We explore some of the areas and attractions that are changing the face of the capital
Spending a weekend in Paris is almost a cliche for the British – made so straightforward by an easy train connection and the huge choice of hotels and Airbnbs. Yet my anticipation is always tempered by frustration at being unable to see or do enough in such a short time.
Although I am a regular visitor to Paris, it still feels as if I am merely scratching the surface of the city, perhaps because I have followed the grooves of well-worn itineraries: promenading in the Tuileries gardens, picnicking in the Champ de Mars, having coffee in Saint-Germain-des-Pres. That all changed on a recent visit.
The city’s mayor, Anne Hidalgo, has made no secret of her vision of a ‘Paris of the future’, rejuvenating neglected districts with an influx of new architecture and opportunities for businesses, residents and tourists. In her words, “a city like Paris should be able to reinvent itself at every moment in order to meet the many challenges facing it.”
It was Baron Haussmann who, in the second half of the 19th century, first ‘rebuilt’ Paris by demolishing crowded medieval neighbourhoods and replacing them with a logical layout of wide avenues, squares and elegant honeyed facades. But times are again moving on; Paris and its suburbs are now home to almost 13 million people and it has established itself as one of Europe’s financial and economic capitals. Developers have been building modern additions on the foundations of former transport links and beside historical landmarks – and these make a fascinating alternative focus for a weekend in the French capital.
One repurposed link is the Petite Ceinture (‘little belt’), a steam railway line built in the 19th century to connect the city’s train stations and to transport goods through the arrondissements. The development of the metro and the motor car led to its decline, and from the 1930s, stations were abandoned and the tracks became overgrown. Now, some parts have been rejuvenated, with stations being turned into bars and cafes, and cutting-edge modern architecture rubbing shoulders with the Haussmann buildings constructed at the same time as the railway.
I began my weekend in the leafy district of Passy in western Paris by strolling along a deserted section of the Petite Ceinture that is now a haven for wildlife. The old station of Passy-La-Muette, near the Bois de Boulogne, has been transformed into a chic restaurant and cafe. La Gare is one of the best places in the capital to step back in time while enjoying lunch or coffee; the striking vaulted space was designed by young architect Laura Gonzalez, who used plush navy furnishings, geometric patterns, brass mirrors and marble.
Following the old railway tracks round to the opposite side of Paris, I discovered urban rejuvenation on a greater scale in the shape of Rive Gauche, a new neighbourhood just south of the River Seine in the 13th arrondissement. This 130-hectare area was once home to thriving industries including the Grands Moulins (flour mills), and is now a multi-faceted architects’ playground; pedestrian-friendly and accommodating the Universite Paris-Diderot in some wonderfully quirky buildings. One is enveloped in delicately latticed green concrete, while others are painted bright orange; sleek black cubes are dotted between playfully painted street posts; there are hanging gardens, and even Impressionist murals painted on the balconies of one apartment block.
For me the architectural pinnacle is the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, a quadrangle of buildings designed to look like four propped-open books, with an enormous planted area in the centre. Nearby, ‘Les Frigos’ is now a trendy artists’ quarter showing off impressive graffiti and mural art, for which I’m a bit of a sucker too.
Cross the Seine from Rive Gauche, and you soon come to the capital’s ‘East Village’, another lesser-known section of the capital where new business is burgeoning. I have loved the buzzy Bastille and Oberkampf districts for some time, but slightly further east there is a different atmosphere; lunch at Restaurant Pozada just off Boulevard Voltaire is a quiet, laid-back affair, and the gradual infiltration of modern architecture amid Haussmann’s designs is evident.
The Petite Ceinture originally wound its way past Menilmontant in the 20th to Belleville and La Villette, and today, more of the line’s landmarks up here have been converted for modern use.
La Fleche d’Or is a concert hall located in the former Charonne station, while the tree-lined Coulee Verte is a walkable green ‘corridor’ planted along a section of the disused tracks. This self-proclaimed village district is cosmopolitan, awash with artists’ colonies and independent artisan shops, and fosters a true community lifestyle removed from the tourist haunts. Slowly, I was reframing my view of the French capital – with considerable pleasure.
This feeling continued the following day at OLE Paris Seine, the city’s first floating hotel, which is installed beside one of its oldest stations, Gare d’Austerlitz.
This remarkable 58-room hotel – whose staff are called ‘crew members’ – resembles an oversized catamaran and is part of Paris’s riverside development scheme. Guests look over the Seine from the bedrooms or while lounging beside the plunge pool (complete with inflatable golden swan), and a swish cocktail and tapas bar is open to non-residents too. The Sunset suite by designers Maurizio Galante and Tai Lancman wraps guests in a vivid all-orange space, even extending to the washbasins and bathtub, but staying here doesn’t mean skimping on history: Notre-Dame Cathedral and the Sainte-Chapelle are just a 15-minute riverside stroll west.
I encountered another juxtaposition of old and new at the Google Cultural Institute’s Lab, which is busy developing some of the most advanced digital technology at its headquarters in a 19th-century hotel particulier in the 8th arrondissement. The contrast seems jarring – but when you understand the Lab’s mission to make cultural treasures available for online viewing and revolutionise the way society enjoys art, it makes perfect sense.
Their digitalisation of the artist Marc Chagall’s ceiling at the Palais Gamier opera house in Paris is astounding.
When the team invited Chagall’s son to view the images, he revealed that his father had included his image as a baby in the painting, but that he had never been able to find out where. The Google team zoomed in on the images of the ceiling with perfect clarity and, after more than 50 years, the painted baby was finally revealed.
Allow time in your modern weekend to visit the Musee du Quai Branly- Jacques Chirac, the city’s most recent major museum and research centre.
It features indigenous art from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, with an astounding 3,500 objects from its 450,000-strong collection on display at any given time.
After you have seen the displays, the rooftop restaurant, Les Ombres, will beckon with its awe-inspiring view of the Eiffel Tower. The interior feels luxurious, with scarlet carpets and colossal vases of orchids, and chef Jean-Francois Oyon’s cuisine is inspired by dishes from around the globe.
As we finished our chocolate mousse, the clock struck ten, and we looked through the glass roof as the Eiffel Tower began its glorious light show. Even amid Paris’s thoroughly modern renaissance, its most traditional of icons is never out of reach.
SATISFY AN APPETITE FOR THE UNUSUAL
Looking for other ways to experience an alternative Paris? Book a break on the first weekend of October, when the dusk-to-dawn cultural carnival known as Nuit Blanche (‘sleepless night’) fills the streets.
An ever-changing roster of artistic directors commandeers different parts of Paris every year (such as the Conciergerie) commissioning hundreds of works that seek new ways for people to interact with the urban space for free. From clouds of paper butterflies settling on neo-classical columns to church naves sprouting enormous bejewelled skulls, Nuit Blanche is a riotously popular way to engage with cutting-edge artistry.
If you prefer a February visit, don’t miss the three-day Paris Face Cachee (‘the hidden side of Paris’), when you can visit around 100 sites normally inaccessible to the public. Private properties open their doors, and there are organised adventures and shows in unusual places such as the belfry at the Gare de Lyon.
Bookings are online only, at parisfacecachee.fr, and locations are kept secret until tickets are received. Visitors are simply encouraged to choose from a list of mysteriously named ‘experiences’, without knowing the identity of the organisers. Tours last between one and three hours, and some are free.