Qua-a-a-a-nd il me prend dans ses bras, il me parle tout bas, je voie la vie en rose…
What can you say about Paris that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? One of the most charismatic, romantic and fascinating cities in Europe. Home of the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, Maxim’s and La Coupole, Montmartre and Le Marais. Every time you visit you find something else to excite your imagination and your tastebuds.
Paris – or what is now the Ile de La Cite – was originally settled by a bunch of Celtic tribesmen called the Parisii sometime around 400 BC. For three hundred and fifty years they happily lived on the island, sailing their little wooden boats, catching their fish, hitting each other with sticks and hunting deer. Then one day, Caesar and the Romans came along and built a fort. This encampment soon stretched over from the island to the left bank. A town – Lutetia – was born. Lutetia became Paris and never looked back. Over the centuries, neither war nor revolution (and there have been plenty) has dampened the enthusiasm or the impenetrable charm of this most intriguing city.
Much of contemporary Parisian life owes its existence to one Baron Haussmann (of Major Charles ‘Millionaire Cheat‘ Ingram fame) who was town planner under Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century. Haussmann was an idealist and visionary who dragged the old, medieval Paris with its weeping streets and stench-filled gutters into the vibrant new star of the Belle Epoque that we all know and love. Beautifully sculpted gardens, splendid avenues and tree-lined boulevards radiating from sweeping places and rond-points were his more obvious hallmarks although Haussmann was also responsible for an intricate network of underground sewers: not half as romantic but vital nevertheless in the development of the city. As with all great visionaries, Haussmann had little regard for budgetary control and, in 1869, was ousted from office by pettifogging, penny-pinching townhall bureaucrats. His legacy, however, lives on.
The nineteenth century was a period of rapid growth for Paris. Three world fairs and an entrepreneurial spirit saw Parisian cultural life flourish. Cafes and restaurants appeared on the grand boulevards. The Grand Opera House, built and designed by Charles Garnier, was completed in 1875. The Eiffel Tower, spirit and symbol of Paris, was erected in 1889 – a monument to its designer, the engineer Gustave Eiffel. Montmartre and Montparnasse, in particular, drew artists and philosophers from around the globe.
The early twentieth century saw Paris establish itself as the cultural and artistic centre of the universe. From the nineteen twenties onwards the city was alive with progressive avant-garde movements such as Cubism, Fauvism and Surrealism. Le Corbusier transformed the face of architecture with his geometric shapes. Musicians, film-makers, writers and artists flocked to Paris and the bars and cafes of the grand boulevards played host to such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, Sidney Bechet and Gertrude Stein.
In the 60s, a program of civil restoration works picked up the Haussmann theme and got to work on some of the more run-down districts like Le Marais. Much credit should go to the often-maligned President Francois Mitterand who continued the work with his Grands Travaux scheme which was ultimately responsible for some of the finest modern buildings in the city.
Like all great cities, Paris is a conglommeration of smaller districts and townships, known as arondissements, each with its own distinctive feel and character. Each of these 20 arondissements has its own administrative system with a Prefect and a council which manages local affairs. Overseeing the 20 arondissements is the Prefecture of Paris based in the Hotel de Ville in the centre of the city.
Getting about in Paris is best done on foot. Take the time out to stroll through the Jardin du Luxembourg and watch the kids sailing their toy boats; walk down along the Seine at dusk or simply wander through the myriad of streets in Le Marais. It’s a big city with a lot to discover so don’t expect to find everything on your first visit.
Paris also has one of the best metro systems in the world. Clean, punctual trains take you to every corner of the city. They are reasonably cheap but we would recommend that you buy a travel pass or carnet de billets to avoid the endless search for change and tickets.
Where To Eat
No-one does food like the French and no-one does French food like the Parisians. There are some truly majestic restaurants in Paris. Le Grand Vefour is one of the best. Granted a third Michelin star in 2000, head chef Guy Martin will cook you up a treat. He will also expect you to dig deep into your pockets though so maybe save it for a special occasion. Le Grand Vefour, 17 Rue Beaujolais, 75001 Paris Tel (33) (01) 42 96 56 27 Closed Friday nights, Saturday and Sunday. Reservations must be made a month ahead of time for dinner, three weeks for lunch.
Maxim’s at 3 Rue Royale, 75008 Paris Tel: 33(01) 42 65 27 94 is a splendid Belle Epoque restaurant that has been graced by the famous for over a century.
La Coupole at 102 Boulevard de Montparnasse is good for spotting the occasional celebrity. Red velvet and columns abound. Distinguished former guests include Jean-Paul Sartre, Josephine Baker and Roman Polanski. Seafood is the speciality of the house and there is dancing late into the night…
Plain, simple lunches (salads, omelettes etc.) are excellent in the Bar du Marche in St Germain des Pres.
