Immerse yourself in a Parisian neighborhood for your next weekend mini-break
Catching the train from London to Paris is so effortless – every time I walk through the gleaming grandness of St Pancras station I chide myself for not doing it more often.
I caught the 5:40am Eurostar train to Paris Gare du Nord – the first train out on a Friday. The train arrived at 9:17am (Paris time is one hour ahead of London) and by 10am I had checked into my apartment and was tucking into petit dejeuner at Petit Pot, the cafe next door to where I was staying for the weekend.
Rather than queuing for a taxi at busy Gare du Nord, the Paris metro system is fast, efficient and easy to navigate. A good way to save some time and hassle is to buy your metro tickets at London’s Saint Pancras station while you’re waiting for your train – the information desk will sell you a carnet of 10 single trip tickets for £15 ($24 â‚¬19) and equip you with a handy metro and street map.
If you’re staying any length of time in Paris then it is worth considering renting an apartment. Perhaps more than any other city in the world, a short-term rental of an apartment in the heart of the city is easy to organize, generally less expensive than most hotels and will give you a taste of local neighborhood life in the capital of France.
For this trip I’d booked through the Only Apartments site. An easy to use website that quickly shows you apartments available on your target dates and enables you to compare location, amenities and price to find the pied-Ã -terre that is right for you.
It will help to narrow down your search if you have a rough itinerary of what you want to do or see while you’re in Paris. If you just want to hang out in a cool neighborhood and practice your French then you can’t beat the beautiful Saint-Germain-des-Prés for its left-bank charm. For this trip I was in town for a gay water polo competition (as part of the Paris International Tournament 2012) and so needed something a bit further north with good transport links to allow for an early start at the pool, and enough space for the seven team-mates that would be sharing the apartment with me.
I opted for the romantically named Loft d’Artiste on Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis (only a few minutes walk from metro Strasbourg – Saint-Denis). I was met by Krystyna – the owner of the apartment we were renting (and who conveniently lives just upstairs). An eccentric looking woman in her mid-60s, her edgily-cut grey hair dyed black and bright pink in patches, and a number of interesting tattoos around her neck. Kyrstyna was warm and welcoming, didn’t seem bothered by my total lack of French, and happily handed over the keys and showed me around. The decor of the apartment was as eclectic as Krystyna, but it was spacious and had everything that we would need for the weekend.
Strasbourg – Saint-Denis was not an area of Paris that I was familiar with, so after kick-starting the day with a café au lait and a croissant I was keen to explore while waiting for my team-mates to arrive.
Like most Parisian neighborhoods, Strasbourg – Saint-Denis is busy, smelly, chaotic and exciting all at once. Boulevard Saint-Denis defines the border between the 10th arrondissement and the neighboring second and third arrondissements. On either side of Boulevard de Strasbourg, almost marking the entry into the 10th arrondissement, stands two enormous stone arches – grand gestures that now seem slightly at odds with the diverse and bustling neighborhood living in their shadow.
My street was lined with shops, and the numerous butchers had begun cooking rotisserie chickens for the take-away lunch trade. Above the shops are the apartments where everyone lives and it was quite common for people in the street to have long, animated conversations with familiar residents above. There was a one-armed woman begging on the corner, a gaggle of Asian prostitutes loitering in the sun, and an old Chinese man was regularly letting off firecrackers – I think to scare away pigeons but maybe just for fun.
Conveniently there was a large Vélib bike station just outside the apartment. This is a fantastic bicycle hire scheme (that was the inspiration for many other cities around the world). I bought a day pass and cycled off into the sunshine.
Not necessarily the prettiest of neighborhoods, Strasbourg – Saint-Denis is surprisingly livable and only a short walk into Le Marais (the lively gay district) so we were pretty happy with our choice.
I stopped for lunch at Café Central on Boulevard de Sébastopol. Lunch in Paris is always a civilized affair – large portions, a glass of wine, no-one in any kind of hurry. I just wish my French was a bit better – before entering the café I carefully practiced what I was going to say before delivering my lines seriously to the bemused waiter, who patiently answered me in English. There’s something a bit magical about sitting at a pavement café in Paris with not much to do except watch the world go by.
Our water polo competition was at the Piscine Hébert in the northern 18th arrondissement – we came sixth out of 10 teams which wasn’t quite the result we were hoping for, but the tournament was good fun and afterwards all of the teams met for a picnic in the nearby Parc de la Villette (in the 19th arrondissement). Bordered by canals, this park is worth checking out – after a sunny day it was very busy with large groups of locals out enjoying the warm evening. Our Parisian hosts had prepared a feast of bread, cheese, ham and quiche which we happily tucked into with plenty of bottles of rosé as we laughed about poor performances in the pool and caught up with friends from across Europe.
Sundays are generally a pretty quiet day in Paris. Thankfully the sun was still blazing so I wandered down Rue Saint-Martin and started my day drinking coffee outside the very sweet Café la Fusée before walking into town for a relaxed lunch outside Le Pavé on Rue des Lombards.
I could happily live in Paris… just need to work on my French.
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