Standing on the platform at St Pancras Station, Joe looked up at me and asked: “Are we going to paradise?” Actually, our destination was Paris, but perhaps – with all its art and culture – it’s not too much of a stretch to call it some kind of paradise.
Not that that carries much sway for your average four-year-old. Joe is, however, very pleased that we’re travelling by train (he has a fear of flying) and, barring mishaps or delays, Eurostar will whisk us into the heart of Paris in just over two hours. An added bonus is that our first-class seats are big and roomy, with plenty of
space to pore over our This Is Paris picture book for a taster of the classic sights we’re likely to see in the French capital.
By early afternoon, we were checking out the view from our suite at the Hyatt Regency Madeleine. Bouncing on the huge double bed, Grace and Joe could see that most iconic of Parisian sights, the Eiffel Tower. A super-chic, yet unpretentious hotel, the welcome for children was suitably tasteful: a cute neckerchief, a dinky wooden box of blocks, an inflatable Galliano Frisbee and a glossy fashion magazine, accompanied by cookies and chocolates.
We spent a leisurely afternoon exploring the area, using our own version of a Hansel-and-Gretel trail of fashionable crumbs as an aide-memoire: past the Louis Roederer champagne shop, Burberry on your left, right at Ralph Lauren on the corner. Ah yes, we’d made a serendipitous landing in fashion central. After pootling and admiring the oh-so-effortless chic of the average Parisian, we headed back to our hotel for a delicious early evening supper in the pretty atriumed restaurant. The charming hotel manager, Solène, popped by to say hello, and advise us that tomorrow, July 14, was Bastille Day, and to expect crowds. When I told her we were “happy to potter”, she looked at me quizzically, then replied: “Ah, yes, Harry Potter. We ‘ave ze exhibition, but I sink is over now…” She told us about the Bastille Day concert at the Eiffel Tower starring Johnny Hallyday – France’s answer to Frank Sinatra – who must now be, ooh, about 100 or so, but, bless him, still rocking! Solène offered to book us a table at a lovely restaurant she knew where we’d get a superb view of the fireworks, but we decided we’d rather “Harry Potter” on our own.
By the time we set out the next morning, the streets were already packed with parades of strutting young cadets with crew cuts and silver-haired veterans festooned with chestfuls of medals. The familiar sound of the Marseillaise floated on the breeze, and there was fervent waving of the red, white and blue at every corner. As a national holiday, some of the shops and museums were closed, but we were happy to wander and soak up the atmosphere. After a day walking the street, we were exhausted and all fell asleep in our room waiting for the fireworks to begin. But we were soon awoken by the fizz-bangs as spectacular fireworks lit up the sky over the Eiffel Tower in a rainbow of dramatic colours.
Finding fun-for-all activities to please a four-year-old boy and his 14-year-old sister was always going to have its challenges. The solution? Compromise, give and take and occasional bribery. During our six-day stay, we managed to visit all the main players – the Louvre, Centre Pompidou and the Musée D’Orsay – which gave us all more than enough of a culture fix. There were crowds to contend with everywhere and, to be honest, so many artworks to admire that it can be a little overwhelming. The Louvre alone, for instance, houses over 35,000 works of art, displayed in over 60,000 square metres of exhibition space. We settled for a quick look at Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (much smaller than you’d imagine) and the one-armed Venus de Milo, who elicited sympathy from Joe as we pondered what might have happened to the lost limb.
As always, it’s the unexpected things that delight children: Joe loved the see-through glass lift that was for pushchairs and invalids-only inside the pyramid entrance to the Louvre. It wasn’t the Impressionists that impressed at the Musée d’Orsay, it was the huge ornate clock and the expanse of cool marble floor and stone banquettes. At the Notre Dame, it wasn’t the gothic architecture that inspired, but the talk of hunchbacks and hungry pigeons eating crumbs from people’s hands. And after an hour at the Centre Pompidou, we spent a further hour watching the street entertainers blow giant bubbles and a dog paddle among the crazy Dali-esque water sculptures of giant red lips and mermaids.
We also visited the tiny doll museum, the Musée de la Poupée, tucked away in a cobblestone street behind the Centre Pompidou, which was holding a retrospective Barbie exhibition; they also have regular workshops and a doll hospital. The Musée des Arts Décoratifs was hosting a hands-on exhibition about musical toys, including the famous Duracell drumming bunnies, which provided a musical interlude one afternoon. And, after a degree of coercion, we also went to the Martin Parr photographic exhibition at the Jeu de Paume. Packed with slice-of-life photographs of ladies with beehives and blokes with slicked-back hair, it was a surprise hit with both Grace and Joe. Paris is packed with so many transient exhibitions every month and it’s nice to just spy the posters on the Metro, then head off wherever you fancy – after all, while Barbie may no longer be on display, there are always plenty of alternatives to entice. It’s also worth investing in a Paris Museum Pass, valid for two, four or six consecutive days, giving you access to over 60 museums and monuments (under-18s are mostly free anyhow) and reducing queuing time.
From the fashionable elegance of La Madeleine, we moved to another prestigious address: Le Meurice, a super-grand hotel steeped in Louis XVI glamour and opulence on the rue de Rivoli. Eminent guests from days gone by include Picasso, who hosted his wedding dinner here, Coco Chanel, and Salvador Dali, who once demanded a herd of sheep be brought to his room and, upon their arrival, took out his pistol and shot at them with blanks.
