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Originally published Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 12:02 AM

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Seeing parts of Paris that most tourists never see

See Paris like a local on tours that introduce visitors to artists, residents and offbeat corners of the city.

The Associated Press

You've posed for a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower, checked out the Mona Lisa at the Louvre and walked to the top of the Arc de Triomphe. If you think you've done it all in Paris, don't worry, there are plenty of off-the-beaten-path adventures for your return.

Away from landmarks, tourist crowds and flashing cameras, a few guides will take you on unusual tours behind the scenes, literally, in a movie tour, or to discover artists' havens in Belleville, fountains of famous gardens and eco-friendly initiatives around town. Alongside curious locals, you'll get a glimpse of a different Paris.

MEET THE ARTISTS AND RESIDENTS:, $17 (12 euros), offered several times weekly.

Just a few Metro stops away from the city's major monuments lies the overlooked neighborhood of Belleville that's worth the detour, especially in the company of Angenic Agnero, who runs the nonprofit organization Paris par Rues Meconnues (Paris Along Unknown Streets).

Agnero has been walking the streets of the neighborhood for 10 years interviewing its residents. She now holds the keys — or rather the door codes — to many buildings, allowing visitors to discover a hidden side of the area. Once the doors close, it's easy to imagine you're miles away from Paris, in the quiet countryside.

Although unknown by many, Belleville has had its share of fame. "La vie en rose" singer Edith Piaf reportedly started her career here singing in the streets.

Working-class Belleville is now home to many of Paris' ceramists, mosaic artists and various artisans. Instead of lecturing on the area's long history, Agnero introduces you to her friends and shares stories, including one about a man who traveled to France by boat illegally and named his bar Le Petit Navire (the small boat) to show his gratitude.

While you're here, pick up locally made hats, gifts and made-to-measure leather shoes.

WATER TOUR:, $7 (5 euros), offered several times per week. Each tour departs from a different area.

A guide takes small groups on a walk through a chosen neighborhood focusing on water. Although not obvious at first, the water theme is present everywhere around the Jardin des Tuileries, designed by Andre Le Notre, a landscape architect, in the 17th century.

Here, artists made rivers come to life through sculptures. The Loire and the Loiret Rivers become a man and a woman.

"Water has always been a problem," said guide Hugues Meles, explaining that although the Seine river provided plenty of water, it was also used as a sewer and unsafe to drink.


In 1807, there were only 56 fountains for approximately 647,000 inhabitants. Napoleon built the Canal de l'Ourcq and the Canal St. Martin in 1808, following advice that in order to make Parisians happy, you'd have to give them water.

Outside the garden's walls, as if laid out on a map, eight statues represent the largest harbor cities in France. Marseille is a woman with grape headgear sitting on a boat, holding an olive tree branch, a symbol of peace and the Mediterranean.

At Place de la Concorde, Meles tells you about the obelisk — a present to Paris from Egypt — and the two fountains that surround it.

You'll learn that the popular Wallace fountains used by Parisians to quench their thirst on hot days were named for an English philanthropist who was shocked to find out one had to pay for a glass of water in Paris. He built fountains around the city to provide free water to all.

And if the tour has made you thirsty, ask Meles about the free water available for bottling in the 16th arrondissement.

ECO-VISIT:, $113 (80 euros), offered daily. Starting at Place de la Concorde.

If you can spring for it, let Erwann Maizy take you on an air-conditioned visit of the city of lights in his Prius, recognizable by the colorful print of a Ginkgo biloba tree, the world's oldest tree.

In the comfort of a hybrid car that zooms silently through the busy intersections, the nature enthusiast points out air sensors that help AIRPARIF, an air-monitoring system, measure the quality of the air Parisians breathe daily.

Maizy explains that Le Notre designed the Champs Elysees in 1670 to allow for the sun to set at the end of it. Today, the Arc de Triomphe becomes a frame for the sunsets twice a year — around May 8 and Aug. 1.

On the avenue where crowds gather to see the end of the Tour de France, Maizy also points out the world's first LED-lit building now owned by French newspaper France-Soir.

With 100,000 trees lining the boulevards, Paris has become the most wooded European city, according to Maizy.

As he drives slowly though the streets to recharge his car battery, he talks about the vertical garden at the Musee du Quai Branly and 50 other gardens most people don't know about. Opera Garnier won't look the same once you know there are beehives on its rooftop. And if you're feeling hungry or simply looking for an unusual souvenir, ask Maizy to stop at the Opera's gift shop or at the popular Fauchon store to pick up a jar of the urban honey.

MOVIE TOUR:, $12.75 (9 euros), offered on Sundays. The group meets at the MK2 theater on the Quai de Seine side of the canal.

Led by movie buff and actor Lula Suassuna, you'll learn that one out of two French movies is filmed in or around Paris these days.

Suassuna points out quotes on the walls of the movie theater, famous lines from movies like "You talkin' to me?" from Robert DeNiro in "Taxi Driver." First reading the lines, he then acts out parts of the scenes, setting the mood for the tour.

Traveling by boat to the outskirts of the city, the small group listens to the driver and his assistant talk about the construction of the Canal Saint Martin and Canal de l'Ourcq in 1808 by Napoleon. On the edges of the canal, people bicycle and walk quietly.

Going past bridges, with the help of Suassuna, you recognize one on which the title character from "Amelie" spent afternoons skipping stones on the water.

The Seine-Saint-Denis is home to companies that did special effects for movies such as "Spider-Man," "Fight Club," and the three last "Batman" movies. Non-French speakers beware, the tour is usually offered only in French.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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