Paris is much more than a city of iconic monuments; it is a total new urban experience. To absorb the essential socio-cultural flavour of the city one needs to meander through its narrow, cobbled backstreets away from the showy boulevards. Here the food is cheaper and the routine of daily life is transacted in a more relaxed and friendly manner than usually found in the precincts of the bustling boulevard cafes.
The logic for the canny tourist in Paris is to secure safe, clean, relatively cheap accommodation and eating close to the Metro system and in the heart of districts with plenty of character and local action. I booked my hotel accommodation on the Internet before leaving Australia. My web browser locates a hotel near a metro station to suit my budget and I follow up past travellers’ reviews before making a booking. I booked two budget hotels, one in the ‘Marias’ and one in Monmartre.
The Bastille marks the eastern boundary of the ‘Marais’, the older district that stretches along the north side of the River Seine. The Marais translates as ‘ marshes’ on which the first Parisian apartment dwellings were built. It is packed with architectural gems. The narrow streets of the Marais can be walked, heading east from the Hotel de Ville (Paris City hall) to the ‘Place des Vosges’, the oldest square in Paris, surrounded by ochre-coloured 18th C pavilions with grey slate roofs. The walk takes in 17th Century buildings with carved stone facades and ornate metal and timber doors, all set in streetscapes containing functioning shops; clothing boutiques, antiques, jewellery, hole -in the -wall cafes and inns and richly painted butcher, delicatessen, vigneron, pastry and chocolate shops. Many of the windows are visual treats with their produce artistically displayed, beckoning one to come inside to buy. The Marais also contains what is left of the old Jewish quarter and the impressive treasure-trove of the Picasso Museum (with over 300 paintings, sculptures and ceramics exhibited).
The Montmartre district surrounds the early 20th C white Byzantian-styled basilica, Sacre Coeur, offering an impressive panorama of Paris to the south. The surrounding narrow, twisting streets contain testaments to the memory of French ‘Impressionist’ painters who colonised Montmartre during the late 19th Century. Artists such as Lautrec, Degas, Manet and Renoir drank at the Moulin Rouge and wended their way up the hill, past the windmills in Rue Lepic, (two of which remain) to rendezvous at the Le Consulat bar, or frolic at the ‘Au Lapin Agile’ nightclub (Agile Rabbit). Montmartre is today a Mecca for tourists seeking a caricature or portrait done by artists in ‘Place du Tertre’.
The district is home territory to a large African, Haitian, and Arabian population whose markets offer exotic culinary and shopping delights at very cheap prices, especially fruit. It is also the place to choose that unique etched brass teapot from the thousands on offer.
Paris on a budget can be delightfully pedestrian, but do your planning and booking before arriving to maximise your time walking the streets for wonders to charm all the senses.