Is there anything more exciting, more exquisite, than the idea of a secret Paris? Hidden alleyways, forgotten corners, if you have a passion for travel, you want to escape the tourists and get under the skin of the city. You want the speakeasy bar with no name on the door; the little-known jazz club where the voice of Edith Piaf still resonates in the nicotine-stained walls; that hidden wine cellar frequented only by chefs, sommeliers… and you. You seek forgotten churches and dusty bookshops. You hunt for the flakiest croissant, the juiciest steak, the softest baguette, the creamiest camembert and the most chocolatey éclair: without the crowds and the queues. You want it all to yourself – your own little secrets in the most visited and written about city in the world.
With its intricate history and its vast and varied cultural scene, there is always something new to discover in Paris. There are a million secrets longing to be told. But if your source is Timeout, the Telegraph, Lonely Planet or Bonjour Paris, I’m sorry to break it to you, the secret is already out. If you found the list of ten secret rooftops in Paris, you can be sure that I did too, so did the next guy and so did everyone else.
After a quick google search for ‘Secret Paris’, which brought up 614 000 000 results, I clicked on a link for 14 Fantastic Secret Spots You Have to See in Paris. I was surprised to find that I didn’t already know them all, but just by reading the article, I broke the spell. Secret number two tells us about the journalist Victor Noir, whose tomb lies in Cimetière du Père Lachaise (a not-very-secret cemetery often featured on such lists). 150 years after his death, a bronze statue was (ahem) erected over his tomb and the statue has a secret in its pants. If I had spotted this detail on a stroll through the cemetery, I would have been delighted – how cheeky! It would have been my discovery, a story to share with friends, my secret to keep or to tell. But by finding it out from someone else, on a laundry list of so-called secrets, the pleasure is no longer mine.
My Secret Paris is the one I have made for myself. It’s not about restaurants or wine bars that aren’t reviewed online (if such places even exist), or the street art in less frequented corners of the city, but the experiences and memories that I’ve made. The sprawling bricolage in the basement of BHV is no secret at all but it’s part of my Secret Paris because I discovered it at the exact moment I needed it. You probably wouldn’t even enjoy my secret local bar. The food is average, the service is patchy, but I love it simply because it’s on the corner of my street. I see the same faces every time I go and I get a thrill when the staff greet me as a local. It’s where we celebrated after taking over the flat and I feel happy there. My secret bakery belongs to a chain but the baguettes are just how I like them – slightly under-baked, chewy and almost always warm from the oven. My favourite breakfast spot is probably featured in every guidebook but what no one knows is that on cold Autumn mornings in Oslo, I close my eyes and imagine sitting there in the warmth of a patio heater, sipping a cup of hot café crème and I instantly feel warm inside. I uncover some of Paris’ secrets every time I’m there but even if I share them with you, they’ll never be yours.
To find your own secret Paris, you have to make your own memories there. Walk the streets with your eyes wide open. Look for the rose that marks the entrance to your own secret garden. It will already be on a list somewhere, but if you find it by yourself, it becomes your secret to keep. Follow the smell of onions frying in white wine into the tiny restaurant in the cobbled alley without looking it up on Trip Advisor first. Hunt for your own treasure and you will find it. Go looking with someone else’s expectations and you are sure to be disappointed.
The key to unearthing the secrets of Paris is to seek them, find them and then keep them for yourself. It’s only a secret when it’s yours alone.