Paris: Greeters give free tours of the city they love as locals
January 15, 2014
It was like stepping into another world, of elegance and refinement of another era. Tins of teas — some 500 kinds from 35 countries — sat on floor-to-ceiling shelves. The ambiance was serenely inviting, reminiscent of an Old World apothecary. Teapots, tea jellies and chocolates were also for sale. The aromas were heavenly.
I am a coffee drinker, but I was in awe of this amazing place in Paris, albeit disappointed that taking photos was not permitted. Thanks to Claudine Chevrel, we visited Mariage Frères, a Paris institution since 1854. The company has several shops in the city and throughout the world, but the one we visited in the Marais district is the “mother” store and the oldest in the city.
Chevrel is one of about 300 Paris Greeters, volunteers who give tours of their neighborhoods. There is no charge for the tours, which are offered in several languages, but donations are welcome.
My husband, Bob, and I have been to Paris many times, but this was appealing, a chance to get to know not only a Parisian but also one of the city’s numerous intriguing arrondissements (administrative districts). Chevrel, speaking English, shared her love and enthusiasm for her corner of Paris, the Marais, with us.
She’s lived in the district since 1972, long before it became chic, trendy and expensive. She knows it well — the history, monuments, restaurants and shops.
“l love being a greeter,” she said. “I always meet interesting people. It’s always different.”
Le Marais, literally “the swamp,” was mostly farmland in the Middle Ages, producing vegetables for this city on the Seine River. By the 16th century, the nobility and upper middle class bought up the land and built great estates. For the next couple of centuries, family palaces and grand buildings found their home in the Marais.
We walked by many of those grandiose structures, including the Hotel de Sens, one of the oldest civil buildings in Paris, dating to 1455. It now houses a library where Chevrel works part time. At the Hotel de Sully, a 17th-century mansion, she took us inside to admire the ceiling, a masterpiece of painted wooden beams.
She led us down the Rue du Figuier (street of fig trees) and told us that even in the Middle Ages, fig trees lined the street.
“They are like a talisman,” she said. “When one dies, another is planted.”
Chevrel talked about Andre Malraux, a French novelist who was minister of culture during the presidency of Charles de Gaulle (1959-1969). Malraux inaugurated an initiative to clean up the blackened facades of notable buildings in the city. He made the Marais the first “safeguarded” section of Paris in an effort to protect its places of cultural significance.
Many Marais buildings have been restored and turned into museums, including the Hotel Sale, now the site of the Picasso Museum; the Hotel Carnavalet, where the Paris Historical Museum finds a home; and the Hotel Donon, home to the Cognac-Jay Museum. The Centre Georges Pompidou, with the National Museum of Modern Art and one of the world’s most important cultural institutions, is located in Beaubourg, the western part of the Marais.
The Marais has a large Jewish community and one of the largest gay communities in Europe. We especially liked the Jewish area — full of tempting delis and bakeries. Numerous shops tout the “best falafel.” Chevrel says the best is at the restaurant Chez Marianne, where Bob bought a thick slice of nut strudel — it offers 12 kinds for 3 euros per slice.
We walked past numerous art galleries and trendy boutiques.
“I prefer the Marais 10 years ago. It used to be a real neighborhood,” Chevrel said. There were lots of local stores and groceries, she explained, but now many have been replaced by expensive shops.
Before, “everyone knew everyone,” she said. “Now lots of foreigners who don’t live here year round have bought apartments.”
Our guide made sure we saw a Wallace fountain. Richard Wallace was a rich Englishman who lived in Paris in the 19th century. He could not find a place to drink water, so he made a donation to the city to install water fountains throughout Paris.
“People still drink from them,” she said. The fountains, designed by Charles-Auguste Lebourg in the form of small cast-iron sculptures, are scattered throughout the city.
We took a break midway during our two-hour-plus tour, both to rest and to chat.
“I always meet interesting people who want to see Paris in a different way,” she said. “Americans prefer this type of tour. They like to meet Parisians. They ask lots of questions, about everyday life, taxes, schools.”
Our tour ended at the Place des Vosges, the oldest planned square in Paris with 36 symmetrical houses and ground-floor arcades. Author Victor Hugo lived in one of the buildings, which now serves as a museum dedicated to his life and works.
We left Chevrel and set off to find her favorite restaurant, Le Louis Philippe, a traditional brasserie, which we had passed during our walk.
“From the upstairs room, there is a great view of Notre Dame,” she said.
En route we came across Caruso. As we have a weakness for all things Italian and there are few Italian restaurants in southern France where we live, it was our lunch stop. Buonissimo! Exquisite pasta, and Bob’s dessert, Cassata Siciliana, was deliciously decadent.
We’ll try Le Louis Philippe next time we’re in Paris, and we will definitely sign up for another Paris Greeter tour.
Leah Larkin lives in France and can be contacted through her website, leahlarkin.com, or blog, http:// talesandtravel.com.
Go on a tour Sign up at parisgreeters.fr preferably several weeks before your visit. Specify your interests and the date and time you are available. You can also request a specific district to visit if you wish.
Costs Tours are free, but donations are accepted.
Food • The Caruso restaurant is at 3 Rue de Turenne, phone: (+33) (0) 142770698, www.ristorantecaruso.fr.;
• Chez Marianne, 2 Rue des Hospitalières Saint-Gervais, (+33) (0) 142721886;
• Cafe Louis Philippe, 66 Quai de l’Hotel de ville, (+33) (0)142722942;
• Mariage Frères, 30-32-35 rue du Bourg-Tibourg, (+33) (0)143471854, www.mariagefreres.com.
Accommodations We always stay at a charming chambre d’hote (bed and breakfast) in our favorite neighborhood, Saint-Germain-des-Prés; one room with a double bed, breakfast included, costs 90 euros per night. Contact owner Geneviève Cuirot at email@example.com.
Paris Greeter Claudine Chevrel has lived in the Marais district of Paris since 1972, long before it became chic, trendy and expensive.
Englishman Richard Wallace gave Paris money in the 19th century to erect water fountains like this one.
Photos by Leah Larkin/Special to Stars and Stripes
Paris’ city hall, housed in the Hotel de Ville, a neo-Renaissance building dating from the 19th century, was just one of the landmarks pointed out by Paris Greeter Claudine Chevrel in the Marais district.