About Secrets of Paris

American-born travel journalist and guidebook author Heather Stimmler-Hall created the Secrets of Paris in 1999 to share the hidden side of the City of Light. Discover what you've been missing:

* Custom Travel Content
* Travel Writing Workshops
* Calendar of interesting Paris events 
* Monthly Secrets of Paris newsletter
* Secrets of Paris Tours & Travel Planning

Read more about the Secrets of Paris here

 

 

 

Calendar of Paris Events

June 4
The 16th annual Carnaval Tropical parade with 4000 dancers celebrating French West Indies cultures as well as other dancers from Brazil, China, Colombia and other nations around the world. They start at Hôtel de Ville at 2pm, up to Place de la République until 6pm. Come see the dancers and try out the exotic foods on sale! 

June 19
Get out your fancy hats and picnic baskets for the annual Prix de Diane races at Chantilly Hippodrome (just 45 minutes north of Paris from Gare du Nord). Read more about the event from previous years here. 

June 24-26
Solidays is one of the best summer music festivals in France. This event unites more than 150 musicians (including Cypress Hill and Keziah Jones) and 160,000 attendees every year in the fight against AIDS, and this summer is expected to be bigger and better than ever. Day passes starting at €39.  

Click here to see the full calendar of events...

Secrets of Paris gives 10% of all tour fees to the French food bank, Les Restos du Coeur

Entries in Paris (341)

Friday
Jun242016

Tour of the Great Mosque de Paris

 

Written by Secrets of Paris guide-in-training Philippe Maillet

Paris is not only a romantic city, it’s also a real melting pot of cultures. And nothing is stranger than when your steps lead you to an exotic architectural site right in its heart. That’s what happens in the 5th district, at the foot of the Saint Geneviève hill, where a white wall hides a mysterious building, flagged by a colorful tower and a massive wooden door. This monument is actually the Great Mosque of Paris, a little piece of Morocco hidden in the French capital.

This sanctuary built between 1922 and 1926 was built as a tribute to the Muslim soldiers who died during World War I fighting for the French Republic. One hundred thousand volunteers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia perished during the war, far from their native lands. Afterwards, the French people wanted to give the Muslim community a place to commemorate this tragedy. Thus a project was launched, including a mosque, a Muslim Institute, several reception rooms, and a library. A restaurant and hammam (steam baths) completed this Moroccan haven in the heart of the Latin Quarter.

Nowadays, visitors and prayers go together in this quiet atmosphere of the Great Mosque. A peaceful garden welcomes you to this reconstituted paradise, with its fountains, palm trees and roses. Beyond that is the courtyard of the mosque, decorated in the tradition of Fez, the spiritual capital of Morocco. Ceramics, engraved plaster, sculpted wood, and calligraphy running all along the walls and beneath the arcades evocate the North African heritage. At the end of the corridors and terraces a huge door opens onto a majestic reception hall reminding us of the Tales of 1001 Arabian Nights.

But the mosque is above all a meeting with Islam. And it seems important in these troubled times to try to understand this religion, its rituals, and its differences. The mosque of Paris is a good place to lift the curtain on this often misunderstood culture, where we can find an open-minded aspect of Islam, welcoming to visitors. By learning about the history and cultural heritage of this religion we can better understand how it relates to our own heritage.

Free Tours of the Great Mosque and Islamic Culture in Paris

Philippe grew up in western France, in the area of Nantes. He came to Paris in 1999 to study art history at La Sorbonne. After specializing in Islamic architecture he went on to the Paris-Belleville School of Architecture where he acquired a diploma in traditional heritage restoration and in the Ecole du Louvre for a degree in museology. What characterizes Philippe’s background is a passion for North Africa, its arts, its history, its cultures. Eager to follow his family’s steps, he moved to Morocco where he worked on research projects for the Moroccan government concerning the conversion of traditional buildings into guest houses in the old city (medina) of Marrakech. After many stays in Morocco and Algeria, he is now an expert on North African architecture, from the Middle Ages up to now. Having embraced the Arabic culture in all its aspects, he knows not only history of art but also traditions, music and food. As a guide-in-training, he's offering free tours with a focus on Islamic architecture and culture in June and July 2016. Contact us for more information

