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travel: Paris

General

Paris is one of those places that if you've been travelling and return home, people will ask if you went there and then follow up with questions about the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre and the like - names that are familiar to many even if they've never been near the place.

Paris is cheaper than London in many ways (but not all) but it is still quite an expensive place to eat, shop, and stay but that's perhaps not the main point if you're on a trip and have the opportunity of being there a few days - the point is the beauty of the place, the atmosphere, the culture and history.

What follows is a necessarily short and incomplete guide to what is a fairly big and complicated place with little things worth seeing around every second corner in some parts of town. We won't talk about the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower because it's on most people's list anyway.

One of the best ways to see the place is to go to an area you like the sound of, and just wander without cares or schedule.

Food

There is an absolutely enormous variety of places to eat in Paris and these days you can even get a vegetarian meal. If you have a top-end budget, then just get the Michelin red book and work your way through. For the budget end there's not that much that's heard of outside particular neighbourhoods. Flunch is a cheapo stand-by (with one right beside the Centre Pompidou). It serves big quantities of basic food that is frequently overcooked. French people sneer at the place but there is no shortage of them in these restaurants.

Another note here is that in late 08 it has become increasingly easy to find places that London used to be well-known for but has got better - and we're talking about 'just in it for the money' places that serve overpriced and somewhat disgusting food. Caveat Emptor.

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Psycho non-smokers, as of jan 1 2008, will most likely delight in the fact that you can't smoke in cafes, bars, and restaurants any more. Others think it has ruined the atmosphere of the small cafes and bars, and has lessened the previously relaxed tone of such places. For more civilised treatment on this front, you need to go to Germany.

Another late note is that in some areas, the non-smokers delight might be somewhat muted by an influx of yowling babies ... now that the air is safe. At the same time some cafe owners are enclosing and heating their areas under awnings and so a cafe and a cigar become pleasantly possible, but the NY Times is reporting that cafes are a threatened species. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/11/23/world/europe/23cafe.html?em

Accomodation

From the Georges V and the Crillion to a basic Youth Hostel, there is a huge range available with the top game being finding the latest underpriced but impressively cool boutique hotel... a game we're not going to play!

Shopping

If it's shopping you want then, of course there is plenty here, but for sheer breadth and even, often, better prices, you're better of in London.

Having said that, a wander around the area of the Madeleine, including the Faubourg Saint Honore is certainly pleasant and places like Comme des Garcons provide as interesting (and expensive) things as you'll find anywhere. There is also a relatively newly fashionable area in the Rue du Mont Thabor (late 08). What is instructive for fashion watchers is to go into places like H & M and compare what's there with elsewhere - Paris is conservative and bourgeois. The rise and rise of property values and rents as more and more money is invested in unproductive assets is a problem here just as it is in New York or London. Steeper rents means shopkeepers are less willing to take chances. In late 08 with all the commotion in property and financial markets, it's still not clear what sort of effect this will have at this kind of level.

The Marais has a lot of interesting smaller shops including a fair few fashion shops. Not too many have much wow-factor though. We quite liked American expat Consuello Zoelly's retro nowism.

The Champs Elysee might be a spectacular grand avenue but the shops will only be interesting if you've never seen a luxury superbrand shop before ... or, phone stores. We could go on about the dumbing down of luxury by these brands - the death of discernment and the like - but we won't. If you go to your local bookshop and leaf through "Cool Shops in Paris" or similar, you'll find the Champs E. doesn't rate a mention. It's well worth a visit for other reasons though.

Then there are the big department stores, Galleries Lafayette and Printemps which are close by L'Opera and not far from the Madeleine. These are impressively large and impressively full of stuff but they're very "same ole, same ole" as far as the nature of the stuff is concerned. We were startled to discover, when looking for a hat, that the much smaller Lille Printemps had more interesting stock. Make that "way more interesting".

Night Spots

Too many to count, and in all shapes and sizes but we'll mention a few - The Rue des Poissoniers has a few big dance music clubs, The Rex and Triptych for two ... which we might have spelt wrong. In the general area of Pere Lachaise there's the Fleche d'Or although all these places have quite conservative booking practises with shows with lots of retro-ish things on offer. More alternative venues include the likes of Point d'Ephemere which is right alongside a canal and also has a very reasonable restaurant which serves up good sized portions of interesting food for good prices.

