An illuminating experience in the heart of Paris
Paris is the most visited city in the world and the most romantic – as long as you ditch the kids, that is, writes Mark Drew.
Paris is the most visited city in the world and the most romantic – as long as you ditch the kids, that is,
So, imagine the trepidation when given the challenge of taking two daughters for a short break on the Seine.
There was no Disneyland Paris on this trip. Instead this would be a tour of the sights, perhaps a taste of the food and plenty of chance to experience its famous Metro.
Happily, and perhaps surprisingly, both girls bought it. And as we waved goodbye to the Eiffel Tower for the final time, there was even some sadness that their stay in the big city could not continue for a little longer.
The first advice when considering a trip like this is to forget all thoughts of flying and to take the Eurostar instead. I have had only one experience of Charles de Gaules Airport, but it wasn't a happy one. Long queues, disinterested staff and a resulting manic sprint, bags flying, to make a flight by the skin of our teeth.
In contrast, the Eurostar was strangely magical. No stress, very organised and – to the children at least – a fantastic experience. They were wowed by being under the Channel and fascinated by the changing landscape as they left England and arrived in France. Symbolically, on our return, there was bright sunshine as we descended into darkness near Calais and gloomy skies and drizzle as we re-emerged on the English side. It somehow captured the mood perfectly.
For children aged 11 and nine the first steps out of Gare de Nord are something of a shock after the tranquil cocoon of the Eurostar. It is noisy, frantic and, well, foreign.
Most things in Paris are done in a rush. Our hotel was on Place de la République, where the traffic chaos was added to by extensive gas works. Breakfast was spent at the window watching in admiration at rush-hour Paris-style as office-bound women in suits and skirts dodged between lorries and buses on bikes with wicker baskets attached. And very few cycle helmets here. Health and safety has clearly not yet landed.
First stop, by a vote, had to be the Eiffel Tower. And here our first mistake. The landmark appeared to be a short stroll from our hotel but after 30 minutes we had barely moved half an inch on the map. Walking is all very well, but when you have two children in tow the Metro is better and thereon in we learned our lesson.
Nothing had prepared our girls for the scale of the Tower. Both were genuinely overwhelmed by its size and fascinated when told it was built more than 120 years ago.
Queues are an occupational hazard in Paris, but when there are simultaneous school holidays in England, France and America they have the potential to be a problem. So we joined a promised hour-long line for a lift up one of the four Tower entrances – with a warning there would be another 50 minute wait for another lift to reach the summit.
Both estimates were, as it happens, on the pessimistic side. And, anyway, the view was worth the wait. We arrived at the tower late afternoon and watched dusk descend from 1,000ft up.
As the sun descended, the city was taken over by a million lights and landmarks like the Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame were almost physically lifted from the skyline as they were flooded with illumination. It was one of those wide-eyed moments in life you are barely prepared for and weeks later our girls still talk about it.
The Tower is also a strangely social affair. Among the crowds it is a shared experience. So, as I wandered around the summit, I fell into conversation with a Canadian on a romantic holiday with his wife and an American on the latest stop of his European tour who liked Paris, but preferred London.
Observing Paris from a height was something of a recurring theme during the trip. The Montparnasse Tower is probably one of the capital's most ugly buildings, but it does offer great views of the Eiffel Tower. It was also a little trip back in time. The visitor centre at the summit was created in the 1970s and the decor had clearly not been touched since.
The Arc de Triomphe is very much a well-trodden tourist destination, but again it offers a new perspective, being at the confluence of 12 grand avenues into the city. By luck, a thunderstorm as we queued at the base was turned into sunshine and by the time we climbed the spiral staircase to the top a magnificent rainbow had formed, with the pot of gold bang on the dome of the Sacre Coeur.
And then there is Notre Dame, fascinating (and free) to look around and worth the small charge - and long wait - to climb to the top, where you are joined by various ancient grotesques and gargoyles.
It is worth investing on a Paris Pass if you are planning a visit. You pay up front but can then plan your days safe in the knowledge that at many attractions you can jump the queue. It also gives you access to a boat tour and one of the hop-on-hop-off bus tours that circle the capital.
Over two days we completed the whole bus tour, in several parts. It is hardly a way to ingratiate yourself in the Parisian way of life, but as an overview of the city can hardly be bettered, if only to experience the traffic, the noise and, above it all, the wonderful architecture.
Paris in two days is always going to be a broad brush experience. The best advice, especially when children are involved, is not to try to do too much. This is a taster session - a chance to soak up the city. The Louvre can wait for another day when there are waffles to eat on a park bench on the edge of the Seine, or street artists to watch in front of an illuminated Eiffel Tower several hours past bedtime.
So, take the plunge and give Disneyland Paris a miss. After all, Paris is a thousand theme parks all wrapped into one.
- Eurostar operates from St Pancras, with direct services to Gard de Nord. To book, visit www.eurostar.com or call 08432 186 186.
- The Paris Pass offers entry to 60 attractions, Metro travel and bus tour. See www.parispass.com or call 0870 242 9988.
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