Image: Paris greeter
Michel Euler  /  AP
Christian Ragil of France, left, guides Ju Young Gam of South Korea, as they tour the Trocadero plaza near the Eiffel tower, seen behind.
updated 10/9/2008 1:40:51 PM ET 2008-10-09T17:40:51

The city of light has an unfortunate blight: the locals' reputation for rudeness. That's why a group of friendly Parisians have banded together to show complete strangers around their Paris, the one not found in travel books — for free.

And forget stereotypes of the francais-only French. The Paris Greeters are happy to speak English, or nine other languages of your choosing.

These local volunteers are not certified tour guides, but regular folks eager to show off delicacies at their favorite boulangerie, or point out a tranquil park perfect for watching autumn shades fill in the famous skyline.

"I've always heard my American friends say things like, 'Paris is wonderful — except for the Parisians,'" says volunteer Christian Ragil. "And I always wanted to do something about it." When he retired, he decided to join the Greeters, which has grown since its inception a year ago into 120 volunteers who have guided 1,100 visitors.

His visit starts out at the Trocadero, where tourists flock to admire an unparalleled view of the Eiffel Tower across the Seine River. But instead of focusing on the monument, he turns his back on it to show a young woman from Seoul the striking 1930s architecture surrounding them.

He then takes his visitor on a leisurely two-hour walk around a residential, tourist-free area, pointing out architectural marvels along the way.

"It was very much like walking with a friend of yours you hadn't seen for a while," said Steve Bernstein, a 62-year-old retiree from San Diego who recently followed Ragil's tour.

When a visitor asks for culinary guidance, Ragil whips out a secret list of Greeter volunteers' favorite restaurants — ones you won't find in travel guides. The visit ends, as many Paris afternoons do, over a cup of steaming coffee in a sidewalk cafe.

The visits are as eclectic as Paris' neighborhoods. Some greeters will ride bicycles around town with you. Others will help you sift through antique shops, let you in to local artists' studios, or have you taste the best pastries in the city.

The program is based on the original in another city famed for its inhospitable locals — New York. Similar programs are also found in several U.S. states, in Australia, Britain, Argentina, Canada and the Netherlands.

A not-for-profit, the Paris Greeters was launched in July 2007 with help from the city government.

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"City officials wanted to change the image tourists have of Parisians," said Dominique Cotta, president of the Paris Greeters. "We wanted to show that the city was not just old stones but also had human capital: Small bistros, restaurants, culture, ambiance."

"Paris is much more than just its monuments," Cotta said.

As visitor Bernstein said, "It was exciting to be there surrounded by these beautiful buildings, and realize people like Christian lived in them."

"After the tour, my friend and I walked around Paris with our newfound knowledge pointing out different architectural periods in the buildings we saw," he said.

The best part, he said, was the moderate pace, so foreign to many tourists hungrily rushing through a new city.

"It was a much more relaxed tour. You didn't have the pressure of going to the Eiffel Tower and telling yourself, I can only stay here for half an hour because then I have to go run to the Louvre."

Following in Paris' footsteps, a second Greeters program recently launched in Nantes, in western France.

The Paris Greeters are being flooded with requests. They jumped from 18 visitors in their first month to 146 visitors in July.

Organization has proved increasingly difficult, with only one salaried employee, and a high rate of last-minute visitor cancellations and no-shows. Cotta hopes to recruit private sponsors and new volunteers later this year.

To meet a Paris Greeter, sign up at least two weeks in advance. Note that Greeters will not accept any tips, but will expect you to pay for their transportation fares.

And whatever you may have heard about Parisians, you might just come home with a new saying. As Spanish tourist Marina Iglesias succinctly told her greeter: "Paris — and the Parisians — are wonderful."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Perfectly Paris

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  1. Mood lighting

    The Eiffel Tower and the Hotel des Invalides are illuminated at dusk with in Paris. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Heart of the Louvre

    The intricate ceiling of the Appolo Gallery at Paris' Louvre Museum is reflected in a display case in the foreground. Built in 1661, the gallery was not fully completed until 1851. In all, over twenty artists worked on the decoration. The Appolo Gallery gallery contains more than two centuries of French art, and houses such wonders as the French Crown Jewels, including the famous Régent (140 carats) and Sancy (53 carats) diamonds, as well as the 105-carat Côte de Bretagne ruby. (Joel Robine / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. To the heavens

    The Sacred Heart Catholic church (Basilique Sacré-Coeur) is seen on Paris' highest point, in Montmartre. The view at the top of the dome is excellent -- 271 feet above Montmartre Hill -- and is the second-highest viewpoint after the Eiffel Tower. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Looking glass

