We love walking in general, and walking cities in particular. We have always felt that walking is not only the best way of learning a city, but also of getting its feel. Walking tours are, therefore, a natural for us. We use them both to learn new cities and to learn more about cities with which we’re already familiar.
We are definitely familiar with Paris, with each of us having been to the city at least ten times, both separately and together. We, therefore, have areas of the city that we walk every time we are in town: areas including the center of the 1st Arrondissement, the Marais and Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhoods, and the section of the left bank around two of our favorite museums: the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée Rodin.
While we walk each of these on our own, we also take guided walking tours of these and other areas. We took one Paris Walks tour of the Marais (Circuit 2 which focuses on the mansions and gardens of the Northern part of the Marais and the Jewish Quarter) on our last visit. We took four additional tours this trip.
Saint-Germain-des-Prés, where we learned about the history back through Roman times through the early twentieth century, visited the two primary churches (St. Sulpice and St. Germain) and (at least from the outside) the Paris Fine Arts School. We learned of the roles of and saw the homes and hangouts of everyone from Sartre and Hemingway, to Picasso and Delacroix, through Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. The most atmospheric and interesting part, however, was in strolling and learning about what went on in the smaller streets and alleys, with their galleries, bookstores and artist studios.
And then there was some of the neighborhood’s fun public, and publicly-accessible art.
The Two Islands. Although we showed up at what we thought was the appointed time and place, we were the only ones who did. Luckily, we had met some friends for lunch before the tour, and they took us on an abbreviated tour of Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis. We met at the amazing Notre Dame cathedral on La Cite. Although we did not repeat a previous climb up the 242 steps up the bell tower, our friends did give us abbreviated tour of the cathedral and the gardens, which provide great views of its famous flying buttresses.
After lunch we walked Ile Saint-Louis’ fun and very atmospheric main street (Rue St. Louis), with running commentary about the neighborhood and some of its famous residents and stores. Then a brief return to Île Saint-Louis to see its grand buildings, its monuments and to see, albeit not, on this trip, visit, the beautiful Sainte-Chappelle.
Marais Circuit 1 (since the Marais is so large, has so much history and so many interesting sites, Paris Walks divides its tours of the neighborhood into two segments. Since we had done Circuit II on our previous trip (see above), we toured Circuit 1 this time. This tour basically covers the south end of this fascinating neighborhood.
This tour began with a roughly half-hour overview of the history of Paris (which effectively began with the Romans on Île de la Cité). The marshy Marais began as an early Christian refuge and, over the centuries, evolved into a dangerous and poor tenement neighborhood with six-story walk-up buildings lining narrow alleys (too narrow, even for the carriages that would later come to the area) that never saw any light.
The neighborhood began staging a rapid turnaround in the early 17th century, when Henri IV built the beautiful Place des Vosges and many members of his court began building in and moving to the neighborhood.
But what a king creates, a king can also take away. The neighborhood’s fortunes began to decline in 1682 when Louis XIV built his palace in Versailles, and his court followed. The decline was exacerbated by the 1789 revolution, when the remaining aristocracy fled and the mansions were subdivided into small factories, shops and apartments for dozens or even hundreds of people. Things got even worse during the 1940s when the Nazis “relocated” the increasingly Jewish population of the Marais to concentration camps.
The French government restarted growth in the 1960s by declaring the neighborhood a National Historic Monument and pumping funds into its renovation. Now, neighborhood that once housed everyone from Victor Hugo to Robespierre and the first archbishop of Paris, now houses such wealthy and (formerly) powerful (and recently ignominious) figures as Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
But while the history itself was interesting, the stories took life when told in front of remnants of the original city wall, in front of some of the old buildings and the mansions, in the courtyards and inside some of the churches, in which this history occurred. The mansions—not to speak of the stories—of the city’s first, military-obsessed archbishop and the life of the sexual tutor of a future French King, were particularly interesting. And then there is the beautiful. popular and art gallery and café-focused Place des Vosges,Paris’ oldest planned square.
See below for an overview of some of our own interesting and fun non-tour stops in the Marias.
Montmartre. We were lucky enough to end up with Cerese as our guide, the same wonderful art historian that we had for our Marais tour. She began this tour the same way she began the Marais tour–by explaining the unique history of the neighborhood (which, before 1860 was a separate agricultural–and winemaking–village, rather than part of the city), the evolving roles of the neighborhood’s windmills and how its history shaped the emergence of Montmartre as one of the city’s primary, and traditionally seedy entertainment and artist districts.