Most cafes and bars (you will find one about every hundred metres) will offer you good quality food and drink at almost any time of the day so you will be spoilt for choice. It’s actually quite difficult to find somewhere disappointing. Breakfast time is a particularly good occasion as there are few finer pleasures in life than sitting in a Paris cafe eating croissants, drinking coffee and reading L’Equipe. For general eating, we selected the choice locations of Le Marais and Luxembourg, opting for restaurants where the locals are happy to eat.
There’s always the other option of wandering into one of the countless charcuteries or delis and picking up some nice ham and cheese and a bottle of red. A couple of baguettes from the boulangerie and a seat in the park is all you need to make your feast complete.
Where To Drink
If you really need to find a pub then what are you doing reading this? Philistines can head to The Auld Alliance to meet up with similarly unimaginative Scots wearing rugby tops and kilts or celebrity Partick Thistle supporters. Do yourself a favour though and remember that you are in Paris, not Falkirk, and seek out some of the more interesting establishments. Harry’s New York Bar in the Rue Daunou is worth the trek. Home of the world-renowned Bloody Mary, it was named after one of its proprietors, Harry McElhone, who bought the bar in 1913. Some of its more illustrious clientele include F Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. The Plumbers can highly recommend the feisty Bloody Mary as almost a meal in itself.
Stagger out of Harry’s and head down the road to the Ritz Hotel on the Place Vendome. You can almost smell the burning rubber and hear the squeal of the tyres as Audrey Hepburn drops off Peter O’Toole in the forecourt.
As we’ve mentioned there are hundreds of bars, cafes and wine bars dotted liberally around the city. Experiment. Just drop in anywhere, take a seat, ask for un vin ordinaire and let that special Parisian atmosphere flow over you.
Where To Stay
City centre hotel prices are not as expensive as you might think so shop around and you’ll probably pick up a good bargain. We opted for a 2-star hotel from the comfortable Timhotel chain in Avenue La Tour-Maubourg described as ‘ideally situated with panoramic views over Les Invalides and close to the Eiffel Tower and the Champ de Mars’. Rooms were a good size, clean and, unusually for French hotel rooms, tastefully decorated. 2 minutes walk from the Ecole Militaire metro station, friendly staff and a tiny, but comfortable, hotel bar made for a very pleasant stay.
There are plenty of other hotels you could choose from. We would recommend looking for a deal on the Internet. Lastminute.com offers some cost-effective packages. Typical prices might be around £400 for two people sharing for two nights including all flights, transfers, accommodation and breakfast.
What To Avoid
Tat. Pure and simple. Too much nonsense sold along the Seine and avoid at all costs Les Halles. And it is probably best not to go up the Eiffel Tower on the night that America starts a bombing campaign against a major Muslim country.
The creeping cancer that is the Irish pub is also to be avoided.
Culture? Where would you like to start?
If art galleries and museums are your bag then the Plumbers would happily recommend any or all of the following…
The Louvre. Venus de Milo. Mona Lisa. Big glass pyramid. Enough said.
Musee d’Orsay, 1 Rue de Bellechasse 75007. Victor Laloux’s majestic old railway station now houses the finest collection of Impressionist paintings anywhere in the world. Yet at one time it was on the demolition man’s books only to be saved by the unlikely form of Valery Giscard d’Estaing in the late 1960s. Van Gogh, Monet and the rest are all magnificently displayed in an unforgettable setting. Don’t take our word for it. Just go and enjoy.
Musee Rodin, 77 Rue de Varenne 75007. A Plumbers’ favourite. There is just something about Rodin’s sculptures that makes you want to touch them. Cool marble. If you have to go to one museum when you are in Paris then go to this one. You will not be disappointed.
Musee Picasso, 5 Rue de Thorigny 75003. The old 17th century Hotel Sale in the Marais district of Paris holds thousands of pieces of Picasso’s works. Over 200 paintings, 190 sculptures, various ceramics, drawings, engravings and manuscripts all passed to the French state when the master died in 1973 and are housed here along with some other pieces by Matisse and Cezanne.
Musee de L’Orangerie, Place de la Concorde 75001. Originally designed as the greenhouse for the Jardin des Tuileries, the Musee de L’Orangerie is famous primarily for housing Monet’s big – and we mean big – waterlily paintings. If you get bored with these then apart from being a philistine not worthy of lacing the metaphorical boot of Paris, you could always view the works of Sisley, Renoir, Picasso and Modigliani.
