In 2012, I discovered the most wonderful tour company in Paris called “Paris Walks.” We were in Paris on Christmas day and on a lark, we went to a tour of the Latin Quarter. On the tour I learned that the Latin Quarter got its name because it was where the university was and Latin was the choice tongue. Other tidbits we learned were about the apartment complex where the former prime minister of France had an apartment for his family and another for his mistress’ family. Near Notre Dame, we visited a little church that used to be a charnel house (or attached to one), which were bones were stored. However, with the incredible numbers of people dying in Paris, it was decided that charnel houses, including this one, would have their bones removed to the Paris Catacombs.
Overall, it was a tremendous tour. Paris Walks is run by ex-patriots (British?). The walks are low fuss; you show up at a designated place at a time. The walks are usually 12 Euros and last two hours. You cover a lot of ground so be prepared to walk. And there are many different walks for different tastes, whether you wish to learn about a neighborhood, like the Marais, or a time period, like the resistance during WWII.
On that very day, we did Part 1 of the Marais walk and the following day, we did Ernest Hemmingway’s Paris. The Marais walk included the building given to a mistress of the young King who initiated him into manhood (rendering a service unto the crown). The Hemmingway tour was incredible; we saw the house that James Joyce lived in and probably wrote parts of Ulysses. I grew to appreciate the English language bookstore Shakespeare & Company because its original owner, Sylvia Beach, is responsible for publishing the first edition of Ulysses, (Well after the Chicago based literary magazine the Little Review was prevented from serialization due to obscenity charges). Also there was a lending library that exists today. You can go up to the second floor and read old beautiful books while a pianist in the rooms nearby plays.
I’m not a huge fan of Hemmingway and I was really there for the other ex-patriots that he hung out with. However, the tour guide’s timely reading from Hemmingway’s A Moveable Feast made me immediately rush out and purchase a copy. It was well worth it; he captures the beauty of Paris so well.
So in a later trip in 2013, we discovered the London counterpart of Paris Walks: London Walks. I think it’s the father of Paris Walks. It’s very similar; you show up to a designated place, usually a tube stop, for the tour. Its 9 Pounds and lasts about two hours. There are many many more tours than Paris walks so you really have a lot to choose from: Harry Potter, spy history, Jack the Ripper and more. While we were there, we did two ghost walks, one about the West End and the other around Monument and St. Paul’s.
Both were absolutely a blast. It was a mix of gory ghost stories and historical bites. We learned that the greeting “Cheerio” may be derived from people standing on their doorstep and calling for a chair to take them to their destination (you know back when that was a major form of transportation). “Chair, Ho” allegedly turned into cheerio.
We learned about the horrifying trade of body snatching from graveyards. There was the unfortunately case of a man who had some disease that completely incapacitated him. He couldn’t speak a word or move a muscle. Friends and family thought he was dead, and buried him alive. Some grave robbers came and dug up the body, sold it to medical school for their students. It wasn’t until they used a scalpel on him that he became unparalyzed and could let the world know he was still alive. Awful, no?
We also went through them for our recent tour of Westminster. It was admittedly more of an ordeal but the rain and crowds contributed to that. Once we got inside, it was well worth it.
So if you are in either London or Paris, I highly recommend that you take one or two of these tours.