My last trip to Paris was 17 years ago (as part of my Textile Design degree) and apart from the amazing Francis Bacon retrospective I saw at the Pompidou Centre, I can remember almost nothing about it. So when the opportunity came up to teach some intensive English classes for a friend’s husband in Taverny on the outskirts of the city I jumped at the chance.
I’d wanted to return to Paris for some time and the two week trip gave me a chance to reacquaint myself with the city and eat and drink my own body weight in croissants and wine before returning to Jakarta.
People always assume that trips to places like Paris require copious amounts of cash and months of planning, but if you prioritise what it is you want to see and are open-minded and flexible about your travel plans you can do it very cheaply and avoid the tourist traps.
I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘sights’. These are the places you’re told you simply must go to (usually by people who haven’t been) and then, when there, you realise they’re massively over-hyped and extortionately over-priced. I don’t like that feeling of being let down and taken for a mug so I tend to steer clear of the ‘main attractions’ and prefer to focus on the things I have a genuine interest in.
So I stayed away from the Louvre and its Mona Lisa and instead went to see an exhibition about the history of tattoos and tattooing at the Musee du Quai Branly. There were no massive queues to get in and the ticket cost 9 euros. Bargain.
So here are my tips for alternative Paris on a shoestring; interesting, fun experiences which don’t cost the earth. In fact, most of them cost nothing.
1. The Eiffel Tower by night.
Of course you’re not going to go to Paris and avoid the Eiffel Tower. You couldn’t even if you wanted to; it’s round every corner and in every photo (almost). What I would say, though, is avoid it in the day time and see it at night. When it gets dark (at about 10pm in late spring/summer) the whole structure lights up and thousands of fairy lights twinkle for about 5 minutes. It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen and it’s completely free. Get the Metro to Trocadero for the best view.
2. Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
Again, you could argue that this is firmly on the tourist map and not alternative at all, but here’s the thing: it’s huge. There are over 1 million people buried in this vast cemetery (including Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf, to name but a few) so in theory you could (and I did) wander around this wonderfully peaceful place for hours on end and see only a smattering of tourists. There are hundreds of quiet, leafy corners where you can sit and contemplate life, read, sketch or just gaze in awe at the incredible history surrounding and engulfing you. I went there three times and saw something new on each visit. Oh yeah, and it's free to get in.
3. Street Art in Menilmontant.
I’m a huge fan of street art and it’s usually one of the first things I look for when arriving in a new city. Paris has some great examples and most of it is in the lesser known east side of the city. Menilmontant is just a short walk from Pere Lachaise so you could visit both places in a morning/afternoon. There are plenty of reasonably priced cafes and restaurants in the area and there’s a lot of fun to be had finding the art work (clue: it’s not always on the walls) and then trying to make sense of its ‘message’, if indeed there is one.
4. La Bellevilloise.
One of the best nights out I’ve had in ages was at La Bellevilloise, also in Menilmontant. It’s a café/nightclub/exhibition space which has all kinds of interesting events going on throughout the year, all of which are very reasonably priced. We plumped for the 1940s swing night (admission: 10 euros) and arrived at about 7pm for our first lesson on how to do the Lindy Hop and Jitterbug. Some had dressed up in 40s gear and there was even a barber there for the gents to get their hair gelled and have a shave before moving onto the dance floor. The live jazz band was amazing, the atmosphere incredible. Later in the evening, after our huge platter of cheese and bread (15 euros), we went to watch the experts strut their stuff and whirl each other around with such vigour that a freak injury (a sharp slap in the face or a kick in the shin) became a distinct possibility.
If you fancy getting out of the city for a day, you could do worse than visit Auvers-sur-Oise, a quaint little town about 30 km out of Paris where Van Gogh spent his last days. The inn where he lived and died is called the Auberge Ravoux and because the painter committed suicide, his room was never rented out again. The place has been restored to its former glory and you can now go inside and see the artist’s residence for a small fee. Van Gogh was refused burial at the local church and was instead laid to rest in the municipal cemetery a mile or so out of town. In his 37 years, he lived at more than 38 addresses, but this is the only one you can still visit.
The town also has a rather unusual book shop, La Caverne aux Livres, made up of several train carriages and chock full of every kind of book you can imagine. You could spend hours browsing the titles and wandering from carriage to carriage. There’s even a mail car where the workers used to sort through the post and where you can perch on one of the saddle-like chairs and have a quick read. Again, completely free and utterly original.
So there you have it. Tailor your trip to suit your needs and ignore the advice of the ‘must-see’ people. Steer clear of the crowds and veer towards the weird and the wonderful. There’s an alternative Paris just waiting to be found.