Rather than rushing round all of Paris' disparate tourist sites, James Doran finds it much more enjoyable to settle on one area.
Paris's Canal Saint-Martin is France at its off-piste best
Every Sunday morning, the bells of the Basilique du Sacré Coeur de Montmartre ring out across Paris, calling the faithful to mass and the unfaithful to account.
The denizens of the Canal Saint- Martin might fall largely into the second category, however, as barely a curtain twitched on a recent chilly Sabbath, despite 20 minutes of cascading peals from the other side of the Seine. Even as the tourist coaches spilt their cargos of eager visitors onto the steps of the Basilica, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral and all the other famous landmarks of Paris, hardly a soul troubled the streets of Canal Saint-Martin.
No, in Canal Saint-Martin, some excitable ducks tested the cold and murky waters with flapping wings and raised voices. A couple of bristlingly hirsute young men with tattoos winced as they sipped a morning coffee outside a cafe. Servers in Oriental snack bars piled fragrant steamed buns high into their window displays. A tired-looking man in a black apron swept up detritus from the night before outside an inviting little bistro.
Only one discernible tourist appeared. A man clutching a Lonely Planet guide book stood alone on a steeply arched, sky-blue iron bridge that spans the canal and gazed in silence upon this most Parisian of scenes.
I imagined we shared the thought: "Nobody knows I am here." In the world's most visited capital city, such imaginings are scarce indeed. Paris is at once the easiest and the most difficult of cities to visit. Easy in that you almost cannot fail to have a wonderful time, whether at large for one night only or for two weeks. There is so much to see and do. But choosing which tour, trip or visit for your doubtless tight itinerary is one of the most difficult tasks a tourist will face.
For museums, who could choose between the Musée du Louvre, Musée d'Orsay, Musée Picasso, or the Musée Rodin? Grand places of worship come in almost as many shapes and sizes. Saint-Sulpice is a personal favourite, but there is of course Notre Dame, Montmartre and don't forget the Mosquée de Paris in the Latin Quarter, just down the road from the Sorbonne. Just wandering from Saint Germain to Notre Dame along the left bank or around the Marais and the Place des Vosges with nothing in particular to do could take up another hour, or a day, or a week. But which one? As would seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Île de la Cité. The list of things one simply must do in Paris is endless.
And herein lies another difficulty. Paris has long been the most visited city in the world. And even though its crown is slipping this year, with London expected to take the top spot, there will still be 15 or 16 million visitors vying for a place in the queue to get up the Eiffel Tower.
That means all the museums, all the cafes in the hot tourist spots, all the metro cars and all the charming little streets will always be bustling with thousands upon thousands of tourists. And if you visit Paris at any time of year you will have to compete with them for space, tickets, drinks and meals. Last time I queued up to get into the Louvre, for example, it felt like the kind of rush-hour commute I had originally come on holiday to escape.
So why bother? Why not head instead to the city's quieter quartiers such as Canal Saint-Martin, which itself borders many other cool neighbourhoods such as Belleville; the places that estate agents like to call "up and coming".
Canal Saint-Martin used to be a bit of a dirty industrial area - a backwater built by Napoleon to serve as a link from the Seine for barges filled with goods for sale and building materials. These days it is one of the hippest neighbourhoods in Paris, home to dozens of unique and inviting cafes, bars and bistros.
Many of the good ones are packed with artists and musicians, some of them performing while the clientele tuck into tapas or a hearty home-cooked bistro dinner. It feels much more like the fabled Paris of old. The Paris where writers, artists and thinkers would hold court at cafe tables into the small hours. Where absinthe was drunk and revolutions were hatched.
Benoît Dupont is the owner of one such bistro, called Jours de Fête, which for my money is the best in the neighbourhood on ambience, menu, price and entertainment. Dupont, a native Parisian who was a barman before he launched Jours de Fête, bought the space about five years ago, just before the property boom that has transformed the area. "This place has changed so much since then," he says. "It used to be a very working class area. Now it is becoming more popular. More wealthy."
He and a musician friend renovated the old shopfront themselves and decorated it solely with objects they found on the street. Old records adorn the walls. A bicycle hangs from the ceiling.
It's cosy and tiny, but the food, the music and the atmosphere are all first-class. It is certainly a much more preferable hangout than the hugely popular Comptoir Général just down the street. The Comptoir has fast become an institution in hipster circles for its quirkiness and impressive line-up of musicians and DJs. But much like the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower, it has been known to attract a queue that can take an hour or more to get through.
Chez Prune is another haven for the hip, but much easier to get a table than the Comptoir Général, and almost as intimate and inviting as Jours de Fête.
One other bistro that is definitely worth a visit is the celebrated Hotel du Nord. Originally built as a flophouse for labourers in 1885, it was immortalised in Marcel Carné's 1938 film of the same name. The neighbourhood was so shady back then, however, that the entire facade and the canal front were rebuilt meticulously in the studio. The labourers are long gone these days; in fact, you are more likely to run into a would-be gentrifier looking for a still reasonably priced apartment with a canal view. He likely won't find one.
Canal Saint-Martin is in the 10th arrondissement, between Gare du Nord and Place de la République in north-eastern Paris. As its name suggests, a canal runs through it, and on Sundays the two main drags - Quai de Valmy and Quai de Jemmapes - are closed to traffic to allow for bicycles and pedestrians. This is perhaps when the area is at its best, as all of the city's young and hip come out to see and be seen. There are boat tours on the canal, but they are getting more popular all the time, so make sure you book in advance.
There is good shopping, too. Not the designer boutiques of the Champs-Elysées or expensive art galleries of the Place des Vosges, of course. Rather, the boutiques of Canal Saint-Martin offer a much more exclusive and eclectic brand of shopping, whether you are looking for clothes, art or a souvenir. Antoine & Lili on the Quai de Valmy has become a destination for fashion and quirky kitsch. There is a restaurant and bakery attached to the store too, for a modern coffee shop-style alternative to the Paris cafes you might expect.
A word of warning, though: Canal Saint-Martin has become such a haven for those looking for an alternative trip to Paris that many dingy hotels and pensions that are a long way from the actual canal have started to market themselves as a part of the neighbourhood. So double check the address, the postcode and the location map for proximity to the waterway before you book.
Sometimes it is refreshing to revel in the familiar. To get out of a trip exactly what you are supposed to get out of it. To say you have seen Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower or to have gazed in awe at the Mona Lisa's smile are notches on a traveller's belt that must be made at some point. But once those milestones have passed, make time for something a little different when you visit Paris.
When the bells of Montmartre call the hordes of other tourists to heel on a Sunday morning, rent a bike and take a turn down the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin instead. Or just stand on a steeply arched, sky blue iron bridge and wait for the Jours de Fête to open and imagine the thought: "Nobody knows I am here".
IF YOU GO
The flight Etihad (www.etihad.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Paris from Dh4,105 return including taxes.
The hotel Double rooms at the Prince de Galles (www.starwoodhotels.com, 0033 153 237 777) cost from €690 (Dh3,300) per night including taxes and excluding breakfast.
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