You’ve been to Paris a few times, and you’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, Mona Lisa and Sacré Coeur, and walked along the Champs-Elysées towards the Arc de Triomphe. In fact, you’ve done these things a number of times. Now there’s no way you could ever tire of Paris, but you could sure use a new back-up list of things to do. I’ve got you covered:
7 secret Paris tips that are not the Eiffel Tower
1. Shakespeare & Company
The Shakespeare and Company bookstore is somewhat of a legend among book lovers worldwide. It’s often thought that this is where expat writers such as Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Fitzgerald and many others gathered in the early decades of the twentieth century, but that was in fact another Shakespeare and Company, owned by Sylvia Beach and situated at 12 rue de l’Odeon. The current bookstore across the street from the Notre Dame was not opened until 1951, and was then first called Le Mistral. Only in 1964 – on the four-hundredth anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birth, did its owner George Whitman decide to change the name in honor of Sylvia Beach, whom he greatly admired.
The new Shakespeare and Company quickly again became the center of expat literary life in Paris, with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nim, Richard Wright and James Jones among its early visitors. Not only is this former monastery an accumulation of crannies and nooks that are filled to the brim with books, there’s also decades of interesting graffiti and pictures wherever you look.
One of the coolest things about the store is that ever since opening it has tried to stimulate writers, artists and intellectuals to create and come together, by inviting them to stay in the shop for longer amounts of time. Over 30.000 people have done so, among them then unknowns such as Robert Stone, Kate Grenville, Ethan Hawke, Geoffrey Rush and Darren Aronfsky. Even today you can apply for a stay in this ‘socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore’, as George used to refer to it himself.
His daughter Sylvia is in charge of the store today, and has added new ventures like a literary festival, novella contests for unpublished writers and even a publishing arm to the Shakespeare and Company emporium. If you like books and are planning a trip to Paris, make sure to check out their website to see what’s on. But in any case, have a wander around the shop. And make sure to have some free space in your luggage. If you’re anything like me, you’ll want some stamped books to bring home.
2. Museum of Vampires and Legendary Creatures
This museum contains the private and rather macabre collection of Jacques Sirgent, an expert scholar on the undead and all things gothic. It is also located in his house. So no, this will not be your traditional museum visit. You’ll have to make a reservation in advance, but when you do, you’ll be treated to an authentic anti-vampire kit, many signed photos of famous actors portraying Dracula, a huge collection of literature spanning many centuries and a wide array of subjects, and basically every other vampire related thing you can think of. You will also get to enjoy to at least two hours of lectures on vampires, werewolves, witches and medieval catholic dogma by a very enthusiastic Jacques. And if you’re very lucky, he might even invite you on his daily walk through the Pere Lachaise cemetery afterwards. A truly secret Paris tip!
3. E. Dehillerin
Every cook’s dream, whether you’re a beginning hobby baker or professional chef. Step through the door and into a place of yesteryear, with small aisles packed with copper pots, casseroles, and every other item you could possibly need for baking or cooking – including those you didn’t know existed. The store is frequented by restaurateurs and students from the Cordon Bleu cooking school, and Julia Child loved the place.
Do keep in mind that although E. Dehillerin is open to everyone, it is mainly targeted at professionals. As such the prices are listed H.T. or ‘hors taxes’, which means before tax. Even so, if you buy something here you can be sure to bring home top quality gear at an affordable price. And there’s nothing to improve your overall cooking and baking skills and the joy you take in it like using great equipment.
4. Musée de l’Armée (Army Museum)
It’s been quite a while since I visited this museum, but I remember it being my top priority when I first visited my younger brother when he was living in Paris. I was taking a course in military history at the time that I found so fascinating I even contemplated doing a second BA on the subject. The only institute in the Netherlands offered such a program was the Military Academy though, and they only wanted to take me on for military training to compliment the BA I already had, not to do another one. So I had to make do with visiting one of the leading museums of military history in the world. Yes, that would be the Musée de l’Armée.
Whereas the Louvre is one stifling mass of bodies finding the quickest route to the Mona Lisa and Nike of Samothrace in order to elbow a way to the front for a coveted selfie, the Musée de l’Armée is a museum that caters much more to a crowd of actual enthusiasts. Not only does that mean the museum is less crowded, but also that the people that do tend to be there are of a much friendlier sort.
Personally, I love the medieval armors and weaponry, and all the uniforms and ceremonial costumes. Seeing these clothes that have actually been worn by people, and their size and signs of wear and tear on them just make history feel so close. But if you really want to see a major item to check off your list, Napoleon’s tomb lies in this museum as well. Either way, the Musée de l’Armée is well worth your time. In fact after writing this, I feel I’m much overdue another visit myself.
5. The house of Nicolas Flamel
I might have to substitute the ‘secret’ in secret Paris tips with ‘secretive’ for this one… Every Potterhead knows Nicolas Flamel, creator of the notorious philosopher’s stone from the first Harry Potter book. But did you know that Flamel was a real-life person? He lived in the fourteenth and early fifteenth century Paris, and was a writer and manuscript-seller. Owning two shops he was prosperous and known to be a generous philanthropist. Most famously though, after his death he acquired a reputation as an alchemist being able to transform lead into gold and in the possession of eternal life.
Legend goes that as a bookseller, he happened upon an enigmatic text that after decades of study revealed the secrets of alchemy to him. His fame as an alchemist rose during the seventeenth century, and people came from near and far looking for the secret and hidden treasures of gold. When finally Flamel and his wife Pernelle’s tombs were opened in the search for answers, they were found empty, leading many to believe that they never died at all.
Although most of the traces left upon Paris by Flamel have been destroyed in the search for his secrets and the general advancement of history, one of his houses still exists. It is where Flamel is said to have carried out his experiments in alchemy, and today stands as the oldest stone house in Paris. Strange symbols and images are engraved all over the stone columns, making this house worth a visit. Although no museum, you can go inside: the house at 51 rue de Montmorency is now home to a restaurant, the owners of which are happy to share their knowledge of the place over the course of a lovely meal.
6. Fairground Art Museum
Housed in fourteenth century wine warehouses that are historic monuments in themselves, the Fairground Art Museum is a quirky gem that not even many Parisians know about. To visit is to immerse yourself in a world of wonders, a bygone era of entertainment and marvel. You’ll get to ride carrousels from the eighteen-hundreds, and play the old fashioned carnival games.
Do keep in mind that you have to reserve a spot on a guided tour in advance, with the exception of during the twelve day festival at the end of the year and the European Heritage days in September. On these occasions the museum is open to everyone, with many shows and special performances making your visit extra special.
7. Louvre Basement
Now if you must go to the Louvre, let me entice you to go down for once. Don’t follow the crowds and merely visit the highlights. You can barely catch a glimpse of those through the masses, and there’s so much more to see. My personal favorite collection in the Louvre is that of northern European sculpture. I have a fondness for medieval wood sculptures that I can’t explain. Perhaps it’s the warmth of the wood and the paint that is still visible, combined with the naiveté of the work that give these three-dimensional statues such a lively quality and make them so profoundly human. I cannot understand why the rooms showcasing them are always devoid of people when I visit, but I won’t complain. It’s an absolute joy having these treasures all to myself for as long as i like.
Another worthy exhibition is the one on the history of the Louvre itself, down in the basement. The Louvre was originally a sturdy castle that was part of a fortification project to protect the city of Paris, built in 1190. It has gone through many changes and enhancements since then to become the Louvre as we now it today, but down in the cellars you can still walk through the old moat and see the remains of the rotund keep.
So, what did you think of these secret Paris tips, will you go and check them out on your next trip? Let me know in the comments!
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