Any number of guides will claim to confidentially reveal to you some ‘secret’ parts of Paris – and, sure enough, these places are often charming little nooks. But when you arrive, you may well find that these secrets have likewise been revealed to thousands of other curious people. Hmm, so much for the conspiratorial secrets.
A new perspective on secret Paris
But there really is a substantial part of Paris that is a different kind of ‘secret’ hiding in plain sight. You just need to know where to look and then you can’t miss it – even from several kilometres away. The name of this little-known part of Paris is La Défense. Well, it’s little known to tourists, but very well known to the thousands of French workers who throng the district every day. So, what is this place?
Standing just outside and to the west of the historical centre of Paris, La Défense is actually Europe’s largest built-for-purpose and ultra-modern business district. Its architectural profile is very ‘un-Parisian’ in that it features more than 70 steel and glass towers, including around 20 genuine skyscrapers. And there’s not a classic ‘Haussmann Paris’ low-rise stone building to be found. Sounds pretty boring, huh? No, not at all!
The chef d’oeuvre of La Défense is a massive and magnificent modernist monument completed in 1989 called La Grande Arche de la Défense. Just how grand is it? This arch – well, it’s really more of a hollowed-out cube – stands at 110 metres or 360 feet. Yes, it’s the height of a 36-storey building. In fact, it is a pair of 36-storey office buildings, utilizing both sides of the cubed arch and joined at right angles across the top.
If you have urged your weary legs all the way to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, you would have stood at an impressive height of 50 metres or 164 feet. But to keep a sense of scale, that’s less than half the height of La Grande Arche de la Défense. If you had turned your gaze west from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, what would you have seen very clearly 4 kilometres away? Yes, La Grande Arche la Défense. But being an odd kind of modern Paris ‘secret’, you wouldn’t look out for it without knowing it was around somewhere. But there it is!
As you might notice, the older Arc de Triomphe and the newer La Grande Arche do share a certain family resemblance. It’s not accidental. The newer structure was conceived to be a stylistic update and reflection of the older structure: they literally face each other from either end of the Avenue de la Grande Armée. And as the older was constructed to commemorate France’s military victories and sacrifices, the newer was built to celebrate the enduring humanitarian values of the French people and nation. The top of La Grande Arche de la Défense also provides visitors with an astonishingly elevated view of historic Paris – yes, even better than the outlook from the Arc de Triomphe.
Authentic – but different Paris
For tourists, La Défense is not the obviously seductive Paris of Amelie or of a thousand other Paris-based romantic movies. On the other hand, the 1,400-acre district does host many hundreds of modern shops, cafes and restaurants that cater very largely for the 25,000 local French residents and 180,000 commuting workers. So if you’re seeking an ‘authentic’ but different kind of Parisian experience where you can mix with French people going about their everyday business and pleasures, La Défense is the place you can do it. Now that is a secret worth knowing. And just between us, of course.
By Brad Allan, writer and wine tasting host in Melbourne, Australia and frequent visitor to France…
More on secret Paris
The Sorbonne District, a time warp part of Paris
Butte Bergeyre – a secret village in the heart of the city
Promenade Plantee – the most unusual park in the city