Friday
Jun172016

Les Halles Sixty Years Later

by guest contributor, Anne Daignault

In May, my visit to the Musée Carnavalet -- the City of Paris's museum of the history of Paris and its people -- nurtured a growing curiosity about the evolving political, social and  economic factors that created today’s Paris. However, it was a walk in the Forum des Halles -- the site of Paris’s central market until it was demolished in the 1970’s -- that took me out of a museum of history and landed me smack down in a construction site: a noisy, smelly, vibrant lesson about the changes in Paris over the past sixty years. 


Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine-RMN

In 1956, sixty years ago, my father held my hand as we walked in circles around Les Halles, Paris's central market since the 11th century, trying to find the restaurant, Au Pied de Cochon. As we dodged puddles tinged with the blood of animals being prepared and sold in the market, we almost lost my brother. Excited to be showing us his Paris, the Paris he had known as a child in the 1920’s and 30’s, Pop never stopped talking. I really didn’t listen, too mesmerized by the mess of stacked wooden boxes, discarded heads of lettuce, and the occasional smell of urine and rotting meat. 

It was dark, maybe dinnertime or maybe the passages were so narrow that they lacked daylight. Pop probably explained that the restaurant had been in business since World War II, that it was open 24 hours a day to feed the men and women working in the market at night, and that the house specialties were onion soup and pigs’ feet. Pigs’ feet? All I recall is being squished between two grownups and their damp coats on a banquet in a dark restaurant. I suspect that my brother and I, less adventurous eaters, had steak frites.

On a fall day in the 1980’s, almost thirty years after our family meal at Au Pied de Cochon, I exited from the Chatelet-Les Halles metro station in search of the Centre Georges Pompidou expecting to find myself in some variation of the market I had seen  and smelled. Instead, an escalator carried me through an underground shopping mall, fashioned after the malls in the States but designed in layers rather than spread out horizontally. Many of the shops were closed and boarded up. For the first time in all my wanderings around Paris, I was afraid. Disoriented and chilled by all the damp concrete, I finally found my way to the street.

On investigation, I learned that the market, which I remembered as built of ornate iron and fashioned after the Gare de l”Est, had been demolished in 1970. Only the church of St. Eustache, built in 1532 and restored in 1840, and the Bourse du Commerce (Commodities Exchange) remained. A major urban renewal project requiring collaboration between the government of Charles de Gaulle and the City of Paris, as well as municipal train and metro companies, had begun in the late 1960’s. Above ground, I found a park with no place to sit on the grass and few pedestrians enjoying the greenery.

The market vendors had moved to Rungis, outside of Paris. There, it is said, they would have a larger, more hygienic area to sell their wares. The Chatelet-Les Halles station now served five metro lines converging with three RER trains, the express trains that go through the city and into the suburbs. As I stood on the sidewalk all I could ask myself was, “What were they thinking?”

The Forum des Halles circa 2010. Photo by Pavel Krok

If I could have listened to the politicians, city fathers and railway men in the late 60’s and early 70’s as they planned the future of Les Halles, perhaps I would understand their intent. At the time Andre Malraux was De Gaulle’s Minister of Culture. He was known for his convincing oratory, his progressive views about democratizing and revitalizing city space, as well as his desire to beautify city centers. Perhaps these were the goals, but walking around I would say that nobody really got what they wanted. Even the park was maze-like and uninviting.

Now, in 2016, the latest project to revitalize Les Halles is nearing completion. Eager to see the results, I walked down rue Montorgueil, a lively, semi-pedestrian street with cheese, produce, fish and meat markets open to the sidewalk, cafes on the sunny corners and numerous historic markers to bring history alive. At the end of the street, on the right stands the church of St. Eustache, its gothic facade facing the work underway. The Bourse du Commerce, a round, solid and reassuring building is to the west. Ahead lies a construction site with a fence and signs promising four hectares of garden to be called Le Jardin Nelson Mandela. Between the Bourse and the construction is a well-worn green space with cement benches surrounding vents from underground. People are eating, talking, reading and nuzzling. Others are hustling across the park. Two street musicians are competing with canned music from the Forum les Halles, which lies to the east.

