YOU’VE climbed on top of the Eiffel Tower, you’ve swung your legs up in the air at the Moulin Rouge, and if you have to enter yet another all-day staring contest with the Mona Lisa at the Louvre, you might just start believing that there is actually some truth to Dan Brown’s creepy novels. Let’s face it: your love affair with Paris has lost its “je ne sais quoi” and you just don’t know how to rekindle the flame of l’amour.
So what can you discover in Paris after all the predictable tourist traps have long been ticked off your bucket list already, and whether ‘left-bank’ or ‘right-bank’, all you care about is simply how not to break the bank in this expensive European capital, where you can easily spent EUR 15 on a stale croissant and a lukewarm coffee.
Perhaps the best way to start exploring the alternative underbelly of Paris is to actually go underground – deep into the caves and caverns of the Paris Catacombs. A fascinating journey, during which you will be joined by the remains of over 6 million people from all over the last millennium, the catacombs are actually an “ossuary” – a place where bones are kept and displayed – and so much more than that. Set partly in former mining shafts, the catacombs display these human remains in fascinating patterns, where you can literally wander from chamber to chamber filled with skulls and bones from floor to ceiling. This is truly an underground labyrinth, so please do not wander off alone – or you might join the company of your 6 million friends there, and that would be tres tragique.
Some might call the whole experience macabre – especially the sign at the entrance that reads “Arrete! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort” (translation: “Halt! This is the empire of Death”). But between the two certainties of life – death and taxes – this might be a good opportunity for once to choose the former. But it’s not all about death: more recently during World War II, these catacombs were used both by the French resistance as well as by Nazi occupying forces for strategic purposes as well, so it’s not only ‘ancient’ history and bones that you will be observing here but a site of international recognition, which contributes to our understanding of contemporary history as we know it.
The unassuming entrance to this massive and magnificent mausoleum is located in Montparnasse, just off Place Denfert-Rochereau, which houses the former gates to the city, “le Barriere d’Enfer” – which aptly translates as “the gate to hell”. Oh la la…
When you resurface from this kingdom of the dead at the gates to hell, you could make your way to nearby Boulevard des Invalides, one of Paris’s many famed and impeccably manicured boulevards. It’s worth taking a leisurely stroll down this avenue far away from the chic boutiques and fast commerce of the more centrally positioned arrondissements. If you haven’t had enough of seeing death and decay so far, you can take a quick look at the fascinating Cimetiere de Montparnasse (Montparnasse Cemetery) on your way, where only the rich and beautiful could afford to rest in peace. This is one of the most well-known Paris cemeteries, next to Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise and, of course, Cimetiere de Montmartre. While there, you can say hello to some literary greats like Susan Sontag, Samuel Beckett and Marguerite Duras.
With decent walking shoes on your feet and perhaps a watered-down cafe au lait in a plastic cup in hand, you should be able to make your way to Napoleon’s tombs at Les Invalides in less than an hour from there – if you care to see more bones yet. But as a seasoned Paris commuter you’ve probably paid your respects to this military expert more than once already. However, right across the street from Napoleon’s tomb, the Rodin Museum invites you in to marvel at one of the world’s greatest sculptor’s creations and ideas.
Known for his bronze sculpture “The Thinker” (a casting of which can be seen at this museum), Auguste Rodin is considered a visionary artist, who was way ahead of his time with his particular brand of casting the human shape into clay, heralding the modern art movement alongside some of his contemporaries in visual arts. You can – and should – learn more about this French artist if you have the leisure to explore his works, whose celebrated quote “Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely” still lives on in self-help books today.
Or you can always resign yourself to viewing more predictable artwork at the nearby Musee d’Orsay, which also doubles as a formidable spot to enjoy some lunch. Cross the Seine river at Pont Royal and cut through the Tuileries Gardens to make your way to l’Opera (which amazingly means “opera” in French – who would guess that?). In actual fact, the building is called Palais Garnier, but who has time for such details?
Do yourself a favour and call in advance to schedule a tour of this magnificent edifice, which is as much of a trademark for Paris as the Eiffel Tower is. The Grand Foyer of the opera house is enough to make your eyes melt – in fact, you’ll probably want to move in. But this building is only a fleeting domicile even for the grandest of prima donnas, many of whom have been on stage there over the decades. You might even want to catch a performance while you’re there; both opera and ballet are housed under the same incredible roof, and with 380 performances a year, there should be something appealing for all musical tastes – as long as you appreciate classical works. But be careful – if you stay too long you might run into the phantom of the opera…
Another nearby treat is the well-known Cafe De La Paix. It’s actually not a cafe at all, but a luxury eatery that will burn deep holes into your pockets, but every cent spent on this incredible menu is worth the investment. If you’re planning on having a date night, un petit rendez-vous, in Paris, then this certainly a great place to take your cheri(e). If you want to take your soiree into the wee hours of the morning, consider Anthracite in nearby Le Marais, an elegant night-life spot built to honour contemporary cabaret acts and the Parisian underground bar scene, which is booming. The kitchen also prepares some contemporary French cuisine of outstanding quality.
But when the beautiful oysters and langustines have all been consumed and washed down with a young Beaujolais, you still have beautiful Place Vendome to bring you back to why secretly you are still in love the same old Paris, the reliable Paris, the Paris that is full of snobbery, elitism, and those delectable macaroons from Laduree; the Paris where every unlit alleyway you wander uphill and every dirty puddle you step into reminds you that Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien!