This is Amsterdam. At least, it could be: Parisians have taken to the bike. In the holiday season, and when the traffic dwindles at weekends, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë’s initiative seems to be working. The city has supplied 16,000 cycles, 1,000 cycle stands, 750 selfservice drop-off and pick-up points (such as just off the Place Vendôme) and a rapidly growing number of cycle lanes to tempt people out of their cars. Of course, this being Paris, it could never be just any old bicycle. Enter the Vélib: super-chic, with slick gears, a big front basket and adjustable saddle, and surely here to stay. Bike up the whole family at a Vélib automated machine, which dispenses an electronic card to release a cycle from the rack. For a daily upfront fee of a single Euro a day, the first half hour you use the bike is free and it costs a further Euro for each 30 minutes’ usage after that.. As an agreeable way of seeing the main sights in the centre, where there is a minimum of main roads to cross, it cannot be beaten.
Most of the major sights of Paris are close to the Seine, whose Rive Droite (Right Bank) is to the north, from which it inexorably follows that its Rive Gauche (Left Bank) is to the south. Expect to hear these words regularly in response to requests for directions. You will soon discover, however, that Parisians have absolutely no idea which bus runs where, even one they themselves use on a regular basis. You might also expect taxi drivers to possess a sound knowledge of their capital, but as they do not have to pass a demanding exam, like the one for London cabbies, they usually require the exact Paris address to find anything, and even then make a lot of mistakes.
The easiest way to explore Paris is via the Métro. Compared to the London Tube, it is much less claustrophobic, closer to the surface, sometimes even suspended above the road network, with shorter distances between most stations, and quieter rubber tyres. You can buy single tickets, booklets of ten called un carnet, or tourist passes for between one and three days, the best value. A five-zone pass encompasses Versailles and Disneyland Paris (see our November 2006 issue). To find your way on the Métro, look for the number of the line and the name of the terminus in the direction you want to travel. When alighting, note that carriage doors open only if you lift the handle sharply, or on new trains press the green or silver button. Tickets are not needed again at the exit gates. For longer journeys in Paris, use the much faster RER, but keep your ticket to get out, and be prepared for interminable subterranean passages at interchanges. For this reason, never choose a route that mixes Métro and RER unless absolutely unavoidable.
In Paris, hotel rooms are allowed by law to be smaller than in almost any other city in Europe, space is at such a premium. The most expensive accommodation is on the Rive Droite near the Seine and the Champs-Elysées. However, there are bargains to be had on the Rive Gauche and just a little further out. For example, the fully-refurbished Marriott Rive Gauche, convenient for both the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland, offers three-nights-for- two deals in July and August, when its suites can be turned into two rooms for friends, each offering a full double bed, and junior suites into family rooms for two adults and two children with, uniquely, two full bathrooms. Fridges have designated spaces for your own drinks, a thoughtful touch.
The grudging cooperation of children in Paris comes at a price: rise early and ensure your visit includes sufficient activities that will take their fancy. Avoid huge queues at the Eiffel Tower by arriving before 9.a.m. Climb the towers of Notre-Dame from 10 a.m. and see the city how Quasimodo saw it. Ascend to the beautiful Sacré-Coeur in Montmartre, on the highest peak in Paris, via the rejuvenated funiculaire. Promise them a swim in the 220-metre pool on the Left Bank facing the Ile Saint-Louis, which is reserved for kids in the afternoons, and is part of the extraordinary Paris-Plage, complete with sand, fresh grass, giant sprinklers, climbing wall, trampoline and beach games, as though it were a real seaside resort. Float down the Seine on one of the Bateaux-Mouches, whose circular trips start at 11 a.m. from the pont d’Alma. Surprise them with a stop at the oldest Parisian toy shop, Au Nain Bleu, ensconced in new premises in Boulevard Malesherbes; many toys displayed here cannot easily be acquired elsewhere.
Which holds good for much French fashion, not just the clothes themselves but the seemingly effortless way that Parisians instinctively understand the art of living and the route to refinement. The British may just have to settle for the mere trappings of elegance, found in abundance at the two great department stores: Printemps in Boulevard Hausmann, and Galeries Lafayette, nearby with its own Métro stop. They vie with one another in every department, with Printemps perhaps just ahead in exclusive lingerie and a vast product range for men, Galeries Lafayette having the edge in cosmetics, perfumes and a huge gourmet food section. Discounts of up to 50 per cent can be expected at the height of summer; start in the luggage section by buying what will surely prove essential, an extra suitcase for the homeward journey.
From our September 2007 newsletter (Updated March 2009)
A SELECTION OF THE BEST HOTELS IN PARIS
Four Seasons Hôtel George V
For the money-no-object, once-in-a-lifetime stay: superb accommodation and very friendly service. Le Cinq restaurant (three Michelin stars) rivals the best in Paris. Just
off the Champs Elysées.
For more than a century, the rather decadent haunt of the rich and the famous. Huge, flamboyant atrium; tiny swimming pool. Three
minutes from the Seine, five minutes from the Louvre.
Recently restored, famous historic hotel offering superb accommodation in the elegant rue de Rivoli, between the place de
la Concorde and the Louvre, facing the Tuileries gardens.
Hôtel de L’Abbaye
Roof terrace, romantic, peaceful atmosphere, comfortable rooms and exotic two-level suites. Close to the Luxembourg gardens.
Rambling old house, the former British Embassy, with grand bedrooms, four-poster beds, and views over a quiet courtyard. In
Marriott Rive Gauche
Major refurbishment programme of this Left Bank hotel is almost complete. Convenient for the Eiffel Tower and the Latin quarter. Many special deals.
Hôtel Duc de Saint-Simon
Small, sophisticated hotel on the Left Bank. Rooms overlooking quiet courtyard, with private patios. In Saint-Germain-des- Près.
Hôtel Le Notre Dame
Superb views over the river and cathedral, spectacular breakfast room, elegant airconditioned bedrooms. On quai Saint-Michel.
Top floor of the Hotel Dieu hospital, that takes ordinary guests. Right next to Notre Dame, with quiet gardens and views of the
Family run hotel on the slopes of Montmartre with superb views over Paris. Quaint bedrooms, even quainter baths (for dwarves).
Family run, comfortable rooms (with 24 hour service), buzzing little bar. Close to the Arc de Triomphe.
Hôtel des Grandes Ecoles
Exceptional courtyard and garden in the
heart of Paris, charming service, close to the
Sainte-Geneviève church in the Latin quarter.