After spending last autumn in Paris, I’ve done most of the famous sights, so am always on the lookout for unusual and interesting things to see in the city. So when I came across some photos of a hidden Moroccan-style courtyard garden in the middle of Paris, I had to go and check it out on my last trip. Located in the 5th arrondissement, the Grande Mosquée de Paris is just across the street from the Jardin des Plantes. It’s one of Europe’s biggest mosques and was the first one ever built in France. It was constructed in the 1920s by the French Government as a sign of gratitude to the tirailleurs – over 100,000 Muslims from the North African French colonies who died fighting as infantry soldiers in the First World War. It was also later used as a refuge by Jews and resistance fighters during the Second World War.
The mosque’s designers took their inspiration from Morocco and Tunisia, with the design of the Minaret based on one in Fez. From outside you can’t see much other than the tower, with a lack of windows and doorways keeping the inside a mystery. But as soon as you go through the main arched doorway it feels like you’ve been magically transported from Paris to North Africa.
Every day but Friday, visitors can walk around the public areas and gardens of the mosque. The main courtyard is built of bright white marble, with arched walkways leading around the edges. The prayer hall leads off this courtyard, but is only accessible to Muslims. You can still take a closer look at the design details here though, like the wooden carvings and wrought iron which were brought over from Morocco, and the brightly coloured geometric patterned mosaics. There’s hardly any space on the walls which isn’t covered by some sort of intricate carving or decoration.
But it’s the central garden that’s the star. After going through another doorway, you emerge into a green oasis full of trees and flowers. Even on an August day the gardens were almost empty, with only a few visitors sitting reading or soaking up the sun and the peaceful atmosphere. Two pools lie along one side and are surrounded by mosaics and terracotta pots, and the central fountains stand in a sea of bright turquoise floor tiles that almost look like a pool of water underneath your feet.
Once you’ve seen enough of the mosque, you can keep the North African feeling going in their café. It’s also decorated with colourful tiles and has gleaming brass tables amongst fig trees. Waiters pour mint tea from up high in the true Moroccan style, and you can choose from piles of sticky honey and nut pastries.
The tearoom has been so popular with Parisians that the mosque has expanded it into a restaurant that serves up Moroccan specialities like fragrant tagines and steaming piles of couscous. So after eating, drinking and sightseeing North African-style, it feels strange to emerge back out onto the streets of Paris and realise that you’re still in France.
The Grande Mosquée de Paris is in Place du Puits de l’Ermite. You can tour the gardens and courtyards from 9am–12pm and 2pm–6pm (7pm in summer), except Fridays and Muslim holidays. Entry costs €3 per person. The restaurant and tea room are open every day, with the tea room open 9am–11.30pm and the restaurant open for lunch and dinner. There’s also a women-only hamman, open 10am–9pm except Tuesdays.