A Paris local welcomes Pamela Wade and gives her a unique tour of his neighbourhood.

"I will take you through my life," announced Quan, when we met one morning outside the Metro station in the 13th arrondissement of Paris. It was a disconcertingly personal statement from a stranger - but that was the whole point.

Quan, half-Vietnamese, half-French, is a Greeter. A half-dozen times a year, he gives up a day to play host to visitors who want the inside story on his city. The meeting is arranged through Paris Greeters, part of the Global Greeters network. No money changes hands.

The first Greeters initiative was set up in 1992 in New York, by a local who wanted to remedy the city's reputation for rudeness and hostility: the aim was to welcome visitors and show them around as friends or family. The idea has spread around the world, and the Paris Greeters network is one of the biggest, with almost 400 residents registered as volunteers.

Having already ticked off the tourist must-dos in Paris, I wanted to see something different, so when Quan responded to my query on the website with an offer to show me his suburb, naming some of the highlights such as a chapel, little streets and Chinatown, I made it a date.

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Small, energetic and brimming with enthusiasm, Quan was the perfect guide (although the organisation prefers not to use the term, making a virtue of the amateur nature of the arrangement). He meant what he said about his life: on our long walk around the 13th, we passed his childhood and current homes, his schools, the church he was married in, and places of work: proof that he knew the district intimately.

Typical Parisian cafes and the Chinese side of France's capital are a feature of volunteer Greeter Quan's tour of his hometown. Photo / Pamela Wade
Typical Parisian cafes and the Chinese side of France's capital are a feature of volunteer Greeter Quan's tour of his hometown. Photo / Pamela Wade

It's not an obvious tourist destination. There are a lot of tower blocks, for a start - although Quan was very proud of his, pointing out his apartment on the 29th floor of one modern monstrosity. In among them, though, were treasures. Butte aux Cailles, for example, is a gorgeous village of narrow, cobbled lanes between terraces of colourful Art Deco houses, their little gardens overflowing with honeysuckle and roses, cats lying in the sun, quaint street lamps completing the picture.

There's the 16th century Gobelin tapestry factory, where the current works are visible through the window from the pretty park outside, as the intricate stitching is carried out using ancient techniques. Around the corner is the medieval chateau of the White Queen, its twin turrets making it look like something from a fairy tale.

There's more modern history: a plaque on Quan's primary school wall remembering 130 Jewish pupils seized and sent to the death camps; and another outside the Sante prison exhorting passers-by to never forget the 18 Resistance fighters executed inside its walls.

The imposing Pitie-Salpetriere began life in the 17th century as a gunpowder factory, became a harsh prison for prostitutes, the poor and the insane, and was finally converted to the teaching hospital where Princess Diana died. At the other end of the scale, under a carpark, is a Chinese temple lined with statues and hung with red lanterns. The 13th is Paris' Chinatown, with plenty of other Asian influences as well, as I found at lunchtime over a bowl of pho.

Besides the famous Tang Freres Chinese supermarket, there are more usual produce markets with serious cheese and sausage stalls brightened by colourful fruits and vegetables, all artistically arranged.

The Chinese side of France's capital, Paris. Photo / Nach, Creative Commons License
The Chinese side of France's capital, Paris. Photo / Nach, Creative Commons License

Art is everywhere: avant-garde street art, imaginative and expert, big and small, enlivens blank walls. The district is popular with artists and, sneaking us into a pretty courtyard surrounded by studios, Quan was as thrilled as me to meet one of the residents, who invited us in to see his space, light and bright and filled with paintings and sculpture.

Round and round we went, up and down, learning about street cleaning and how to operate the public toilets and rent-a-bikes, tasting spring water, walking past the neatest street people ever, going into the Art Deco public baths, meeting a nun inside a church where talking is forbidden, getting shooed away from an almshouse by a bossy little girl.

Seven hours later, at the cost only of shoe-leather, I'd seen Paris from the inside, and made a friend.

Greeters? I'm a fan.

Checklist

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand offers daily flights to London from Auckland via Los Angeles with onward connections to Paris on partner airlines. One-way Economy fares start from $1539. airnz.co.nz

DETAILS
For more information on the Greeters network in Paris, go to greeters.paris.

Day trips from Paris

Paris really has it all - an enchanting menu of mouthwatering cuisine, world-leading shopping and cultural experiences. Then there are the landmarks on everyone's bucket list: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Champs Elysees and the Louvre.

And just outside the French capital, there's a whole new realm of opportunities.

• The gorgeous chateau and park of Versailles are just a 40-minute train ride away, an easy day trip. The magical site includes a labyrinth of pathways around fountains, statues, woods and gardens. The famous estates of the tragic Marie-Antoinette - the Orangerie, the Petit and Grand Trianons - are not to be missed.

• Sip the real thing, French champagne, during a visit to the region from which it gets its name. Take a delightful day-trip to beautiful Reims and learn about some of the world's most famous traditional champagnes including G.H. Mumm. In the picturesque nearby town of Epernay, you can explore the cave cellars of Mercier wineries and - back above ground - enjoy a tasting. In less than two hours, you'll be back in the centre of Paris.

• Drive to the gorgeous Loire Valley, but be sure to hit the road early as there is plenty to see and do. Visit stunning wineries and meet expert winemakers in a region where viticulture began in the 5th century. Explore quaint towns and villages among rolling green hills and valleys. Discover life as a royal at one of the region's many exquisite chateaux.