There are a number of things visitors can do to experience an insiderÂ?s view of Paris and foremost among them is watching Parisians at work. True, you can't visit the offices and workshops where millions of Parisians earn their daily bread, but there are a few places you can go where you can see them in action. Want to sit in on an art auction? Spy on skilled weavers creating gorgeous tapestries? Watch fruit and vegetable vendors try to outdo each other hawking their wares at an open-air market? Read on . . .
You can see some of Brassaï's best photography, Lalique glassware, or Louis XIV-epoch cabinetry for free -- if you dare to enter the mysterious world of art auctions. Though the buyers are generally outrageously wealthy and the objects are exquisite and rare, in fact, every sale in Paris is open to the public, which means you too can go. If you don't feel like going to the sale, you can come the day before for the presentation -- a miniart exhibit that is absolutely free. Drouot is the name to remember in Paris auctions -- you can't miss it as there is an entire quarter and a Métro stop that shares the same name. Paintings, furniture, and art objects go on auction in the 16 rooms of the Hôtel Drouot (9 rue Drouot, 9th arrond.; tel. 01 48 00 20 20; www.drouot.fr; Métro: Richelieu-Drouot), where the goods go on display the day before the auction from 11am to 6pm and the day of the auction from 11am to noon, usually on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. You can also watch the sale (no bidding or fur coats needed); simply check the website of the Gazette de l'Hôtel Drouot (www.gazette-drouot.com) for the program and show up at the appointed hour. Jewelry and very high-end merchandise require more exclusive surroundings -- these auctions go on at Drouot Montaigne (15 av. Montaigne, 8th arrond.; tel. 01 48 00 20 80; Métro: Alma-Marceau), in the ultrachic area just south of the Champs Elysées.
Tapestry Factory Tour
Back in the 17th century, Louis XIV purchased the Manufacture des Gobelins (42 av. des Gobelins, 13th arrond.; tel. 01 44 08 52 00; www.mobiliernational.culture.gouv.fr; guided visits only: €10 adults, €7.50 13-25; free under 12; guided tours Tues-Thurs 2 and 3pm, reserve at least a day ahead at tel. 08 92 68 36 22, or at www.fnac.fr, or in person at any Fnac store; Métro: Gobelins) with the aim of furnishing his new chateau (Versailles) with the most splendid tapestries around. France's most skilled workers created sumptuous carpets and wall-coverings using designs sketched by the top artists of the era (Le Brun and Boucher, to name just two). The workshop's reputation has survived the centuries, and the factory is still active, using the same materials used in the time of Louis XIV (wool, cotton, silk). Still state-owned, today the factory operates under the auspices of the French Ministry of Culture, and produces modern tapestries to hang in some of France's most grand public spaces.
This is definitely not a mass-market operation -- these tapestries take several years to finish. Highly skilled workers (they study for 4 years at the on-site school) work from paintings by contemporary artists to create enormous works of art; during the tour you'll see the weavers in action at their giant looms. It is humbling to see how carefully and patiently the weavers work, tying tiny individual knots and/or passing shuttles of wool through a forest of warp and weft, all the while following an intricate design scheme. To visit the ateliers, you must take a guided, 1½-hour tour (which are in limited supply -- see hours above); there is also a newly re-opened exposition space that offers temporary shows on design themes (Tues-Sun 12:30-6:30pm).
You can walk right into an artist's studio during Portes Ouvertes (various sites around the city), when artists' associations "open their doors" to art fans, buyers, and anyone interested in seeing what's cooking in the Paris art world. During a period of three or four days in spring and fall, the public is invited to visit studios, apartments, and lofts where up-and-coming artists show their wares in the place they were created. Since each association is defined by a geographic neighborhood, on these art walks you'll not only see paintings and sculptures, but also parts of the city that you might not otherwise venture into. You might even bring home a unique souvenir.
In November 2007, for example, a group of artists living in the 18th and 9th arrondissements, "Anvers aux Abbesses," opened 118 different studios and living spaces to the public. In the 20th, the unofficial capital of young Parisian art, three different associations open their doors: the smallish Les Ateliers du Père Lachaise, a collective of 50 artists; the medium-sized Ateliers de Ménilmontant, which counts 150 members; and the mammoth Ateliers des Artistes de Belleville, a consortium of 250 painters, sculptors, video artists, and photographers. Generally, these events are well organized, and you can download detailed maps with pertinent information from the associations' websites. The only problem is finding out exactly when they are happening. You can look on the following websites for details on the four described above: Anvers aux Abbesses (http://anversauxabbesses.free.fr); Les Ateliers du Père Lachaise (www.apla.fr); Les Ateliers des Artistes de Belleville (www.ateliers-artistes-belleville.org); and Les Ateliers de Ménilmontant (www.ateliersdemenilmontant.org). Otherwise, ask at the Paris tourist office (www.parisinfo.com) and/or keep an eye out in the listings magazines.
