A nouvelle approach to Paris

By John Walsh

The Arc De Triomphe, Paris. Photo / Russell Smith
The Arc De Triomphe, Paris. Photo / Russell Smith

"Let us," I said to my two younger children, "go to Paris. Just for a few days, after Easter.

"The weather will be fine - le temps sera bon is, I believe, the term - the tulips will be out in the Tuileries, the Parisians will be strutting about the Boulevard Saint-Germain in their spring finery. It's trendy as hell right now.

Paris is on the cover of Time Out. Graham Robb's new book, Parisians, is Book of the Week on Radio 4. Neither of you has ever been to Paris, though you've been on this planet for 14 and 18 years respectively. But you must have heard Ella Fitzgerald singing: 'April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom / Holiday tables under the trees / April in Paris, this is a feeling / No one can ever reprise'? So let's do it, shall we?"

"Uh-huh," they said. "We don't mind."

Max, 18, and Clementine, 14, were both, in fact, quite keen to see Paris, but London teenagers do not express anticipation or wild enthusiasm about anything.

Still, they talked to each other about the trip, and wrote lists of "Things to See" and "Places to Go", gleaned from family members and school friends, and that is the adolescent equivalent of deranged excitation.

I had an itinerary for us to follow. It went: 1. Champs-Elysees/ Arc de Triomphe; 2. Notre Dame; 3. Beaubourg Centre; 4. Bateau-mouche on the Seine; 5. Sacre Coeur and Montmartre; 6. Musee d'Orsay; 7. Pigalle; 8. Galeries Lafayette; 9. Lunch at Plaza Athenee; 10. Tuileries gardens. That was it. You may notice I left out the Tour d'Eiffel and the Louvre. Oh please. What were we, tourists?

Shrewdly anticipating the volcanic cloud that was shortly to petrify Europe, we took the Eurostar. Is there a better way to arrive in Paris? I mean, apart from showing up in a Sherman tank in 1944, being handed bottles of 1939 Bordeaux by old men and kissed by newly liberated girls? I doubt it.

It's smooth and comfortable, it takes just two hours from London and you can sleep against the head-rests.

The children liked the airport feel of the check-in, without the need to have your shampoo confiscated at security. I liked the uniformed guards who stand like footmen by the door of every first-class carriage to usher you in. So Orient Express.

I thought we'd stay in one posh hotel and one less posh, to introduce the children to both the grande luxe and the demi-monde. Le Meurice in the rue de Rivoli, the first luxury hotel in Paris in 1835, is just stunning.

It overlooks the Jardin des Tuileries, and behind its elegant 18th-century facade, the lobby and restaurant are designed by Philippe Starck with surreal touches: enormous white vases, twisted Ionian pillars and an ice blackboard where the children left their handprints along with some dubious graffiti.

In homage to the hotel's most loyal visitor, Salvador Dali (he stayed for a month every year for 30 years), the Dali dining-room ceiling offers a crazy mural of pleated curtains and vaudeville dancers. Clementine (an artist in the making) thought it all too big and the mural far too vulgar.

In our two-bedroom suite, Clementine exclaimed at the fittings ("Look - a light goes on in the wardrobe!"); the macaroons supplied gratis at teatime; and the fact that the TV had BBC channels. For teens, every holiday abroad is enhanced by having home-TV on tap. Everything gets too weird otherwise, you know?

She was in raptures at finding the "Free Towelling Robe" until I explained that it was definitely not un petit cadeau from the management.

Max explored the mini-bar with interest.

"You are not, on pain of death, to take anything out of there and drink it," I growled.

"But Dad," he said, "you said you were trying to introduce us to de luxe living."

"I am," I grated, "but only a small bit at a time."

We hit the sights. The mile-wide Place de la Concorde shone in the sunlight, but it and the Champs- Elysees were a bit of a plod to negotiate. The queues at the Arc de Triomphe dissuaded us from checking the view from the top. The children weren't impressed. The main thing they noticed in their first hours in Paris was its array of Adidas and Esprit, its Starbucks and Zara. They could have been in Bromley.

Le Meurice kindly supplies you with a list of museums, shops and child-friendly sights in the vicinity, from the trampoline in the Tuileries to the exquisite Angelina tearoom. Their recommendations for le shopping avec Mummy weren't going to interest my stroppy teen charges, however, so I took them down to the river to visit the Gothic splendour of Notre Dame.

Max and Clementine gazed at the great rose window and admired the gargoyles, but (since there was no sign of any picturesque hunchback) became more interested in a trio of young jazz musicians, two electric guitars and a clarinet, performing on a bridge. They were cool. They were authentique. Notre Dame could wait.

We split up for a while, since I needed to visit my favourite bookshop, Shakespeare & Company, whose original owner, Sylvia Beach, published Ulysses in 1922. An hour of blissful browsing later, I found the children had discovered the Ile Saint-Louis; I found them eating ice-cream with grenadine and watching a whiskery old trouper playing the theme from Amelie on a battered accordion.

