by Hannah Meltzer, The Telegraph, March 30, 2017
I thought I was a little bit good for a “Secret Paris” tour. Having lived in the city for a year, and even worked as a guide there myself, I thought I had a pretty sound grip of its hidden treasures. From country villages in the heart of the city to the best places for all-you-can-eat dumplings, I was quietly smug in the knowledge that the City of Lights had little left to hide from me.
If anything, I felt a bit sorry for my guide, softly-spoken Frenchman Timothée Demeillers, who runs the Paris arm of Urban Adventures, an international travel franchise which offers off-the-beaten-track city tours in destinations across the world. The emphasis is on meeting locals and - that ever more desirable trope - the “authentic” travel experience. The focus of my particular tour, I was told, would be cheese, art and local life.
Timothée is indeed an authentic local. He grew up in western France and has spent much of his adult life living in the French capital, though spells as an expat in Prague and then London mean his English lacked even the tiniest hint of a rolled 'r', or a dropped 'h' of the typical Frenchman. Nor did he have the look of the stereotypical Parisian hipster, typified by oversized glasses and impractically undersized scarf; the leather jacket makes way for waterproofs, the pointy brogues swapped for sensible walking shoes.
We met on a crisp Saturday morning on Place de la Concorde, the imposing square flanked by the Tuileries Garden to the east and the Champs-Élysées to the west. But while grandeur and flashy beauty was all around - not least in the grand facade of the luxurious Hotel Crillon, set to reopen this year - my guide took us through the square’s less-than concordant history; Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and thousands of other unfortunate noble folk met their bloody end here by the blade of the Revolution-era guillotine.
The tour didn't stay in one place for long, physically or historically, and soon we were veering forward across the square to Rue St Honoré. Having just learned about France’s hard-won secularism, we stopped for a second to observe a dozen immaculately dressed pilgrims, waiting patiently for their place of worship - the flagship Hermès - to open its doors.
So far, the sights were familiar, but as we moved through the streets, my guide adeptly delved deeper into details of the chequered history that Paris wears so elegantly. We stopped at no. 261 rue Saint-Honoré, the former site of restaurant Voisin, where - during the Prussian siege in 1870 - Christmas Day diners supped on cooked antelope, camel and elephant from Paris’s zoo. From this springboard we were on to the second German occupation of the city, this time in the 1940s, of which the vestiges can be seen in small potted bullet-holes across the facades of some of Paris’s most famous buildings.
And of course, the city wears more recent scars. I was living in Paris in November 2015 when a string of coordinated terror attacks killed 130 people. Though I was thankfully safe at home, it’s difficult to shift the memory of the tragic news reports that night and the day that followed. And it seems this is true for tourists too. The French capital saw a dive in visitor numbers following the attacks and my guide tells me that, after years of growth, his business suffered a 25 per cent dip last year.
And yet Paris is still there - in all its Instagram-ready, romance-inducing, improbably gorgeous glory. We stopped in at a new branch of Ladurée (which I actually hadn’t visited before). The chain is Paris’s mecca for macarons and I had a seemingly endless selection to choose from - coffee, salted caramel, orange blossom, rose petal, pistachio, liquorice, cognac.
Chocolate (or macaron) box scenes of loveliness continued at Palais Royal, the lesser-visited palace next to the Louvre, whose courtyard is now home to a striking Daniel Buren sculpture instillation. On this Saturday morning, kids and adults alike were posing and playing on its black-and-white pin-striped columns.
Next on the agenda was the medieval market district Les Halles, recently redeveloped with a new £150m canopy structure housing boutiques and a swanky Alain Ducasse restaurant. After contemplating the new structure, we ducked into Saint-Eustache church. The Gothic exterior and jewellery box splendour of the Renaissance interior pack enough architectural detail to please any art history buff, but thanks to my guide, my attention was drawn to a more modern stained glass pane which, OK, I had never seen before. The vitrine was financed by France’s Corporation des Charcutiers and is dedicated entirely to charcuterie, in a nod to the area’s meat-vending past; tableaux include Saint-Antoine, the patron saint of charcutiers, as well as a reverential depiction of the cooking and serving of the porcine bounty.
The walk was punctuated by stops in the city's beautiful but under-visited 'passages' – dinky hidden walkways lined with boutiques, including Christian Louboutin's first shop in the elegant Galerie Véro-Dodat and Pep's, Paris's last umbrella repair shop, in pretty Passage de l'Ancre.
Local eccentricity continued on Rue Montorgueil, where we lingered to inspect the chubby éclairs and glimmering glazed tarts at the historic Stohrer, Paris’s oldest patisserie, founded by the personal pastry chef of Louis XV’s wife. Our own Queen visited the establishment in 2004, an event of which the locals are still evidently proud. “Mademoiselle! British? We 'ave the queen 'ere you know,” a regular customer beamed, gesturing towards a carousel of postcards depicting the royal visit. Perhaps the recent visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, an act of pre-Brexit diplomatic goodwill, will charm the republican locals for years to come too.
The once working-class market street is now pretty hip and dotted with happy hour bars and expensive restaurants, but a good dose of – dare I say it - “authentic” charm remained at our next destination - La Fermette (‘the little farm’), where our walking was to be rewarded with a quintessentially French cheeseboard. The bustling shop, which opens out onto the street, is run by the Rigattieri family, whose son Baptiste presides over an indecently large selection of cheese. The proprietors joked as they serve a selection - a rich, woody Comté, a pleasingly pongy Roquefort and a decadent Brie laced with truffle - which I enjoyed one-by-one with slices of baguette bought from the boulangerie next door.
As we ate, standing over a barrel at the front of the shop, a tall, skinny elderly monsieur came by with a slender and almost-as-tall elderly compagnonne. “They call him Pepino,” my guide told me, “which is Spanish for ‘cucumber’, though he is actually Italian.” Pepino turned and winked at me, gesturing with a nod of the head to the elegant elderly woman stood beside him - “C'est ma femme!” (It’s my wife). She turns round to inspect the cheeses, and he said with a wicked smile - “she's not bad, eh!”.
As we looked on at the improbably charming scene, conversation turned to recent comments from across the pond, that “Paris is no longer Paris”. My guide was philosophical in his response, suggesting that - as we have seen that day - the city has faced many challenges in its history - plague, a handful of revolutions as well as Nazi occupation. “Paris will always be Paris,” he said. “The visitors will come back - we will remember the attacks and grow stronger with them as part of us, and Paris will remain one of the most beautiful cities in the world.”
Meanwhile, said Timothée, the dip in visitors has given him time and impetus to develop a stronger offering - rich and diverse enough to satisfy even the fussiest tourist including, I had to admit, this bothersome cynic.
Secret Paris: Cheese, Art, and Local Life is run by Urban Adventures, Paris. A three-hour tour is priced at £52, including snacks.