We meet in front of the Madeleine Church at 9am as the air hums with the Paris peak-hour rush, and our guide recounts a potted history of this glorious neo-Classical pile. A church has stood here ever since the thirteenth century; the imposingly columned edifice standing before us was commanded by Louis XV in the 1800s.
Like almost everything in this city, a layer cake of historical references accrues at every corner. Eight of us – Americans and Aussies from the New World, lacking the easy intimacy with centuries past that’s the birthright of the French – gather around Raphael as he starts to serve out this historical gâteau, slice by slice.
In line of sight across the Seine is the gold dome of Invalides where, Raphael tells us, he spent part of his childhood. This born-and-bred Parisian is about to take us on a three-hour walking tour that mixes monumental with man-in-the-street, epoch-defining to eminently personal. To begin, we dart across the road into an unassuming archway, where all of a sudden we’re a world away from the teeming traffic and in a chic boutique-lined arcade, the Village Royal, a 1700s resting place for the king’s visitors when the nearby Louvre was his home.
Just around the corner we stumble across the very first Hermès workshop – the iconic luxury brand started as a saddlery, and here you can still browse the most glamorous riding gear known to (horse)man. It’s a short trot to rue du Faubourg Saint-Antoine, home to all the high-end fashion boutiques. But we’re not here to window-shop (or as the French say, lèche-vitrines, ‘lick the windows’) – our next stop is Place de la Concorde, where thousands of people lost their heads during the exceedingly bloody French Revolution. Now it’s home to the country’s most exclusive hotel, the recently renovated Le Crillon, where rooms cost up to €25,000 a night.
Paris history by Raphael is a rollicking mash-up that leaps centuries and leaves tantalising details in the memory long after. He tells us that the Tuileries garden surrounding the Louvre is named for the old tile-making district that lay here in the thirteenth century, outside the city walls at the time. And that the soaring Vendome column, marking Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz in 1805, was partly constructed from the melted-down weapons of the defeated Russian and Austrian armies. And best of all, that Louis XIV lost his hair as a teen after contracting syphilis from a 45-year-old one-eyed woman, and subsequently brought lavishly powdered wigs into fashion across Europe.
We break the history lesson with a stop at Ladurée, the brand responsible for transforming the macaron from a neglected sweet you might have at your grandmother’s for afternoon tea (according to Raphael) to the world’s most glamorous biscuit. We torture ourselves trying to choose one from the 44 flavours on offer today – everything from Cognac to geranium to the ‘Marie Antoinette’ (black tea, rose, lemon, honey) to jewel-like morsels covered in gold and silver leaf.
The tour gradually takes us away from the Paris of grandly colonnaded arcades and former royal residences towards the more human-scale streets of the second arrondissement. On the way we pass Saint-Eustache, an exquisite thirteenth-century church notable for its enormous 8000-pipe organ (France’s biggest) and for being Raphael’s favourite of the city’s 250-odd churches. At rue Montorgueil, one of the city’s most beloved market streets, we stop at a fromagerie and share a platter of goat’s, sheep’s and cow’s-milk cheese. Raphael fetches fresh baguettes and bottles of sauvignon blanc and we gather around a barrel to enjoy a moment of conviviality à la française, sharing our satisfaction at enjoying such an authentic experience while watching other, bigger tour groups pass by, wine-less and cheese-less.
Our tour is almost over but there are a few gems left for Raphael to show us, including a couple of charming hidden shopping arcades – one housing what may be the world’s only shop devoted to umbrella repairs (the proprietors pop out to say bonjour) – and the oldest house in Paris (Harry Potter fans will enjoy the Nicolas Flamel connection). We finish up at the exoskeletal Pompidou Centre. A couple of participants will join Raphael after a short break to explore further into the Marais in the afternoon. Lucky them – this is the best possible way to uncover the secrets of this beautiful, fascinating city.
This tour is operated by Urban Adventures and can be booked with us when you purchase your next Luxury Escape to Paris. If you’ve already booked a Luxury Escape to Paris, you can add it now by going to My Account > My Escapes.
We participated in this walking tour as a guest of Urban Adventures.
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