    This elaborate stained-glass cupola (dome) inside Magasins du Printemps department store is located above the main restaurant in the store. Installed in 1923, it is composed of 3,185 individual pieces of stained glass. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Keeping cool

    Tourists soak their feet in a reflecting pool at Place du Trocadero, an area of museums and gardens. (Gabriel Bouys / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Sights from the Seine

    A "Bateau Mouche" tourist boat travels near the Paris Justice court. These boat tours are a popular, but relaxing way to view the sights of Paris along the Seine River. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Museum of masterpieces

    Originally a royal fortress for kings, and open to all since 1793, the Louvre is one the world's greatest art museums, housing 35,000 works of ancient and Western art, displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. More than 6 million visitors see the Louvre per year. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Shopper's haven

    Local art, food and other goods are sold in passage Jouffroy, across Boulevard Montmartre. Originally designed to protect pedestrians from mud and horse-drawn vehicles, the passages (shopping arcades), arre located between the Grands Boulevards and the Louvre. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Modern art

    A view of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Its 1977 factory style architecture contrasts with the surrounding buildings of Paris' oldest district near Notre-Dame cathedral. It has a public library, and the French National Museum of Modern Art. (Loic Venance / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Holy architecture

    One of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture is the Notre Dame Cathedral, attracting 13 million visitors each year. The name Notre Dame means "Our Lady" in French. (Stéphane Querbes / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Practical protectors

    The famous stone statues of Notre Dame. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Tranquil gardens

    The Jardin des Tuileries is Paris's most central garden. Its fountains, sculptures, cafes, formal gardens, and central location, make it a popular destination for visitors and locals. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Offi) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Tuileries Palace

    Tuileries Palace encloses the western end of the Louvre and the formal gardens that make up Jardin des Tuileries park, stretching from the Louvre to the Place de Concorde, and bordered by the Seine. (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Moulin Rouge

    The cabaret Moulin Rouge was built in 1889, in Paris' red-light district of Pigalle on Boulevard de Clichy. The Moulin Rouge is best known as the birthplace of the can-can dance. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Flowing with history

    The Fontaine des Mers at one of the main public square, Place de la Concorde. At 20 acres, it is the largest square in Paris. (Henri Garat / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Honoring warriors

    The Arc de Triomphe stands in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle, at the western end of the Champs-Elysees. The arch honors soldiers who fought for France. The names of generals and wars fought can be found on the inside and top of the arc. Underneath, is the tomb of the unknown soldier from World War I . (Bruce Bennett / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Coffee break

    People walk past a boulangerie (bakery) in the Montmartre district in Paris. (Michel Euler / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Paris blues

    A piece of renowned French Roquefort blue cheese is displayed in a shop in Paris. (Philippe Wojazer / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Pricey real estate

    The Place Vendome is an octagonal square located to the north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of the Eglise de la Madeleine. The bronze spiral column at the center of the square was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon to celebrate the French army’s victory at Austerlitz. Within the square are apartments, and posh hotels and high-end retailers, including Cartier, Chanel, and Bulgari. (Benoit Tessier / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. French connection

    The high-speed rail network in France goes to several Parisian train stations, including Gare Du Nord shown here. The name was derived by the idea that travelers would be able to travel to Belgium, Netherlands, Northern Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It is the busiest railway station in Europe, and the third -busiest in the world. (Cate Gillon / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The grandest address in Paris

    The Pere Lachaise cemetary (Father Lachaise Cemetery) on the eastern edge of the city, is named after the Jesuit Father Lachaise, King Louis XIV's confessor. Many famous people are buried here, including Musset, Chopin, Moliere, Oscar Wilde, Delacroix, Balzac, Jim Morrison. (Amélie Dupont / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Impressive collection

    The Musée d'Orsay is one of Paris' most popular museums, housed in the former railway station, the Gare d'Orsay. The museum houses an extensive collection of sculptures and impressionist masterpieces by Monet, Degas, Renoir, and Cezanne. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Grand design

    The Grand Palais (Big Palace) was built for the World Fair of 1900. The building is best known for its enormous glass-domed roof, making it one of Paris’ most recognizable landmarks. The Grand Palais was the work of three different architects, and is currently the largest existing ironwork and glass structure in the world. (Marc Bertrand / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Prestigious avenue

    The Louis Vuitton department store is located on the stunning Champs-Elysees, one of the world's most famous and beautiful streets. (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Le Pantheon

    Le Pantheon was originally intended to be a church dedicated to Saint Genevieve to fulfil a vow made by Louis XV while he'd fallen ill. It was used for religious and civil purposes until 1885 and now functions as a famous burial place. (David Lefranc / Paris Tourist Office) Back to slideshow navigation
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