by Trevor Claringbold
A short break to Paris is one of those wonderful things in life. Something you can always rely on. No matter how many times you go, it will always treat you to something new, exciting, and memorable. It’s a city that never looses its charm. The only downside in the past has been the journey home. It was either the long, bland, drive back to the Channel ports, or the hassle of checking in, delays, and customs, if you’re flying. More recently, with the advent of the Eurostar, even the journey becomes a joy. Now you can sit back, relax, and let the train whisk you from city centre to city centre while you admire the scenery, and swot up on your French wines.
Paris is an amazing city by anyone’s standards. No matter if it’s your first, or twenty-first, time of visiting, it captivates you with it’s beauty, elegance, and vitality. The heart of the city will seem familiar even to those who have never been before. Iconic sights such as the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower are so well known that they can actually lose a little of their magic when you first see them. But as you get close, their full magnificence is revealed. It’s something no photos can ever do justice to.
If it is your first time in Paris, then it will be the main sights you’ll undoubtedly head for. Most are conveniently located close to the River Seine, and it’s a neat walking tour that will take in the majority. Start with the famous Cathedrale de Notre-Dame, on the Ile de la Cite – a small island in the middle of the Seine. Begun in 1160, it has been described as ‘the greatest masterpiece of the Middle Ages’. The queues can be quite long to get to see the breathtaking interior, but it’s worth the wait.
Just across the bridge onto the Left Bank, are the Sorbonne, and the Palais du Luxembourg. Unlike its contemporaries Paris doesn’t have vast open parks, such as Hyde Park in London, or Central Park in New York. Instead there are smaller, more ornate gardens around many of the palaces and grand buildings. It does have the riverbanks, of course, which have long been the most popular place to walk, cycle, roller-blade, or just generally just sit and relax. The river also provides some of the best views of the city. As you wander along the Left Bank, there are superb photo opportunities across to the Louvre, and the Petit Palais.
Just past the Musee d’Orsay, a short deviation will take you to the magnificent buildings of Les Invalides. The huge gold topped dome of the church is striking, both from the outside, and as you stand beside Napoleon’s tomb inside looking up at the ornate ceiling. The buildings are also home to the Musee de l’Armee, which is both large and impressive – and even has Napoleon’s (stuffed) dog.
From here, it’s a short walk across the gardens to the most symbolic impression of Paris, if not France. The Eiffel Tower was the tallest building in the World when it was first constructed in 1889. At that time, though, it had decidedly more critics than supporters, and was cited as ‘an abomination to French art’. Nowadays, the opposite is true, as the long lines of visitors are testament to. The further up you go, the more it costs, so if you are planning on reaching the top make sure its on a clear day. If it is, then the views across the city are, as you would expect, immense.
Just across the Seine, past the Palais de Chaillot, is the Arc de Triomphe. Climbing to the top of here can also be impressive, with views along the Champs Elysee to the Louvre. However, most people also find the novelty of watching the battling traffic below mesmerising, as it tries to negotiate its way around the 5-lane roundabout that connects twelve roads, to the typically French cacophony of car horns.
The Champs Elysee used to be the place to sit in the pavement cafés and just people-watch. Sadly, the lines of car showrooms and travel shops have largely taken away the atmosphere, and the few remaining café’s are horrendously expensive. Try exploring the areas a few streets further from the river. Here you’ll find far more of the authentic French feel, and far more realistic prices.
Once refreshed, at the other end of the Champs Elysee, the Jardin des Tuileries (where the old gentlemen still revel in their game of boules) leads you to the artistic centre of the city, The Louvre. The building itself is a marvel to behold, but once inside the seven ‘zones’ will have plenty to entice even the most casual visitor. The Mona Lisa is the much-hyped centrepiece, although if you want a good view you need to choose a quieter time of day for your visit. Thankfully there are plenty of alternatives, with superb works from all the great masters.
There are a wealth of smaller, less known places of interest too, of course. Try St Denis, the mausoleum of the Kings of France, or the Expiatory Chapel, not far from the Madeleine. Here you’ll find an altar in the crypt that was built over the place where Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI’s bodies were discovered. Charlotte Corday is also buried here.
Once you’ve seen Paris by day, you need to experience Paris by night. From the beautifully illuminated Eiffel Tower, to the buzz of expectation around the Moulin Rouge, the glamour of the Opera, to a romantic dinner cruise on the Seine, it’s a city that transforms once darkness falls. For a less touristy feel, the Aux Trois Mailletz on Rue Galand (on the left bank) is a lovely local bar where the locals join in with the nightly piano playing.
It’s smaller places such as this that will give you a true and lasting impression of this great city. Just wandering the back streets, discovering that unique patisserie, floral garden, or friendly wine bar with the ‘We English Speak’ sign in the window, makes the trip special, and gives you the feel that you discovered just a tiny bit of the real Paris.