This provided the setting for learning about the neighborhood’s windmills and its cabarets, which were largely attributable to the suburb’s wine and its location beyond the jurisdiction of the city). This atmosphere, combined with the low-cost of its rather seedy dwellings, attracted artists who, through their concentration and collaboration, created a dynamic environment that spawned unprecedented experimentation and innovation. We saw where many of the well-known (Picasso, Van Gogh, Renoir Toulouse-Lautrec, etc.) and lesser well-known (Utrillo, Dalida) artists and entertainers lived, learned of their lives and how the neighborhood’s ferment led to the evolution of their styles. We learned of the headless exploits of Paris’ patron saint (St. Denis) and how his worship led the area’s first surge of tourists (i.e., religious pilgrims) and made a brief stop at Montmartre’s neighborhood museum.
Cerese also described the evolution Montmartre’s architecture and artist studios, and how the post-World War I period led to the creation of the neighborhood’s “Millionaire’s Row” and it’s gradual gentrification. And then, of course, there was the story of Montmartre’s attempted revolt against the city of Paris and how this led to the creation of the area’s iconic symbol, Sacré-Cœur.
Paris during the Occupation and the Liberation. This, was unexpectedly, the least interesting walking tour of our trip. After our visit to Auschwitz, our Nazi tour of Berlin and the poignant discussions of the Nazi occupations of Krakow and Warsaw, we were anxious to learn more about the capitulation of France and the occupation of Paris.
We did learn many of the facts–the 40,000 Paris buildings that had been taken over by the 100,000 German officers and troops, the location of the commandant’s headquarters (now a Michelin-starred hotel and restaurant at which we once ate), the 200,000 French people that were killed and the 2 million who were held as prisoners, the roughly 80,000 children born to French mothers and fathered by Germans. We learned of some of the privations (the reduction of meat consumption from 3.5 kg to 260 grams per month) and how that contrasted with the lives of the German officers and even the enlisted soldiers who found Paris as a luxurious alternative to an assignment on the dreaded Eastern Front.
We learned of the role that de Gaulle did and did not play during the war and liberation and what the Allied leaders thought of him. And speaking of the liberation, don’t forget the roughly 30,000 collaborators who were executed during the post-occupation purge, compared with the relatively light sentences received by many officials of the puppet Vichy government and by German officers. Most interestingly, we learned about the Nazi General, Von Choltitz, who disobeyed one of Hitler’s last orders–that to destroy Paris. But for all the interesting facts, we did not, as we did in previous occupation tours, really feel what this period must have really been like for the citizens of Paris.
We learn and appreciate cities by walking them. Hence our proclivity for walking tours. But while we certainly enjoy and learn much from these tours, most of our walks are independent–walking to specific destinations and to and through neighborhoods that we find most interesting. Many of the most interesting of these walks are basically semi-random wanderings, taking whichever street or alley (often in the general direction of destination) that appears to be most interesting. We walk everywhere and often, typically posting between 10 and 15 miles per day (as tracked by Joyce’s ever-present pedometer).
Some this visit’s most interesting independent walks were re-visits to sights and neighborhoods with which we were already familiar. These includes some of Paris’ monuments: The Eiffel Tour, Arch of Triumph, Champs d’Elysee, the area around (although on this trip, not in) the Louvre, the Tuileries, Les Invalides, the Madeleine, the Vendome and the Opera. We walked many neighborhoods of the 1st Arrondissement (including St Honore, the Right Bank and the islands) the 2nd Arrondissement (where we had an apartment), the parts of the 3rd and 4th that house the Marais, and parts of the Left Bank (St. Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the Faubourg and Les Invalides) and to and around Montmartre.
Some of our favorite discoveries, and our greatest disappointments were in the Marais. The discoveries included the famers’ market on the square of the Hotel de Ville, the Musee Carnavalet (see our blog on Paris Museums) and the wonderful Rue du Rosier, with its mix of Jewish delis and Middle Eastern falafel restaurants, with big lines of people waiting to partake of their food.
Our greatest disappoints, some of which we knew about in advance, were the long-ongoing renovation and closure of the Picasso Museum, the temporary closing (for a changing of exhibits) of the Jeau de Paume and the fact that we were about a week too early for an Edward Hopper exhibit that was scheduled for the Grand Palais.