75191 Paris. Famous almost as much for the exterior building design and street theatre as the fine collection of modern art inside.
Musee Edith Piaf, 5 Rue Crespin du Gast 75011. The Little Sparrow lived here as a child. Which maybe explains why the rest of her life was so painful and tortured. Not exactly the most salubrious area of Paris and probably best visited in daylight hours. The museum is in an avid fan’s apartment and contains memorabilia galore. An extraordinary homage to one of the most extraordinary talents and voices of the age.
If your culture is of the smaller, plastic rectangular variety then you could try one of the many haute-couture houses for which Paris is rightly famous. The centre of Parisian couture lies around the Champs-Elysées with Yves Saint Laurent, Guy Laroche, Nina Ricci, Givenchy, Christian Dior, Hermés and Chanel all represented.
If department store shopping is more of your thing then try out any of this lot…
Bon Marche 22 Rue de Severs. The first department store in Paris and designed by Gustave Eiffel (of tower fame), Au Bon Marche is worthy of a visit for the food store – La Grande Epicerie – alone. Fortnum and Mason eat your heart out. This is magnificent.
Galeries Lafayette 40 Boulevard Haussmann. Spread over two locations, Galeries Lafayette is mall heaven. Look out for the weekly fashion shows on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.
Au Printemps 64 Boulevard Haussmann. Boasting the world’s largest perfume collection and a domed restaurant, Au Printemps is supposedly a shopper’s heaven. Lots of different, separate wee buildings each dedicated to different products make this a bit more interesting than Debenhams. Just.
La Samaritaine 19 Rue de la Monnaie. One of the oldest shops in Paris, La Samaritaine is a bit more downmarket than the Galeries Lafayette but none the less interesting for that. Worth a visit if only for the view of the Seine from the restaurant. Good for sportswear and household goods. Open a bit later than the rest too.
BHV 52-64 Rue de Rivoli. Le Bazar de L’Hotel de Ville (BHV) is a bit like B+Q with style. Everything the Skoda Fabia driver could want and more.
Louis Vuitton, 101 Avenue des Champs-Elysees. Looking for an expensive handbag for the little lady? Then look no further than the gorgeous Louis Vuitton. All the leather you can eat on three floors.
Remember to be polite when you are out shopping. Whether you’re buying pain au chocolat from the boulangerie or a silk cravat from Hermes, French shop assistants will expect you to at least grunt a Bonjour Madame/Mademoiselle/Monsieur when you enter so don’t just go shuffling in with the head down, looking balefully at your feet. You’re not in Edinburgh you know.
No trip to Paris would be complete without a visit to one of the markets that abound in the city. We have no hesitation in recommending these…
Le Marche des Puces de St. Ouen de Clignancourt, Avenue de la Porte de Clignancourt. Europe’s largest flea market, Clignancourt is actually a collection of around 2500 open stalls and shops. You will certainly find something here but be prepared to rake through a whole load of rubbish first.
Cite des Fleurs on the Ile de la Cite. Open seven days a week, the flower market sells all manner of pot plants and cut flowers. On Sundays, you can also buy a bird (of the feathered variety) and accessories.
St Pierre market, Montmartre. Nestling close to the Sacre-Coeur in pittoresque Montmartre is this typical Parisian flea-market. Worth a browse if you are in the area.
And remember. If you forget to buy your nearest and dearest a present – God forbid – there is always the big foxtrot-oscar Toblerone at the airport.
Those of you interested in religious architecture might want to head towards…
Notre-Dame Cathedral, Place du Parvis de Notre Dame, 75004 Paris. Founded in 1163 during the reign of Louis the Seventh, Notre Dame has seen it all. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned Queen of France here after her marriage to François II; Henry VI of England was crowned here in 1430; and to top it all it was nearly burned to the ground by little Jimmy Sommerville and his Communards in 1871. Although the cathedral is the best part of 900 years old, it is a bit of a parvenu in holy house terms having been preceded by a Celtic shrine, Roman temple to Jupiter and Christian basilica.
The cathedral’s worldwide fame can be attributed, of course, to Victor Hugo, whose 1831 novel Notre Dame de Paris made a star of both the building and its hunchbacked inhabitant. Please do not, however, attempt to do any kind of Charles Laughton impersonation within the environs of the building. Even if you are from Carluke.
Sacre-Coeur, Parvis du Sacre-Coeur, 75018 Paris. Perched atop the Butte de Montmartre, the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur is a magnificent Romano-Byzantine church well worthy of a visit. It was designed by the architect Abadie in the late nineteenth century as a result of a design competition held by the state. It was completed in 1914 but not consecrated until the end of the First World War in 1919. From the dome at the top you have a magnificent panoramic view of the rooftops of Paris.