Thankfully, there were no such shenanigans in our very grand suite – so posh, in fact, that even the bathroom’s rubber ducks were wearing crowns. The children were treated like royalty too. By Joe’s bed, there nestled a junior-size towelling robe, a pair of fluffy dog slippers and a Pistache soft toy – the hotel’s mascot. There was also a bag with a little Paris passport, a spinning Eiffel Tower and a board game, plus – the best prize of all – a Nabaztag bunny to take home!
The Happy Meurice family package included breakfast in the ornate dining room, where waiters busily steam-ironed the impeccable tablecloths. Every morning, we made an effort to dine handsomely so we didn’t get hungry during the day. Joe loved his boiled eggs delivered in a big lidded silver dish, and I appreciated the smoked salmon that came with muslin-covered lemon, lest a squeeze hits you in the eye. We also enjoyed a decadent Tea Time Goûter one afternoon, where Marie Antoinette’s famous quote “Let them eat cake!” came to mind. Showcasing the talents of resident head pastry chef, Camille Lesecq, we were treated to a succession of delicate little cakes and tarts, candy-coloured macaroons, scones and jam, sweets…
Our suite at Le Meurice directly overlooked the Jardin des Tuileries, made famous by Renoir’s paintings. Stretching from the Place de la Concorde to the Louvre, it’s filled with activity, where – as Oscar Wilde wrote – “the children run like little things of dancing gold.” There’s a funfair with a huge ferris wheel, a playground with rocking horses and a mini witch’s hat with dangling swings. You can also sit upon a big shiny silver satellite dish that looks like a giant boule (which seemed fitting in the park which is famous for silver-haired Parisians playing boules in the early evening). There are deckchairs for dozing and grassy areas for a picnic or a crepe au chocolat picked up from one of the vendors. The gravel paths are the only downside, as they become very dusty in the heat.
If you fancy sight-seeing the Jardin des Tuileries on wheels, Le Meurice will lend you bikes and even a pistachio-coloured scooter with doggy footprint motif in honour of Pistache. We borrowed a toy boat, which is kept safely tucked away behind the concierge’s desk, and took it to sail on the pond. But every time Joe pushed his little True Love towards the centre, I panicked and used the big stick to pull it back, as I had visions of it getting stuck in the middle of the pond – and who would retrieve it then?
Visiting in July, the city was very humid and, after a few sunny days, we could tell a storm was brewing when we saw a dramatic near-black sky reflected in the glass of the Louvre pyramid. We arrived back at the hotel just as the heavens opened, and watched dramatic flashes light up the sky over the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides. Fierce winds were whipping up a sandstorm in Les Tuileries, making the gardens, and even the Eiffel Tower, disappear in huge clouds of dust. Grace loved the spectacle, but Joe cowered beneath the bedsheets. The next morning, he opened the curtains with trepidation in case the Eiffel Tower had disappeared for good.
Of course, you can’t visit Paris without shopping, even if it is just looking dreamily into the windows. For famous department stores, boulevard Haussmann houses Galeries Lafayette and Printemps; Grace loved the fashion and make-up, while Joe’s payback came when we discovered the toy department at Galeries Lafayette. At Le Bon Marché Rive Gauche, Grace slipped into myriad coloured Louboutins, decorously lined up in pairs like Barbie shoes, while Joe slept in his buggy. Handily, there’s a little square with a playground just outside, so he was allowed some playtime as a reward. For a grown-up style-fix, head to Paris’s coolest concept store Merci at 111 boulevard Beaumarchais. The brainchild of the former owners of Bonpoint, expect all the style the French are renowned for in fashion, furniture, books, interior design – and then some. It’s also worth making a pit stop at the Bonpoint flagship store at rue de Tournon, where you can indulge in afternoon tea in the pretty courtyard garden. We also stopped in at one of Paris’s best-kept fashion secrets: the Little Fashion Gallery studio. Here, owner Marie Soudré-Richard has cherry-picked a glorious selection of children’s fashion brands, as well as lovely furniture and accessories, all set out so you can browse while your children play (see The Insider’s Guide To Paris, on page 100, for Marie’s favourite places).
Some of the most fun we had was just taking to the streets with no itinerary in mind. We explored St Germain and Les Halles and walked from the Eiffel Tower along the Seine (sighing at the Pont de l’Alma where Diana died), behind the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Élysées. For four weeks in summer, from around July 20, you can indulge in a semblance of beach life at Paris Plages, when the riverside thoroughfares are transformed – expect sandy stretches, deckchairs and ice creams.
Joe probably had the most fun when we trekked out to the Jardin d’Acclimatation, on the outskirts of Paris. The park has a funfair, a miniature railway, a hall of mirrors, a playground and a fun water park (where Joe got soaked dodging the fountains). A highlight for me was sneaking off for a couple of hours one afternoon, with Grace and Joe safely in the charge of a babysitter, for a bit of pampering at the Spa Anne Sémonin at l’Hôtel Le Bristol. I might have felt a little guilty, had the lovely Parisian beautician not told me emphatically that all mummies deserved to have regular spa treatments. I emerged feeling more of an authentic Parisienne.
For our final night, we stayed at the boutique Hotel Jules, a very funky affair with Seventies-style furniture. Grace complained it was a bit pokey, but that’s what a luxury suite at Le Meurice does for you!
As our Parisian dalliance came to a close, we were sad to say “au revoir” (or “olagwar” as Joe would say) to this fabulous city. But then we reminded ourselves it means “until we meet again.”
Our Insider's guide to Paris will tell you all about the family places that locals enjoy.