Independent travel for independent minds

Sous les pavés la plage! (1968 REVOLUTIONARY SLOGAN)

City of romance, revolution and riots – just the mention is enough to evoke a headrush of images and connotations. Stylish residents and high fashion in Right Bank shops; amateur philosophers and wannabe writers in Left Bank cafes; Gertrude Stein berating the "Lost Generation"; an unknown Edith Piaf singing for her supper in Belleville backstreets; and of course, 1968.

In a country where
people-watching is an art form, and "faire la greve" (striking) a sport; a turbulent past and a literary tradition means cafes are constantly abuzz with livelyl discourse and strong opinions. Don't mistake their pride for arrogance, though we can excuse a little vanity from the country which brought us the likes of (proto-Beat) Rimbaud, Voltaire, Descartes, Molliere, Camus and Sartre.

Only a protester's cobblestone-throw from Notre Dame is the famous Shakespeare & Co bookstore (37 rue de la Boucherie). Sylvia Beach's original (12 rue de l'Odéon) published Joyce's Ulysses when no-one else would, and was a meeting point for literati like Joyce, Ezra Pound, F Scott Fitzgerald and of course his friend, the seemingly omnipresent Hemingway.

It was eventually closed by the Nazis, then George Whitman opened the current version in the 50s and this became a rendezvous for the big names of Beat like Ginsberg and Burroughs. From the giveaways out front, to the novels in back and the antique editions next door; there's something for all tastes and they'll stamp the inside cover for those who like souvenirs.

Workshops and readings take place regularly and after dark, amongst the books, sleep the "tumbleweeds". These unknown writers continue the tradition of guesting scribes, paying for their accommodation with a few hours work.

"Baudelaire honoured reveries of travel as a mark of those noble questing souls whom he described as 'poets', who could not be satisfied with the horizons of home even as they appreciated the limits of other lands, whose temperaments oscillated between hope and despair, childlike idealism and cynicism. It was the fate of poets, like Christian pilgrims, to live in a fallen world while refusing to surrender their vision of an alternative, less compromised, realm."Alain de Botton

Existential angst is intellectually taxing, and the bohemian boulevardier and renaissance (wo)man will need to "light out", Left Bank style. If you're feeling more social than Sartre ("l'enfer c'est les autres" - hell is other people) then head up Rue Descartes and over les pavés.

Imagine one of those cobblestones in your hand during"les evenements" of '68, as the CRS riot police baton-charge you and your Sorbonne counterparts. Your cause? Social equality? The Vietnam War? Or maybe just a general boredom – what was referred to as "l'ennui". But perhaps you truly believed that beneath the strictures of modern capitalist society, a more natural and free world awaited - "sous les pavés la plage" or "under the cobblestones the beach".

Snug in the Mayflower 'English pub' on the celebrated Rue Mouffetard, savour a strong Belgian (beer that is) as you watch today's students enjoy a little Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité in their distinctive "faluche" hats. At Student Bar on the same street, the friendly staff will chat (in French) as they whip you up a mojito. Paris isn't cheap, so get out early for the happy hours.

Cooler cats might want to leave the hordes behind for funky Menilmontant in the 20th arrondissement. Bookpacking headed up the hill one Sunday evening in autumn. Falling upon a band playing frenzied 50s jazz, in Rue Boyer, we were then invited to a poetry slam a few doors down at La Bellevilloise.
After that, we all piled round the corner to La Miroiterie for a backstreet folk-jazz-brass jam where half the audience turned out to be musos and ended up crammed on the tiny stage for a full-on finale.

Around town
Hire a Velib' from one of the many bike stations and see Paris for peanuts. On Sundays whole swathes of boulevards are closed to cars and Parisians promenade around town and along the Seine by foot, on rollerblades, and of course Velib'. Register your credit card, pay €1 for a day pass and then select a bike. If you return it within 30 minutes, there's no charge and you can cross the city for free like this.

Take a tour of the famous dead at Pere Lachaise and Montparnasse cemeteries. Pause for thought in peaceful surrounds at the resting places of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Chopin, Piaf, Moliere, Man Ray, Sartre and many more. Or go even further and tour the famous Catacombs at D'Enfer Rochereau. The way to really see them is with the secretive networks who organise illicit parties down there. But if the police can't find them, you probably don't have much chance either.

Essential reading/viewing
A Moveable Feast – Hemingway's classic vignettes from the "Americans in Paris" scene
Suite Francaise – doomed Irene Nemirovsky's tragically realistic story of wartime Paris
La Vie en Rose - award winning life story of Edith Piaf, the 'little sparrow'