Ghastly and saucy past revealed in historical walking tour of Paris, France

During the heady days of the French Revolution the most sought-after ticket in Paris was a front row spot for a public execution in the Place de Revolution.

More than 1000 people, including Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette, were guillotined here amid a screaming mass of humanity, pike wielding soldiers and canon.

"In those days people would often take their children to watch an execution," says Florent, our guide, "but people complained that the guillotine was too quick and didn't provide enough entertainment for them."

Two centuries later the vast paved square, renamed Place de la Concorde, looks very much as it did when Louis XVI, accompanied by a priest, left his carriage and climbed a few wooden steps to the guillotine.

"I die innocent of all the crimes laid to my charge," he shouted at the baying mob, before forgiving his enemies and calling for an end to bloodshed in France. As the blade fell, a young guard rushed forward, seized the severed head and began walking in triumph around the scaffold, brandishing his trophy. The frenzied mob responded with chants of "vive la Republique".

While many visitors to Paris immediately target the city's most famous landmarks such as The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Champs-Elysees to really understand the French capital you need to pound the boulevards, parks and hidden passageways – preferably with a local.

At the end of my 11-day Scenic cruise along the Seine I had the opportunity to join a group of fellow passengers for a walking tour of Paris, taking in the Place de la Concorde, the Jardin de Tuileries and the Palais Garnier, the city's grandiose 19th century opera house.

Florent, a young Parisian with a degree in history and an offbeat sense of humour leads us to the exact spot where the French king was beheaded in 1793. "There were so many executions that the neighbours complained about the smell of blood," he quips. "The guillotine was transported to another part of the city."

Elsewhere on the Place de la Concorde is the Luxor Obelisk, the oldest monument in Paris. A gift from the ruler of Egypt, the distinctive granite column arrived in Paris in 1836 after a two-year voyage from its homeland – the unveiling was attended by 200,000 people.

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A pleasant stroll in the Jardin de Tuileries, a public park since 1667, provides a glimpse of The Louvre, a former royal palace and now the world's most visited museum.

En route to the Paris Opera, we stop at Hotel Le Meurice, the wartime headquarters of General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor who is celebrated for ignoring Hitler's instructions to raze Paris in the dying days of World War II. "People say that the view from his room was so beautiful that he couldn't bear the thought of destroying such a city," says Florent.

Passing a glittering array of jewellery stores we reach Place Vendome before pausing at a statue of Edward VII, tucked away in a tiny square which also bears his name."During his bachelor days, the Prince of Wales lived in Paris and was known for his decadent lifestyle," says Florent. "His nickname, Dirty Bertie, was well deserved."

Although the statue, which shows the king resplendent on horseback, celebrates Edward's role in forging closer links between England and France, Parisians remember the young prince for his many amorous adventures. One of his favourite haunts was a brothel called La Chabanais where the Prince of Wales had a private room equipped with a ornate copper bathtub which he allegedly filled with champagne and prostitutes.

After a couple of hours in Florent's company it becomes apparent that Paris is not simply a city of gastronomy, elegant shopping and tree-lined boulevards, but is brimming with scandal, intrigue and gossip. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, secrets travel fast in Paris.

TRIP NOTES

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FLY

British Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to London via Singapore, with connections to Paris. See britishairways.com

CRUISE

Scenic's 11-day Normandy & Gems of the Seine cruise sails from Paris to Paris via Honfleur and includes escorted day trips to the Somme battlefield and Omaha Beach, plus shore excursions to Monet's Garden, Chantilly Castle, Rouen, Honfleur, La Cote Fleurie and Auvers-sur-Oise. Prices from $6945 a person, twin share. Tariffs include all meals and drinks, Scenic Freechoice activities, airport transfers, tips and gratuities and free Wi-Fi. Seescenic.com.au

Mark Chipperfield was a guest of Scenic.​

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