Not had enough yet? Well, you could try…
L’Arc de Triomphe, Place Charles de Gaulle, 75008 Paris. Commissioned by Napoleon in 1806 after his victory at Austerlitz, the Arc de Triomphe is one of the most famous landmarks in the world. Nissan Micra drivers will be delighted to know that there is a lovely view from the top. More importantly, it lends its name to one of the most important race meetings in the world: the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in the first Sunday of October.
Tour Eiffel, Champ de Mars, 75007 Paris. After the Statue of Liberty (which is French anyway), the Eiffel Tower is probably the most famous and recognisable landmark in the world. Constructed for the International Exhibition of Paris in 1889 by Gustave Eiffel, it stands some 300 metres tall. Until 1930, in fact, it was the world’s tallest construction. The panoramic views of Paris, particularly just before sunset, are breathtaking, as are the stairs so you probably want to go up in the lift, dear.
Unimaginative romantics with lots of cash might want to book the restaurant Jules Verne. It is highly expensive. The Plumbers have not eaten there so can give no opinion on the quality of the cuisine although, being Parisian, it will no doubt pass muster. There is also a gift emporium and a bar for the less affluent. Now that the entrance fee scam has been exposed, you can hand over your Euros safe in the knowledge that they are going towards the upkeep of the old girl rather than the 3:45 at Auteil.
Tour Montparnasse, 33 Avenue du Maine, 75015 Paris. At 210m tall, the Tour Montparnasse is the tallest building in France. Until 1990 it was the tallest building in Europe – outside Russia. Architecture students may wonder at its composite structure but the rest of us will just take the lift up to the 56th or 59th floor (the only ones open to the public) and gaze admiringly at the view.
Place de la Concorde. A fine octagonal square of 8 hectares, the Place de la Concorde is a good location to start your sightseeing. The place itself has a couple of worthy sights: the 23-metre, 2300 year-old obelisk of Ramses II of Thebes to name but one. Go see it when it’s lit up at night.
The Place de la Concorde has an interesting history. It was not always called the Place de la Concorde for example. It was originally called Place de Louis XV and had a large statue of Louis in the centre. In 1792, at the time of the French Revolution, the square was cleverly renamed Place de la Revolution and the statue of Louis was replaced with a statue called Liberte. The revolutionaries also took the liberty of installing a guillotine which went on to behead the likes of Robespierre, Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI. In all, 1119 people met their gruesome death there in the name of democracy. After the Revolution, the square had a number of different names, as might have been expected, before the current one, Place de la Concorde, was plumped for in 1830.
Place Vendome. Splendour. Grandeur. The Ritz. Peter O’Toole, Audrey Hepburn, Ernest Hemingway. Expensive shops. The Place Vendome is all of these and more. You will be in Harry’s Bar in the nearby Rue Daunou so take the short detour to the Place Vendome and a step back in time to a more glorious age.
Forum des Halles, 75001 Paris. For 800 years the Forum des Halles was the central marketplace for Paris. Now it is a sprawling concourse on 3 levels that includes big-name department stores, cinemas, discotheques, a park and one of the world’s biggest subway stations.
All of this culture can take its toll. So why not relax and have a quiet stroll in some of the famous parks and gardens of Paris?
Jardins des Plantes, 57 Rue Cuvier 75005 Paris. The Jardin des Plantes, or botanical gardens, was created in the 17th century as a home for medicinal herbs and flowers. It is now the experimental garden of the Musee Nationalle d’Histoire Naturelle. On site there is a menagerie, an alpine garden and various exhibition halls. Good for a stroll and a picnic and somewhere to take your crabbit kids.
Jardin des Tuileries. Designed in the 17th century by Andre Le Notre, the Jardin des Tuileries was once part of the old Palais des Tuileries. A good spot to sit and watch the kids sailing their boats or the world pass by. In the vicinity is the Jeu de Paume, formerly a real tennis court built by Napoleon III and now a museum of contemporary art and the Musee de l’Orangerie, the repository for Monet’s waterlily paintings.
Jardin du Luxembourg, 75006 Paris. Lovely 17th century park near the Sorbonne University and a Plumbers’ favourite. Just round the corner from the main entrance is a fine takeaway food shop serving up fresh baguettes, croissants etc. so get yourself down there and have a relaxed al fresco lunch in the park. In the middle of the Jardin du Luxembourg is a large octagonal pond called the Grand Bassin, popular with the kids who rent small, remote controlled boats to irritate nearby relaxing adults.