For direct access to the heart of French tradition, you need only visit one of the city's many open-air markets, or marchés (mar-shay). Marchés are small universes unto themselves where nothing substantial has really changed for centuries. The fishmonger trumpeting the wonders of this morning's catch probably doesn't sound a whole lot different than his ancestor in the Middle Ages (though their dress has changed), and I'm sure housewives assessed the fruits and vegetables in the stalls with the same pitiless stares that they do today. Certainly the hygiene and organization have improved and there are no more jugglers or bear baiters to entertain the crowds, but the essence of the experience remains the same -- a noisy, bustling, joyous chaos where you can buy fresh, honest food.
Does food taste better when you buy it from a smiling farmer, whose cucumbers were just picked that morning and still bear little white flowers? You bet it does. And even if many sellers are middlemen who buy their products at the central market at Rungis, you're still a lot closer to the source than you would be at a shop or a supermarket. Quality aside, you'll find one thing at a marché that you will never find at a supermarket: character. The people who work here are anything but citified, suit-wearing office types; they are salt of the earth, hard-working personalities who will not hesitate to tell you what they think, or make a joke, or give you tips and recipes, for that matter. Even if you don't have access to cooking facilities, marchés are great places to pick up picnic goodies or just a mid-morning nosh; along with fruit and vegetable vendors, you'll find bakeries, charcuteries (sort of like a deli, but better), and other small stands selling homemade jams, honey, or desserts.
If you're in the mood for people-watching, you'll get a wonderful show at a marché. All types of shoppers come here, from grannies pushing shopping carts, to earnest young professionals, to noisy families looking for fixings for Sunday lunch. Some of the covered markets have small cafes inside -- these are ideal for sitting down and soaking up the atmosphere. Some markets, like the Marché Raspail, are entirely outdoor affairs that stretch down the median of a large avenue; others, like the enormous Marché d'Aligre, have both indoor and outdoor sections that take up almost an entire neighborhood. Outdoor markets tend to be open only in the morning; covered (indoor) markets are usually open all day with a break for lunch.
A few marché rules: Unless you see evidence to the contrary, don't pick up your own fruits and vegetables with your hands. Wait until the vendor serves you and point. Also, don't be surprised if the line in front of the stand is an amorphous blob of people; this is the French way. Surprisingly, fist-fights are rare; somehow everyone seems to be aware of who came before them, and if they aren't, no one seems to care.
There are marchés in every arrondissement in the city. Below is a selective list; you can search the municipal website (www.paris.fr, search for "marchés parisiens") for a complete listing, or ask at your hotel for the one closest to where you're staying.
- Marché d'Alésia (rues de la Glacière et de la Santé, 13th arrond.; Wed and Sat 7am-2:30pm; Métro: Glacière)
- Marché d'Aligre (also called Marché Beauveau, place d'Aligre, 12th arrond.; outdoor market Tues-Sun 9am-1pm, covered market Tues-Sat 9am-1pm and 4-7:30pm, Sun 9am-1:30pm; Métro: Ledru Rollin or Gare de Lyon)
- Marché Barbès (blvd. de la Chapelle in front of Hospital Lariboisière, 18th arrond; Wed and Sat 7am-2:30pm; Métro: Barbès-Rochechouart)
- Marché Bastille (blvd. Richard Lenoir between rue Amelot and rue St-Sabin, 11th arrond.; Thurs and Sun 7am-2:30pm; Métro: Bastille)
- Marché Batignolles (organic; blvd. Batignolles, 17th arrond.; Sat 9am-2pm; Métro: Rome)
- Marché Grenelle (blvd. Grenelle, between rue Lourmel and rue du Commerce, 15th arrond.; Wed and Sun 7am-2:30pm; Métro: La Motte Picquet-Grenelle)
- Marché Monge (place Monge, 5th arrond; Wed, Fri, and Sun 7am-2:30pm; Métro: place Monge)
- Marché Raspail (blvd. Raspail between rue de Cherche-Midi and rue de Rennes, 6th arrond.; Tues and Fri, 7am-2:30pm; Métro: Rennes)
- Marché Saxe-Breteuil (ave. du Saxe, 7th arrond.; Thurs and Sat 7am-2:30pm; Métro: Ségur)
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This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's Paris, 2nd Edition, available in our online bookstore now.
Find out more about the Pauline Frommer Travel Guide series, read articles by Pauline, and listen to Podcasts at Pauline's page on Frommers.com.