The steel and yellow glass Canopy of the Forum les Halles undulates above the 2.5 hectare area that contains the mall complex, designed by Patrick Berger and Jacques Anziotti. Under the Canopy is a media library and recording studios, a hip-hop center - whatever that is - an auditorium, cinemas, gym and open spaces for events. As I walked around the complex looking into a Sephora store and a restaurant, people were gathering for a concert in an outdoor space to be given by Christophe Mae, a popular musician.

The new entrance to Forum des Halles under the Canopy. Photo Heather Stimmler-Hall

Security guards stood at each of the escalators leading down to the trains, subways and more than 130 shops and 19 restaurants. After showing the contents of my shoulder bag to the guards, I set off down the escalators to see the shops. On the third mezzanine level below ground, but still exposed to the outside, there were signs of dampness on the concrete floors. Perhaps it was just the cement reacting to the damp weather Paris has been experiencing. Perhaps the panels of the canopy, which have been referred to as “piss yellow,” are leaking.

The trendy stores and coffee shops, such as H & M, Starbucks, McDonalds and Darty, are still surrounded by construction making it noisy and difficult to picture the finished space. Nonetheless, the desire to cater to all the people of Paris -- not just the wealthy and middle-class who can afford to live in the city center -- is apparent in the choice of stores and on the faces of the young people enjoying a day shopping. The complex has been designated an International Tourist Zone making it possible for the shops to remain open in Sundays. The city intends to complete construction on the entire complex in 2018, opening sections as they are ready. At a cost of $1 billion, I ask, “Was it worth it?”

As an individual with an emotional attachment to Paris, I celebrate the desire over the past 60 years to democratize the city, including its museums and central marketplace, especially since its population has become more and more diverse. I’m delighted that the underground shopping area and metro station of the 1970’s are being improved, but bemoan the loss of the iron marketplace, a touchstone with the past. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish that the changes had been completed with a more faithful attention to this historic structure, while still creating accessible green space in the center of the city, encouraging venues for music and dance, and improving the space below ground.

I look forward to revisiting the finished Forum des Halles to see the final project before evolutionary change takes it in yet another direction.

Anne Daignault is a Massachusetts-based creative non-fiction writer who attended the May 2016 Paris Travel Writing Workshop

Thursday
Jun162016

Some Tips on Using Vélib City Bikes in Paris

 

I love using the Vélib to get around Paris, especially now that it’s so nice outside (read: between sudden thunder showers it’s actually sunny and gorgeous). It looks a lot scarier to ride a bike in Paris than it feels when you’re actually on the bike. Maybe it’s the high of cruising through the capital with the wind in your hair, but it’s very quickly addictive.

I got a native Parisian hooked last weekend when I suggested we grab two Vélib’s to go check out the street art murals in the 13th arrondissement. I have an annual pass (€29), but he was a newbie and needed a day pass (which are currently €1.70; weekly passes are €8). We figured, being locals of average intelligence, that this wouldn’t take us long to figure out. But getting the pass from the terminal was enormously confusing.

Just to give you all a heads up, there are two main steps: creating an account, then checking out your bike.

Map side of terminal if you already have a subscription.Create the Account
First you need to create an account. We did this right at the bike terminal (there's one at every bike rental station). One side has a map on it and a touchpad for those who already have a subscriber number. The other side has an interactive screen and a place to insert a credit card. Go here, touch any number on the keypad to get started, and change the language to English to make your life easier. Note that there are instructions on the big screen but also on the little screen next to the credit card slot. A bit confusing.