The park has two notable fountains: the Fontaine de Medicis designed in 1624 and the Fontaine de l’Observatoire constructed in 1873. The latter features a statue of a globe held up by 4 women. Each woman represents a different continent with Oceania left out for the purposes of symmetry. I guess that if the statue was being built today a different continent might be left out.
At the far northern end of the Jardin stands the Palais du Luxembourg. This fine Florentine palace was built for Marie de Medicis in the early seventeenth century and has fulfilled a number of roles through the years. At the time of the Revolution it was, unsurprisingly, a prison. In WWII, it served as the HQ of the Luftwaffe. Now, it houses the French Senate.
Still need to destress? Take a boat trip on the Seine in one of the bateaux-mouches. These are luxurious, air-conditioned boats that stroll languidly up and down the river giving you an outstanding view of Paris. They have retractable roofs so you don’t need to worry about the barnet if it starts to rain.
Flying is best. Ryanair to Beauvais avoids the queues at both ends, but does entail a lengthy bus journey into the city. Air France (s4l4uds) should be avoided at all costs unless you do not like your luggage and can afford to buy replacements as they certainly won’t compensate you when it takes an alternative route. RER from Charles de Gaulle is quick and regular. The journey to Orly is great fun as it involves a driverless electric train for a large part of the journey. Getting home of course will be by private helicopter, paid for out of the winnings
Getting To The Course
There is only one answer in the absence of a chauffeur-driven Mercedes, and that is the courtesy bus, or navette gratuite, from the Porte d’Auteil Metro station. The meetings can be really busy and the traffic from the metro station is torture so make sure you leave yourself plenty of time to catch the first race.
About The Course
Paris has two racecourses, both set in the Bois de Boulogne. Auteil, the other one, is the home of French jump racing with the French Steeplechase Grand Prix held on the third Sunday of June.
Longchamp, the one we are concerned with, is a beautiful course. Inaugurated in 1857 by Napoleon III, the course is famously home to the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe – the premier, and richest, flat race in the European racing calendar.
A huge grandstand and wide, concrete concourse offer excellent opportunities to watch mares and fillies. You get quite a good view of the horses too. The most famous landmark on the course is the windmill which was once part of the Abbaye de Longchamp founded in 1256.
The winners’ circle is intimate yet accommodating even for the most vertically challenged. A particular Plumbers’ highlight was watching Frankie Dettori perform his spectacular dismount from Sakhee a couple of years ago after winning the main event. The whole place simply oozes class. Try and take in a top meeting like the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe and you will be dazzled by French elan and style. Entry is cheap at around 50FF and you are allowed to use the facilities in the Tribune du Conseil (grandstand). A lesson for some courses in the UK, we think.
Champagne in the bar overlooking the winners enclosure is particularly recommended. Last time we were there a bottle of NV Moet et Chandon came in at 400FF in one of the champagne tents although the cheap plastic glasses spoiled the effect somewhat (good metaphor for France really). Nevertheless, it’s a good way to spend your winnings.
If you fancy a meal on the course then there’s no better place than the Restaurant Panoramique. As its name suggests you get a good view of the racecourse. Fiendishly expensive on the day of the Arc, it is, we are told, a bit more reasonable at other times. Just inside the entrance is a fine statue of Gladiateur, the first French horse to win the Epsom Derby in 1865.
Unlike courses in the UK, there are no individual bookies for you to mercilessly fleece. Betting is via the PM (Pari-Mutuel) which is a bit like the Tote in that when you win you have absolutely no idea how much money you are going to get back. Get your bets on early too as the queues soon build up.
To bet, you need to go to the row of windows at the back of the stand. Different windows accept different bets of different denominations. Bets start at 10 FF (it will be Euros now I suppose) so if that’s all you want to bet go to the 10FF window. If you want to bet 50FF then go to the 50FF window and so on. To place your bet, choose the horse (obviously), go up to the window, hand over your cash and give the horse’s number (you’ll find it on the racecard). Say gagnant for a win bet or place for an each-way bet. Couldn’t be easier.
A word of caution about the course too. It seems that Longchamp, and especially the Arc meeting in October, attracts a particular type of white, English pseudo-working class male. Easily identifiable from these four traits: drunk, stupid, loud, loads of money.
What to Wear
Start with the absurd and then become outrageous. Checks are obligatory. Hats? The madder the better. And colours should be bright and completely uncoordinated with all other items of clothing. Linen suit preferred but optional.
The Travel Guide recommends: Plomberie du Marais, 27 Rue du Temple 75004 Paris. Tel: 01 42 72 95 92