Taking in all the sights and sounds of Paris is grand. But, sometimes, you just need a tranquil spot to sit and recoup; maybe even to check the guidebook for your next move.
Of course, there are spectacular parks in Paris such as the Jardin de Luxembourg and the Bois de Boulogne. But, what I'm talking about are places that take you by surprise -- a delightful museum garden, a hidden patch of green, a courtyard café. It's a thrill to find these quiet little corners of Paris.
The Garden at the Maison de Balzac (47 rue Raynouard; tel. 01-55-74-41-80)
Honoré de Balzac labored away on his literary masterpieces and hid from creditors in this little house. Although the rooms are small, the spot is divine with a beautiful expanse of lawn. There's no café here but, on a nice day, grab a book (perhaps Balzac's Le Père Goriot) and while away the hours in the garden. Walking around this district is also a treat. In the movies, you can see the Eiffel Tower from every apartment; in this neighborhood, you really can.
The Garden & Tea House at the Musée de la Vie Romantique (16 rue Chaptal; tel. 01-55-31-95-67; www.paris.fr/portail/; Métro: Pigalle or St-Georges)
During the Romantic period, numerous artistic types lived in the neighborhood. This cozy house belonged to painter Ary Scheffer, and the elites of the movement gathered here -- artists Ingres and Delacroix; musicians Chopin and Liszt; writers Turgenev and George Sand, among others. Today, the house is a shrine to author George Sand (née Aurore Dudevant). The garden café is a shrine to relaxation and bliss.
From outside, it doesn't look like much, but the property of the Gobelins Tapestry Factory is probably my favorite spot in all of Paris. It's a walled wonderland that's hard to believe still exists. Since 1662, some of the most beautiful tapestries in the world have been woven on these magnificent grounds. Back in the day, some 250 tapestry-makers lived with their families within the Gobelins walls. In addition to wages, they each received a tiny plot of land for a "kitchen garden." The dyers and weavers no longer live-in but the property remains the same. By all means, take the tour; admire the old tapestries and watch today's weavers at work, but be sure to linger on the grounds.
The Café at the Maison de l'architecture (148 rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin; tel. 01-42-09-31-81; www.maisonarchitecture-idf.org; Métro: Gare de l'Est)
Walking along the Canal Saint-Martin, which runs from the Place de la Republique to the Place de la Bastille de Stalingrad in the 10th arrondissement, is really enjoyable. This being Paris, cafés abound. But midway along the route, near the Gare de l'Est, it's worth veering off for a stop at le Café A at the Maison de l'architecture. The Maison is a meeting place for cultural exchange between architects, visiting researchers and lecturers. It's open to the public for workshops, lectures, exhibitions and special events. But, the best part is the lovely garden café hidden away behind high stone walls; a little piece of Parisian paradise.
Said to be the oldest square in Paris, it's a knockout. It's not exactly hidden, but people often hurry by on the way to the Maison de Victor Hugo or just stop long enough to snap a photo. There are chic cafes under the beautiful arcades that surround the square, so people tend to sit there. I suggest you plop yourself down on a bench right in the middle and soak up the atmosphere -- children playing, pigeons cooing, older folks soaking up the sun, neighbors gossiping -- which is a cross section of all Paris. (At the southwest corner, near no. 5, an exit door will lead you into the lovely garden of the Hotel de Sully -- an added pleasure.)
Parc de Belleville (rue des Couronnes, enter at rue Piat; tel. 01-40-71-75-60; Métro: Belleville or Pyrénées)
The Belleville neighborhood is a melting pot of cultures--Algerian, Moroccan, Chinese, Orthodox Jewish, Senegalese -- with shops and restaurants that showcase the wonderful diversity of the city. The park is at the top of a hill, accessible from a staircase, then up winding pathways past vine-covered pergolas. It's worth the climb for some spectacular views of Paris--yes, you can see the Eiffel Tower and the Tour Monparnasse from here. Have a seat, gaze out and dream with Paris at your feet.
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