To create a subscription account you need to click on 2 to "Buy a Ticket", then select a 4-digit code (pick any code you can easily remember, but not 1234 or 0000). Then you need to pay for your subscription with a credit card (and when it asks for your code, it means your credit card PIN, not the Vélib code you just made up). Once it’s done you get a little receipt (récépissé) with an eight-digit code which is your subscription ID (or abonnement) number. Hold onto this for the duration of your subscription. You can also create your account online in advance, which may be easier (at least you’re not standing on the street with your wallet out!) and is the only option for those without micro-chipped credit cards.

Screen side of the terminal where you get your ticket.Check Out a Bike
Now you go get your bike. Find one that isn’t broken (ie wheels have air, all parts including pedals and handlebars in their right place, spin the pedals backwards to make sure chain isn’t blocked, light is green) and make note of the number. Go back to the terminal and follow the directions for checking out a bike. You can actually do this on either side of the terminal, but when we tried it on the side with the map it said he already was using a bike. So we went around the back to the side where we signed up. Change the language to English and then clock on Access the Service.

It will ask for the eight-digit subscription ID code on your receipt, then the 4-digit pass code you made up yourself. Then it will show the bikes which are available at that terminal (if the number you want isn’t showing, it means it’s broken). Once you’ve entered the number and it says you’re bike is ready, go to the bike and push the silver button on the attachment point (next to the bike number and the glowing green light). The button doesn’t actually seem to move, but you’ll hear the click of the bike releasing from the lock. You may have to pull fairly hard to get it out. Adjust the seat and make sure the brakes work before you go flying down a hill into traffic. Et voila!

Gears not Shifting?
If your bike is broken, don’t forget to turn the seat around when you plug it back in as a signal to other riders that it’s broken. Also, if you’re switching bikes because you’ve run out of time (30 minutes max unless you don’t mind paying the incremental fees for going over time) or because of a broken bike that can't be ridden at all, you often have to wait 5 minutes before your subscription is “active” again to get another bike. Be patient.

Ride safely!
I know none of your are wearing helmets or yellow safety vests, but at least don’t forget one rule: never ride up between a large vehicle like a truck or bus and the sidewalk just before an intersection, because they may not see you when turning right and you’ll get squashed. Stay behind or pass on the left so the drivers can see you. I know it's no fun sucking on exhaust fumes, but you'll have to bear it until you can get to a less congested area to ride or stick to the separated bike paths all over Paris. 

Download the App
The free Vélib app for Android, Windows phone and iPhone is handy for finding both available bikes and available parking spaces without needlessly wandering from station to station.  

Monday
Jun132016

Summer Food & Fun at Grand Train 

One of the most interesting Paris events of the summer is Grand Train. Opened within a disused SNCF train depot in late April, Grand Train features 2000m² of covered halls, courtyards and outdoor space filled with over a dozen bars and eateries, lounge chairs and picnic tables, pétanque courts, a food garden and chicken house, vintage locomotives and different exhibitions about the history of the SNCF (French National Railway, a partner of the event), fuss ball tables, big screens showing fils and even Euro matches, a children's playpen, and daily events such as live music, a craft market, epicerie, yoga sessions, tattoo and barber shop, kids' activities, massage booth, gardening courses, book readings, etc.

I went on one of the first dry nights of May and there was a pretty large crowd, but plenty of space to find a seat. Dining options include Italian (and pizzas), Korean Bibimbap, Argintinean BBQ, gluten-free tea room, Belgian waffels, burgers, and hot dogs. 

When you enter you'll see the outdoor lounge space and gardens overlooking the trains. 

These areas outside fill up quickly, getthere before 7pm for a good spot. 

The Italian eatery in one of the indoor halls.

Train decor throughout the Grand Train space.

I like the little lites strung up in the courtyards, although it's barely dark when Grand Train closes at 11pm in July!

You can bring your food into this dining car. Screens next to it have landscape whizzing by like you're moving. 

One of the indoor dining areas.

There are also a few model trains set up between the restaurants.

The epicerie and food shop.

Yet another courtyard...it feels like you're going in circles, but there are several of these. 

An exhibit of train worker uniforms over the years.

One of the dozen or so vintage trains (no touching allowed).

The kids' playpen.

Helmut Newcake Gluten-Free goodies.

