PUBLISHED: 11:51 05 January 2015 | UPDATED: 16:16 08 January 2016
From rummaging for vintage wares to quaffing wine in cellars, discovering Paris on a themed tour can offer insights into many local delights, as Zoë McIntyre discovers
Paris by Mouth: Taste of Saint-Germain
Crammed with irresistible pâtisseries, characterful caves and bustling markets, Paris’s Left Bank is best explored one mouthful at a time. I spend a happy morning zigzagging about the neighbourhood’s finest culinary addresses with Paris by Mouth – a tour group that began as a collaborative website of food writers and now offers epicurean adventures all over the capital.
Our indulgent itinerary begins at the famous bakery Poilâne in Rue du Cherche-Midi (tel: (Fr) 1 45 48 42 59, www.poilane.com), where the aromas of freshly baked bread waft on to the pavement as our group of six meets the guide, Sarah. She is a sunny-natured Californian who owns a restaurant in her adopted city and makes us feel instantly at ease with an animated explanation of the bakery’s history, from its founding in 1932 by Pierre Poilâne, a baker from Normandy to its international success today, with branches in both Paris and London.
Inside we find Poilâne’s speciality, a heavy, rustic sourdough loaf called a miche, made by hand and baked in a wood-fired oven. Sarah leads us into the backroom where a curious chandelier made of bread hangs from the ceiling. “It’s a replica of what Pierre made for Salvador Dali when the artist suspected his apartment of having mice,” she explains.
Next comes Pierre Hermé, Paris’s pâtissier extraordinaire whose range of seasonal macarons are like ‘fashion lines’ for the sweet-toothed who queue down the street to snap up the latest fashion. “On Saturdays, there is even a valet to park your car while you order,” Sarah tells us, as she shares out samples of his delicious lemon and cedar creations from his outlet in Rue Bonaparte (tel: (Fr) 1 43 54 47 77, www.pierreherme.com).
The sweet theme continues on Place Saint-Sulpice, where we are drawn to a giant ape staring out of the window display of Patrick Roger. The eponymous owner is well-known for his playful chocolate sculptures. Blue boxes of his refined ganaches, caramels and pralines, infused with herbs and spices, fill the store. Like the other stops, Sarah greets the staff as friends and lets us each pick a sweet to taste (tel: (Fr) 1 43 29 88 25, www.patrickroger.com).
An arcaded building houses Saint-Germain’s modern covered food market, on the site of one of the capital’s oldest medieval marketplaces. Inside it feels like we are trespassing on a locals-only zone; the bushy-moustached butcher and rosy-faced vegetable seller also seem like caricatures. Sarah explains the etiquette (no fruit-squeezing or photo-taking), before launching into a deep discussion with Twiggy and Michel at the cheese counter on the best seasonal fromage to buy.
The final stop is at La Dernière Goutte, a tiny, yellow-fronted wine cellar in Rue de Bourbon le Château (tel: (Fr) 1 43 29 11 62, www.ladernieregoutte.net). Owned by Juan Sanchez, it sells a fine range of biodynamic wines and holds free tastings on a Saturday.
In a back room, we sit on old barrels surrounded by packed wine racks, and feast on the spoils of the tour. Spoons are dipped into creamy Mont d’Or, tangy Roquefort is spread on Poilâne bread and we sip aromatic vintages that Juan has expertly matched to each of our cheeses. After savoury come more chocolates, macarons and pastries, enjoyed with lively conversation and the remains of a delicious sweet reserva.
By the time we leave the wine cellar, our heads and stomachs are full of intoxicating wine, delicious sweets and some favourite addresses that will be top of the list next time we come to Paris.
Paris By Mouth’s three-hour Taste of Saint-Germain tour costs €95 (www.parisbymouth.com).
Localers: Paris Flea Market Tour
On one of those wonderfully brooding, overcast days that makes Paris feel like a film set, there seems nothing better than directing your flânerie toward one of the shopping hot spots. My interest, however, isn’t in big-name brands on the Champs-Élysées, but on the labyrinth of antiques, furniture and book sellers who make up the famed Marché aux Puces of Saint-Ouen.
Covering seven hectares, this sprawling flea market, to the west of Paris, has around 3,000 traders and attracts 180,000 visitors each weekend. The experience could be daunting, but tour group Localers has recruited local guide Charlotte to show visitors around. She knows the flea market like the back of her hand and, having studied the history of art and worked in an auction house, has an eye for one-of-a-kind finds and enough haggling skills to strike a deal with the most steadfast of dealers.
My shopping partner and I meet Charlotte outside Porte de Clignancourt métro. It’s not the most salubrious part of town and we are relieved when she breezily guides us past the canvas-covered stalls touting gaudy counterfeits (which many visitors mistake for Saint-Ouen, she tells us) and on to an easy-to-miss alleyway where the real market begins.
It’s not how I imagined; there is no open field filled with dusty bric-a-brac, but a series of well-organised, enclosed villages – some in the open air and others undercover – that sell myriad antiques, vintage clothing, art and objets d’art. We discuss our shopping list with Charlotte; or rather we shout out our desired items. She nods enthusiastically, well accustomed to the voracious demands of over-excited shopaholics.
