Saint Paul from rue Sévigné – the heart of the beautiful and vibrant Le Marais neighborhood in Paris. (Photo: Loïc Lagarde/Flickr)
The seeds of my novels are often planted by accident, tossed into the rich soil of travel and nourished with the waters of new experiences.
A few years ago I was celebrating a birthday. One of the big ones: the kind that kick off a whole new decade. I scrimped and saved to rent a friend’s cottage in the French countryside for a month, where I lived out a fantasy surrounded by sunflowers and vineyards, taking long walks, writing, and boning up on my French.
I won’t bother with Paris, I thought. It’s expensive, and besides, I’ve already been.
But friends insisted, pointing out that I was flying out of Paris. I couldn’t NOT visit. Because…Paris. I allowed them to twist my arm, and went to the city for a week.
This time, though? I’d already seen the most famous attractions and, while they’re worth a second (or tenth) view, this time I was determined to spend my week doing nothing but walking around, window-shopping, exploring whichever alley caught my fancy, absorbing sights and sounds and smells. Besides, I didn’t have much money.
And though Paris can be pricey, I discovered plenty of hidden gems that are easily accessible, no matter what your budget.
A place to stay
The Saint-Paul le Marais hotel is both adorable and affordable. Double win! (Photo: Saint-Paul le Marais)
On the advice of a French friend, I stayed at the (relatively) inexpensive Saint-Paul le Marais hotel, located in a former convent between the Place de Vosges and the Notre Dame. The teensy rooms are charming, each distinctively and artistically decorated, and feature attached private baths, which isn’t a given in Parisian hotels. The staff are extremely accommodating and fluent in English.
Discover the neighborhood
The Village Saint-Paul has quaint courtyards with full of shops, trees, and vines. (Photo: John Kellerman / Alamy Stock Photo)
A few blocks away I discovered the Village Saint-Paul, a fairytale-like neighborhood of pedestrian-only interconnected cobblestone courtyards. Covered walkways and ivy-covered stone buildings are studded with wrought-iron balconies full of trailing flowers. The Village is a famous antiques (brocantes) district, and cozy shops are chock-full of everything from vintage baby furniture to classic posters to antique locks and keys.
In fact, a wonderful conversation with the local Village locksmith – almost as old as the antique locks he loves – gave me the first inklings for my novel, The Paris Key, which I set right there on the Rue Saint-Paul.
Lunch with the locals
For some epically delicious falafel, look no further than L’As du Falafel on Rue des Rosiers. (Photo: Waywuwei/Flickr)
The locksmith suggested I visit the Rue des Rosiers for an inexpensive lunch in the heart of the Pletzl, the city’s historic Jewish Quarter. The neighborhood, emptied out during the atrocities of World War II, today shimmers with vibrant delis, fashion houses, and lively shops which are often open on Sundays and holidays when other French stores are closed. Lining up for falafel and shawarma at L’As du Falafel, 34 rue des Rosiers, Marais, 4ème, the scene feels a bit like a busy marketplace in the Middle East, full of people – locals and tourists—milling about and eating while standing. Don’t let the long line discourage you; it’s truly worth the wait!
Step into the past
View art and artifacts from Paris’s rich history at the Musée Carnavalet. (Photo: Sonnet Sylvain/Hemis/Corbis)
From the Rue des Rosiers, it’s an easy walk to the Musée Carnavalet at 16, rue des Francs-Bourgeois, Paris 3ème, an often overlooked museum dedicated to the history of the city of Paris. Where else can you see everything from vintage Art Nouveau tavern signs, to the recreated cork-lined bedroom of Marcel Proust? And admission is free!
The cabaret life
Party the night away at a Parisian cabaret. (Photo (modified): Andy Blackledge/Flickr)
After an afternoon sieste back at the hotel, I met a Parisian friend-of-a-friend at Aux Trois Mailletz, a cabaret at 56 Rue Galande, 75005 Saint-Michel/Odéon, Notre Dame De Paris, 5ème. We had a drink upstairs before descending to a basement of brick and stone arches, akin to an ancient, candlelit wine cellar. The cabaret show was amazing; the music incredible. We became friends with our tablemates (from Russia, Japan, and Provence) and the wine and mineral water flowed; it felt as though we were at a friendly wedding reception featuring a fabulous band. There may have been some dancing on the table at one point…we didn’t leave until nearly six in the morning. This being Paris, the musicians were still playing.
While writing The Paris Key I was “forced” to return to Paris for further research. And each time I visit all the above-mentioned attractions, from the Village to the cabaret.
It’s a chore, of course, but I’m willing to suffer for my art.
New York Times bestselling author Juliet Blackwell’s most recent novel is The Paris Key, which launches September 1, 2015. She lives in a hundred-year-old house with extensive botanical gardens in Northern California, but spends as much time as possible in Europe and Latin America.
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