February 27, 2009

Paris: Off the postcard track

I will show Dana all of the essential tourist sights of Paris. We'll see the Louvre, the d'Orsay, Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, bateaux mouches plying the green Seine, the Latin Quarter, the Tuileries, Montmartre, the Champs Elysees, Versailles and all the other must-sees.

But I also want to explore some unique and lesser known sides of Paris and have come up with this list of off-the-beaten-postcard-track sights and activities:

Velib bike rentals -- Paris is one of the growing number of cities to offer low-cost bicycle rentals. Velib -- a meshing of velo, meaning bike, and liberte -- lets you rent a bike from one of many kiosks around the city for one euro for a full day. Cheap, fun, healthy (if you don't get hit by a Citroen). Says the Velib website, "La ville est plus belle a velo."

Covered passages and galleries -- More than a score of centuries-old covered arcades, passages and shopping galleries sit tucked away in a dozen Paris neighborhoods. Some of those I'll be on the lookout for include the passages Dauphine, Grand Cerf, Colbert, Brady, Verdeau, Jouffroy, Vero-Dodat and des Panoramas, and the galleries Vivienne and Lafayette.

Metro art -- Besides the Paris metro's 88 remaining Hector Guimard-designed Art Nouveau entrance signs and entrances, which you can admire from street level, many metro stations offer underground eye-candy worth seeking out even if you don't take a subway ride. Art, sculpture, treasured walls of graffiti, whimsy, sleek industrial design elements, even portholes Jules Verne would love -- it's all there underground.

Les Arenes de Lutece -- on the Left Bank, off the Rue Monge, sit the ruins of 1st century A.D. Roman amphitheatres, used now as a public park and often hosting groups of boys playing pick-up soccer games. One of the few places left to remind you (the Musee de Cluny is another) that Paris was once the epicenter of Roman Gaul.

Saint-Ouen Flea Market - I once lived in Paris for six months and never made it to Porte de Clignacourt for Paris's biggest and most famous marche aux puces, or flea market. This visit, I'm packing an empty collapsible tote bag to carry home the exciting used treasures I plan to unearth as I comb through Saint-Ouen's acres of stalls.

Montorgueil -- A Right Bank neighborhood north of Chatelet-Les Halles with vibrant street life and pedestrian-only sections that invite window-shopping, cafe-sitting and people-watching (although what part of Paris doesn't...).

Sundials -- In parks, gardens and courtyards, set into cobbles and affixed to the facades of buildings, Paris is full of cadrans solaires, many that have been casting their delicate gnomonic shadows for hundreds of years. Sundial spotting in the City of Light.

Promenade Plantee -- One of the reasons I chose the Maison Zen as our accommodation (see previous post) is its proximity to this three-mile long elevated pedestrian trail that runs from the Bastille almost all the way to the Bois de Vincennes. Dana and I need a good place to run while we're in Paris, and this is a great spot. The paved trail, complete with trees and plantings and benches, occupies the top of an abandoned railroad viaduct. Cyclists, joggers and walkers take to its elevated length while browsers and diners check out the Viaduc des Arts, a stretch of shops and cafes tucked between the viaduct's arches at street level.

Canal Saint Martin -- Our Om Away From Home is also not far from the Canal Saint Martin neighborhood, and I'm looking forward to taking a boat ride on the canal, which empties into the Seine to the south. For some part of its length, the Canal Saint Martin runs underground. Sitting in an open boat on a thin waterway in the middle of Paris and disappearing into a narrow black tunnel eliminates the need to even contemplate a visit to Disneyland Paris. Thank you, Canal Saint Martin.

Piscine Pontoise -- Paris is peppered with indoor swimming pools, but the one I want to splash in is this 1930s Latin Quarter art deco gem with a high glass ceiling. I have to remember to pack a bathing cap.