We begin at Vernaison, created in 1920 and the oldest of the 15 markets, where Charlotte greets vendors by name and exchanges les bises before we step into their decorative brocantes. I spot some old perfume bottles for which Charlotte negotiates a bon prix while my partner hunts for a travel case. He’s in luck when we uncover some beautiful old leather-bound trunks, still in great condition.
After dawdling over various knick-knacks – old coins, belle-époque prints and vintage maps, we’re off to Marché Dauphine. Opened in 1991, it one of Saint-Ouen’s newest markets, set across two storeys under an immense glass roof. Ground-level stores are stacked with high-end antiques and furniture while upstairs has a retro feel; jazz drifts out from a gramophone and we’re pleased to find stacks of old records. Unsure on how much to offer, we gladly accept Charlotte’s help in bargaining on a few pieces to take home.
Our final port of call is Marché Paul Bert Serpette, where a concentration of contemporary design booths attracts some of the capital’s hippest shoppers. Charlotte leads us to what she calls ‘the princess shop’ – a dream for every fashion-loving girl, with its Christian Dior shoes, cascades of Hermé scarves and Chanel handbags.
After two hours, when we have heavy bags and near-empty wallets, Charlotte leads us back to Vernaison for lunch. Her pick is Chez Louisette – one of Paris’s last guinguettes (a tavern-cum-dance venue) and another Saint-Ouen discovery. We walk in for a raucous lunch of chansons and table dancing, but that’s another story…
Localers flea market tour costs from €49 (tel: (Fr) 1 83 64 92 01, www.localers.com)
Paris Walks: The Marais
The Marais district now has a reputation as one the youngest, hippest parts of Paris, but if you delve between the boutiques and art galleries, there is a dramatic heritage stretching back two thousand years, as our morning with Paris Walks reveals.
The firm is an incarnation of its well-known London counterpart and we find its tour a fact-packed, easy-on-the-pocket escapade. Our guide, Serese, is a passionate historian, adept at relaying the story of each building and sculpture we pass.
We learn that Marais is short for marécageuse, meaning marshy, which describes the condition of the area when Paris was first settled more than 2,000 years ago. She also explains the reason behind its high number of historic buildings and maze of narrow streets: for centuries the area was popular with the nobility, who built lines of mansions, the hôtels particuliers. However, the Marais went into decline after the royal court moved to Versailles in the late 1600s and escaped the attention of Baron Haussmann when he rebuilt Paris in the mid-19th-century
We step into the cobbled courtyard of Hôtel de Beauvais, a sumptuous baroque masterpiece with an undulating façade, bas-reliefs and protruding balconies. Serese brings its colourful history to life through a string of intriguing anecdotes – from Baroness Beauvais’s amorous encounter with a young Louis XIV to Mozart composing his first keyboard sonata at the age of seven during a family visit.
On Rue François-Miron, we consider the two timber-framed medieval houses that stand out against the smooth plastered walls of the other buildings, before stopping to peer inside the Église Saint-Gervais, among the oldest churches in Paris. It’s a short walk to Jardin de l’Hôtel de Sens, one of the three remaining mansions conserved as ‘windows on to medieval Paris’, Serese tells us. Nearby, she points out remnants of the city walls from 1690, where youths are playing basketball, blissfully unaware of the historic surroundings.
Serese leads us through the Village Saint-Paul, where five intimate courtyards house art and antiques dealers. We enter the Marais’s leading Baroque church, Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis, and Serese explains how the two shell-shaped holy water fonts were donated by the writer Victor Hugo, whose daughter was married here.
There is no better place to finish than in Paris’s oldest planned square, Place des Vosges, where we stand and marvel at the peach-hued brick and elegant arcaded façades that buzz with boutiques and outdoor diners. We learn that it was built in the early 1600s on the orders of Henri IV, who was intent on making Paris one of the jewels of Europe, with the square the capital’s most glamorous address. Serese points out where Victor Hugo resided as a social reformer. Who knew it was the poverty of the Marais, rather than the opulence that we see today, that led him to write Les Misérables?
After a morning stroll, we have come to see the Marais in a new light; as a hotbed of history containing many glories that are often overlooked by visitors to Paris.
Paris Walk’s Marais history tour costs €6 (tel: (Fr) 1 48 09 21 40,www.paris-walks.com
Zoë travelled to Paris from London with Eurostar. Return fares cost from €69 (tel: 0843 218 6186, www.eurostar.com).
BEST OF THE REST
Delve into the drama of Paris with this unusual walking tour company that combines history with open-air theatre. Exploring different locations across the city, professional actors and comedians dressed in period costume bring to life the dramatic stories of each area (tel: (Fr) 1 48 58 37 12, www.visites-spectacles.com).
Parisien d’un Jour
Gain a local perspective on Paris with this free service that organises walking tours for small groups, led by volunteers who offer tips about their Parisian neighbourhood. Register in advance at www.greeters.paris.
4 Roues Sous 1 Parapluie
What better way to take in the Paris’s show-stopping attractions than from a refurbished chauffeur-driven Citroën 2CV? Rides include a tour of the most beautiful gardens and a night ride with the roof down as the City of Light comes into its own (tel: (Fr) 6 67 32 26 68, www.4roues-sous-1parapluie.com).
Rest your weary feet and sightsee around Paris on your own electrically powered Segway – the trendiest green transport in town. A guide offers insights into the passing attractions as you glide along the streets and through the parks (tel: (Fr) 1 56 58 10 54, http://paris.citysegwaytours.com).