Places

Les Halles

Once famous for its markets, this has a lot of stores of varying interest, lots of restaurants, the beautiful big church Saint Eustache, and the gorgeous small one, Saint Merri, which has recently had a lot of restoration work done. There is a large park, a fairly confusing Metro station, and lots and lots of tourists. A lot of the area is pedestrianised though, so what might be a crush on normal sidewalks is mostly quite OK.

The Centre George Pompidou is close by and its controversial design and very full program of cultural activities also attracts crowds - particularly on the weekend when there are frequently long queues to get in. Once inside there are always exhibitions that need to be paid for but there's often something in the basement for free. There is free wi-fi available but it is annoyingly complicated to access and they seem to have blocked access to mailserver ports so you need a web interface - gmail and the like is fine. There's also a huge and very good but, understandably, mostly French language arts bookshop which has a huge range but unfortunately no comfy seats to lounge in.

Just near the Pompidou is IRCAM which is well-known for its electronic music concerts and workshops.

The Marais

Just next door to Les Halles and just beyond the Pompidou, is the Marais. This is one of the most characterful parts of Paris, with ancient winding streets full with galleries, fashion shops, cafes and restaurants and lots of apartments as well - a real neighbourhood.

In addition to a lot of smaller shops there are also some grander places like the small palace of the Prince de Soubise, the Hotel Carnavalets where Madame Sevigne, the famous letter writer, was largely brought up after being orphaned, and the Club de la Chasse which, as its name suggests, is a working and fairly expensive, club. There's the Place des Vosges with lots of art shops and a wander down any old alley will usually turn up something of interest. Getting lost is very easy. Getting found again is only slightly less easy.

Montparnasse

Our first visit to Montparnasse was to the area of the modern Montparnasse tower and we wondered why anyone could be bothered going to such an ugly and uninteresting place. Our second took us to an avenue where the Eiffel tower was beautifully framed by the end of the street. Close by is the Hotel des Invalides and the Hotel Brion where Rodin lived from 1908 and which is now the Rodin museum. The Thinker sits in a little grove in the garden. A walk around the Place de Breteuil will reveal a couple of nice restaurants and the Vauban is nice for a morning expresso and croissants.

It is all very beautiful in the Hausmann way but no struggling artists and writers will be seen in the few cafes these days. The area is now expensive and the days when poorer people lived in the attics and ground floors are gone (but quite recently) and somehow, Paris has been made poorer by this less egalitarian and more ghettoised state. Pere Lachaise Cemetary

The Doors frontman Jim Morrison was buried here after a mysterious death in Paris and hordes of people have come to visit his grave since. What used to be a fairly Gothic spot with all sorts of interesting graffiti has been cleaned up and there are people who say that his remains have actually been repatriated. Who knows?

Lachaise is actually a fairly big place and many interesting people have been buried here. This all harks back to the days when Paris was the happening place on Earth - something that is no longer true.

An interesting factlet we were told was that aside from very famous people like JDM, Pere Lachaise is run as a business and if your family has someone buried there, you need to pay reasonably substantial amounts for the person to stay there. We were a little shocked.

Montmartre

Famous for the large church on top of the hill, Sacre Coeur, and a certain ambience, as well as copious numbers of tourist trap restaurants and scary tourist art shops, there is quite a view from the front of Sacre Coeur. It seems to be traditional to bring along a guitar or some percussion instrument and sit on the front steps and sing a few songs. Inside the church are many services each day and, if you put your name down beforehand, you can spend the night in the church after Vespers.

Champs Elysee

Forget the shops and just take the walk from the Louvre through the gardens and past the Place de la Concorde (once Place de la Revolution where many people were murdered) and up the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe.

Notre Dame

Yes, well, along with the Eiffel Tower, you just have to go and have a look. It is worth it as well, and if you're really into ancient churches, we suggest you take a trip to Amiens to see Europe's largest Gothic cathedral. It's about an hour's train ride from the Gare du Nord. Fin Paris these days is more about the atmosphere and the general rather than the specific - the atmosphere is rich with the long and interesting history of the place. Certainly there are specific things to see and do but these quite often relate to the past as well. Wander and enjoy and allow yourself to be surprised.

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