Travel: Through the arches of Islam in Paris

A mosque tucked away in the Latin Quarter has become a surprising tourist attraction. Rhiannon Batten took a guided tour
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The Independent Online
A flock of middle-aged French ladies swarmed around the guide at Paris Mosque as if he was the French answer to Daniel O'Donnell. One woman in particular, decked out in a flamboyant scarf and a streak of fuchsia-pink lipstick, seemed determined to monopolise him, out-questioning the other visiting women by several rounds. In fashion terms the guide would surely have gained the approval of Mr O'Donnell. His T-shirt was patterned with swirls of bitter chocolate and fudge, slotting him into the woodwork of the Mosque library like one of the contents of a tray of Terry's Black Magic. The library itself was beautiful, coming as it did in stolen glimpses behind the guide's wafting hands and ever-expanding smile.

It was not difficult to share his enthusiasm for his surroundings. I'd seen guided visits of a mosque advertised and had been intrigued by this rather surprising tourist attraction. It was far from disappointing. Walking in off a grey and dusty street in the Latin Quarter was like entering a different continent. The entrance was dark and gloomy, its corners littered with curious eyes. The gloom did not prepare me, however, for the sudden whiteness and peace of the main courtyard. Similar in style to parts of the Alhambra, it was big and glaring, the opening to the sky framed by a dark wooden rectangle of ornate carving. From this rectangle, the whiteness trickled down into glinting blue tilework half-way down the walls.

As you walk around the heavy central bowl, more and more of the site slowly comes into view through pretty windows and tempting archways. Through one of these arches was a garden.

The birds there were probably nothing like as exotic as they sounded but it was difficult not to let the imagination run riot. Set against the dazzling whitewashed walls the greenery seemed almost too vivid to be real.

The next arch was nearly obscured by a stack of shoes strewn across its entrance. Visitors are not allowed inside the prayer room but nobody seems to mind if you peer in quietly from the outside. The atmosphere inside was yet another contrast to the rest of the building, this time being softer and darker. Light trickles in through windows high up on a wall and shines out softly from lamps suspended from the ceiling. The room is red in colour, reflecting off the red of the carpet and turning people praying inside a delicate shade of rose.

In the library, the wooden floor slats squeaked grumpily underfoot. Averting my eyes, I looked up to the ceiling. It was decorated with three enormous flowers, their carved shapes picked out by the light fumbling its way in through small, rectangular windows. Hanging from this display were several incompetent but attractive lights, comically shaped rather like hookahs.

Shuffling out of the mosque past two irate Americans who were incredulous at having had to pay to get in, I made for the mosque cafe in search of a cup of soothing mint tea.

Entering strong-willed, I walked straight past a cabinet of sweet sticky cakes and headed for the courtyard room, built in the same style as the mosque. The other option was an indoor room, decorated like the inside of a Bedouin tent with a touch of prayer room thrown in: cosy, rich red sofas low down on the ground and a carpet that seemed to have crawled its way up the walls.

Sipping my glass of mint tea was like indulging in a dream-like therapy, with all the strains of the city being gently soothed out of the system.

Mosquee de Paris, rue Daubenton 5e (Metro Censier-Daubenton). Open 9am- noon and 2pm-6pm, closed Fridays and Muslim holidays. There are often guides, and everywhere is open to visitors except the prayer room. Admission 15F adults, 10F students and children. Cafe de la Mosquee, 39 rue Geoffrey- St-Hilaire, 5e (Metro Censier-Daubenton). Open Mon-Thurs, Sat and Sun 10am-9.30pm