Rue Rambuteau (00 33 1 40 29 00 67; lamaisondupastel.com)
Open: Thursday 2-6pm and by appointment.
Isabelle Roché continues the centuries-old tradition of making pastels by hand in this workshop at the back of a quiet, unassuming courtyard in Les Halles. La Maison du Pastel is renowned for being the oldest pastel manufacturer in the world. It can be hard to choose from 650 colours but seeing the neatly laid-out cobalt blues or subtle greens displayed in old-fashioned drawers is awe-inspiring.
Le Repaire de Cartouche
8 Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire (00 33 1 47 00 25 86)
Open: daily for lunch and dinner except Sunday.
Three courses from around €55pp with wine.
Métro: Saint-Sébastien Froissart and Filles du Calvaire
The wood-panelled rooms and white table linen announce that Le Repaire de Cartouche (named after a notorious highwayman) is a traditional Parisian restaurant. The confident "cuisine de terroir" menu offers an abundance of down-to-earth classic French dishes. Typical hors d'oeuvres include pâté, followed by pan-fried beef or grilled fish. The wine list reveals the owner's predilection for regional grape varieties, which complement the dishes.
A l'Heure du Thé
23 Rue Lacépède (00 33 1 47 07 60 52)
Open: Tuesday to Saturday from 11am-7.30pm, Sunday 11am-6pm. Closed Monday.
A pot of tea costs €10.
Métro: Place Monge; bus 47.
The title of this refined salon could translate as "time for tea", and with over 100 loose teas in black enamel caddies, it's obvious where the patron's speciality lies. The names of the teas are beguiling. Order a pot of lapsang souchong or a Japanese green gyokuro in the tea room at the rear. Non-tea drinkers are also well catered for, with velvety smooth carrot juice and salad with quiche for a substantial lunch.
Lettres et Images
58 Galerie Vivienne 4 Rue des Petits-Champs (00 33 1 42 86 88 18)
Open: Tuesday to Friday 10.45am-2pm and 3‑7pm, Saturday 1-7pm.
Métro: Bourse, Quatre-Septembre, Pyramides
Entering Catherine Aubry's small bookshop is like being invited into a comfortable living room. She doesn't just stock French language poetry from independent presses; dark monochrome etchings hang in the window, turning the front of this diminutive shop into a compact gallery space. The owner will spend time discussing the merits of each purchase, making this bookshop the epitome of "slow shopping". She has a few collections of poetry in English, but the large collection of books and original prints is mainly of work by French writers and artists.
Les Ateliers de Paris
30 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine (00 33 1 44 73 83 50; ateliersdeparis.com).
Open: Tuesday to Friday 10am-1pm and 2-7pm, Saturday 1-7pm.
Among the predictable brand-name shops on this main street is an inviting gallery where young designers are invited to showcase their latest creations. Many of the artisans have workshops tucked out of sight behind the gallery, and this enterprising space acts as an incubator for new talent. Expect to see innovative garments, fashion accessories and ceramics.
The place to stay
Hôtel du Jeu de Paume
54 Rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile (00 33 1 43 26 14 18; jeudepaumehotel.com).
Doubles from €285, room only.
Métro: Pont Marie
Jeu de Paume translates as "the game of real tennis", pointing to the lively pastime that was played by King Louis IX in this very building. Having fallen on hard times, it was restored a few years ago. Modern prints and bronze sculptures sit alongside fine antiques in the hotel's stunning interior. There is also a small courtyard to have breakfast outside on sunny days, making this feel like a very special place to stay.
'Quiet Paris' by Siobhan Wall is published by Frances Lincoln
Independent News Service