 

The food garden (there are also honey bee hives).

Open until October 16th, check the Facebook page for the weekly schedule of special events. 

Grand Train 
26 ter rue Ordener, 18th
Metro Marcadet-Poissoniers. 
Open Wednesday-Sunday from 11am-11pm.
Free entry, consignment fee for the cups at the bars. 
Ends October 16th, 2016. 

Chickens!

Thursday
Jun092016

wonder.land: Musical in English at the Théâtre du Châtelet

Photo Brinkhoff and Mgenburg

Another world-class musical in English is playing at the Théâtre du Châtelet this month, wonder.land: the edgy modern-day take on Alice in Wonderland "that explores the blurred boundaries between our online and offline lives." Commissioned in partnership with the Manchester International Festival and the National Theatre, wonder.land uses a combination of live theatre and digital sets, as well as a score is by Damon Albarn (of the British group Blur), to create a very contemporary look at coming-of-age in the 21st century.

Photo Marie-Noëlle Robert

Aly is a modern British girl from a broken home being bullied at school who escapes her difficult life into a virtual world as her avatar, Alice. Here, where suddenly there is color, she meets an entire cast of misfit friends. Until a cruiel teacher confiscates her smartphone...and steals her identity. "Who are you?" the Caterpillar asks, underlining the theme of the story. 

Photo Marie-Noëlle Robert

After seeing Sondheim's Passion and then Carmen La Cubana, which I both loved, I didn't think I'd actually like this contemporary "audio-visual" show, but it was surprisingly fun and touching (not sure why I'm still surprised, but my "I don't like musicals" bias is stubbornly hard to kill).

Photo Brinkhoff Mgenburg

Throughout the show I kept changing my mind about who was my favorite character. Aly (Lois Chimimba) and Alice (Carly Bawden) are the stars, but her mother's voice is stunning (Golda Rosheuvel), Mrs. Manxome's evil glee is contagious (Anna Francolini), the and the White Rabbit (Joshua Lacey)...well, who wouldn't want to follow him? Hal Fowler's character actually morphs throughout the show from the MC to the Cheshire Cat to the Caterpillar, with an entire choir for a body. 

Photo Marie-Noëlle Robert

Through June 16th, in English with French surtitles. Tickets from €10 to €55. 

Thursday
Jun092016

Almost Back to Normal: Sunshine and the Seine in Paris

It has been gorgeous and sunny in Paris since Monday. I went out for a morning run in the Jardin des Plantes Wednesday morning and thought I'd have a look at the level of the Seine along my usual running route on the quays, and was surprised to find cyclists and pedestrians already enjoying the Quai Saint-Bernard (5th arrondissement). 

On the Quai St-Bernard near the Batobus stop for Jardin des Plantes. 

The Resto du Coeur (soup kitchen) boat along the Quai St-Bernard back in service.

A bit of gravel and mud along the lower end of the quay.

The little amphitheatres where people dance on summer nights are still underwater. Click for the Instagram video I filmed here.

Quite a bit of mud here, but most of the flowering shrubs on the right seem to have weathered the submersion without problem.

Municipal gardeners are out planting the summer annuals now that the rain has stopped. 

Closer to Notre Dame Cathedral, the water is still above the lowest paths along the quays. 


You can see here on the right the benches peeking out from the water, which is still knee-high here across from the Ile-St-Louis. Note that the only roads that flooded in Paris were these auxiliary quays along the water. The Seine never rose above that wall on the left. Click the photo for the second video from Instagram.

This photo taken from the Théâtre du Châtelet Sunday night shows the first rays of sun shining on Notre Dame in the early evening. You can see more clearly here the pedestrian path along the river is still flooded, but the water, even at its highest level, never got close to the top of the main wall protecting the city (where you see all of the cars, buses, pedestrians).

Some cellars and the RER C, which runs rights along the river, were infiltrated by water, but the museums didn't suffer any flooding, even though as a precaution they closed for the weekend while moving crates of art works from lower level storage into the upper galleries. Sunshine predicted in Paris through Saturday, we should be back to normal in no time!