Finding the Real Paris

By Julie H. Ferguson

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James turns to the hovering waiter. “Encore, deux cafés.”

The big cups of creamy coffee arrive and soon James has sketched out a plan for my seventh visit to Paris, his ninety-third. He fills our September week with authentic Paris, must-see places and events that any tourist can fit around the obligatory sightseeing.

We meander down the oldest street in Paris, the Roman road to Lyons and Rome. La rue Mouffetard is an eclectic collection of specialty shops that ends in the Square St-Médard. La Mouffe is bustling with Parisians gossiping and shopping for dinner. The selection of French delicacies overwhelms me: displays of food overflow across the sidewalks and into the cobbled street - wild boar sausage and honey from Corsica, sea urchins and silver sardines, and rich wedges of Roquefort.

Our mouths watering, we pounce on samples bursting with flavour while I long for a kitchen. We load up with olives, cheeses, and a duck terrine for diner en chambre at our hotel and later buy a decadent dessert from a patisserie. Savouring my last mouthful of lunch in the sunshine, I say, “It’s not hard to imagine what La Mouffe was like in the Middle Ages. All you have to do is visualize women carrying baskets full of live chickens.”

Early the next day, we board a boat to cruise up le Canal St-Martin in the heart of Paris, an adventure few tourists try. The Seine delivers misty views of the Louvre, and after passing Notre-Dame to port, the boat enters a lock that leads into the Paris Yacht Basin. At the far end, I can just see a black hole - the opening to a 2.4 km tunnel below the Place de la Bastille where the infamous prison once stood.

Napoleon ordered the canal built in 1802 to supply a growing Paris with fresh water and food. His tunnel is an eerie place, musty and cold. With no electricity, it is pitch black, too, except where light streams through large openings in the roof. I listen for the ghost said to play a clarinet, but the echoes are silent; all I can hear is the chug of the engine.

Back in the sunlight again, we enter the residential part of Paris called St-Martin. This old district is now the home of fashionistas.

We glide on jade water under a canopy of trees, listening to an excellent commentary from our guide. Parisians throng the banks. Bridges for cars, trains, and foot traffic slide overhead or swing up to let us pass. The boat passes through 19 locks, each with its own keeper, before we disembark for lunch and a walk along the canal.

We try to be in Paris on a Sunday because that is the day musicians from the orchestras of France play chamber music for an hour before dinner. Not only is the music superb, the location is divine. La Sainte-Chapelle, close to Notre-Dame, is the Chapel Royal of France. Built in 1248 for the saintly Louis IX, it is a double-decker Gothic marvel. Peeking into the lower chapel, once used by the court’s servants, visitors admire the vaulted ceiling decorated with gold leaf and scarlet, and tiny fleur-de-lis on an azure background.

We climb the spiral staircase to the upper chapel where only the monarch and his family worshipped. The soaring, slender columns and tall, stained-glass windows are elegant and refined. Here the concerts take place amid exquisite acoustics. With mostly Parisians, we listen to Mozart. Afterwards, the notes whisper in our ears as we walk home along the Seine.

The legendary and largest flea market in the world (seven hectares), Les Puces, has beckoned us for years. We arrive as the vendors are opening their permanent stalls and find the alleyways crammed with antiques, junk, jewelry, furniture, art, clocks - anything saleable, old and new.

We rummage for hours and even find a marble staircase. Our efforts also reveal a “real” Russian tiara, an 11th century suit of armour, and a complete set of v

estments for a bishop. I buy antique soupspoons and two pashminas after spirited bartering. By noon, the markets are getting crowded.

We lunch at the boisterous Chez Louisette, where Edith Piaf got her start. This café is tucked in a corner of Marché Vernaison. Lousiette serves mediocre fast food

, so this was not why we are here. In a corner is a minuscule stage and we listen to a young chanteuse belt out French bar songs and two sets of Piaf favourites. The patrons go wild - standing up, yelling, and throwing pieces of baguette at her, the barman, and anyone else who takes their fancy. When, at 2:30 p.m., the wine bottles are empty, the food eaten, and the singer gone, we leave to find the markets too crowded to enjoy. Besides, we are exhausted.

Our last outing is to the supermarket for foodies, my husband has promised. La Grande Epicerie is the astonishing food floor of the Bon Marché on rue de Sevres. As I stand before thedeli, my jaw drops. James asked me to buy a couple of items for dinner, but I can’t choose - the deli section is bigger than my local grocery store. Counters groan with saumon en croute, quiches, boeuf Wellington, 29 different kinds of olives, and items I can’t name. Customers wait three deep for a turn to buy. About 350 kinds of cheese grace another section, and hundreds of sausages are in the next. My husband, prowling the olive oils from around the Mediterranean, won’t help.

“Surprise me!” he says. And grins.

The patisserie undoes me. I surprise James all right, but with the final bill.

Check out this video clip of The Real Paris at 





La rue Mouffetard: MÈtro: closest - Censier Daubenton (Line 7); others - Place Monge (line 7) and Cardinal Lemoine (line 10). Closed on Sunday p.m. and all day Monday.

Canal St-Martin: Several companies offer 2 - hour cruises; best is Cruises run daily from mid-March to mid-November with bilingual commentary. Boats sail at 9:30 a.m. beside the Musée d'Orsay (Métro: Solférino - line 12). Reservations required: phone 01 42 40 96 97 (English spoken).

Another option is with a shorter itinerary and different departure points.

Sainte-Chapelle: Métro – Cité (line 4); walk up the rue de Lutece to the Palais de Justice. The entrance is on left of the Palais. Concert schedules and online tickets (Ä25) at Details for the chapel only at

Les Puces (the flea markets) de Paris: Métro - Porte de Clignancourt (line 4). Rue des Rosiers is the street from which you access the separate markets. Open every Saturday, Sunday, and Monday all year (9 a.m. to 6 p.m.). For a map at, click on “Access” on the top menu strip. Chez Louisette is in a corner of Marché Vernaison.

La Grande Epicerie: Métro - Sevres-Babylone (line 10) or Vaneau (line 12). Address - 38 rue de Sevres.

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