They wanted to see the Louvre, but I explained that the queues would be appalling and that the Musee d'Orsay was much trendier. We took a taxi there at lunchtime, and discovered the Musee queues stretching for miles in a dispiriting crocodile. It was hopeless.

We tried the Beaubourg, found a way in and I promised that they were in for a treat: 50 years of French artistic genius in one lovingly curated exhibition. They sped round the first gallery room and disappeared. An hour later, Max called me on his mobile.

"Can we go, Dad?" he said. "All this naked flesh is a bit gross."

All what naked flesh? I'd somehow missed the fact that, on the top floor, a Lucian Freud exhibition was in full swing, complete with the gargantuan Benefits Supervisor Sleeping and the colossally phallic Leigh Bowery in full fleshy display.

"Sorry about that," I said. "But it's important for you to experience the Beaubourg."

"It's actually called the Pompidou Centre," said Max. "Why do you keep calling it something else?"

"All the local Parisians call it the Beaubourg," I explained.

"But you're not a local, Dad. So to you it's the Pompidou Centre."

"That's like saying that French tourists in London have to call the Gherkin the Swiss Re Building."

"But everyone calls the Gherkin the Gherkin. Not just the locals ..."

So it went on. A kind of compulsive argumentation settled in like mist on our second day.

I suggested a nice ride on the Seine by bateau-mouche, admiring the grand palaces, drinking in the view ... "We don't want to do that," they said. "It's terribly tacky."

After a while they even objected to taking taxis everywhere.

"Can't we take bicycles?" asked Clementine.

"They have this V brilliant bicycle renting programme right across the city."

Bicycles?

"Can't we take the Metro?" asked Max.

"It's more authentically Parisian than taxis. And the traffic's awful."

I took them to check out Montmartre.

"It's where Amelie works in the cafe in the film," I explained.

"It's fantastically hip and groovy, a kind of village on a hillside with lots of clothes shops. It's where Picasso painted Les Demoiselles d'Avignon and hung out with Braque and Modigliani and Apollinaire, so it's tremendously arty."

The minute they clapped eyes on the white Sacre Coeur church, the crowds in the Place du Tertre, and the importuning artists with their brushes and cartridge paper, the teens decided it was fake.

"Whatever soul this place once had, it's completely gone now," said Max decisively, as if he'd been visiting, on and off, for years.

"It's all just tourists, and people who want to paint Clemmie for €100..."

Walking down the long steep hill, past the hundreds of interchangeable clothes shops, I was tempted to agree. This wasn't how I remembered it, 10 years ago.

In the streets of Pigalle, I searched for the dramatic red sails of the Moulin Rouge.

"Why have you brought us here, Dad?" asked Clementine. "It's all sex shops."

My near-divine parental patience finally snapped.

"What the hell is wrong with you two?" I said.

"These are the sights of Paris, the most gorgeous city in Europe. Why can't you just ... like it more?"

"You're treating us like tourists," said Clementine.

"You go around with your nose in the Rough Guide, doing everything it says you should do. We just want to hang out and experience the place."

It was useless to explain that experiencing a place requires a structure and an agenda. Otherwise it's like visiting London and spending all your time in Croydon.

But something changed after that. We did less dashing about in taxis and fuming over queues. Instead we walked everywhere: Boulevard Saint-Germain, Jardin du Luxembourg, Place des Vosges, the little bookstalls beside the Seine.

We liked the massed array of chairs outside the big cafes on street corners, which gradually filled to bursting between noon and 1pm, and during the general walkabout between 5pm and 6pm.

We moved into cheaper living quarters, the Hotel Jules in the 9th arrondissement, a lovely retro-chic place done up in chocolate brown and cream, handily placed for the big boulevards and the covered shopping malls of the antique dealers' district. Away from the centre of town, we all palpably relaxed.

Bits of Paris jumped out at us: the beautiful Opera, the massive Town Hall, the Louvre pyramid. It's quite something to turn the corner of a long leafy boulevard and find the Eiffel Tower looming at you just across the Seine. Despite their abhorrence of being considered tourists, the teens insisted on going up the Tower at night-time, when it's all lit up and fireworks crackle all over it for the first 10 minutes of every hour. I went up, too - it was a fantastic experience which, for some reason, I'd never tried before. Had I been under the impression it was too touristy or something?

I'd treated us to lunch in the art deco splendour of the Plaza Athenee's Relais restaurant, where the rib of beef Rossini (with foie gras on top) was the best I've ever eaten, and the teens wolfed down steak tartare and king prawns and admired the prize-winning puddings. On our last day we lunched al fresco at Ma Bourgogne, a wonderfully old-fashioned cafe in a terrace beside the Place des Vosges, and at a fifth of the price; Clementine preferred the latter because "it's got a nicer atmosphere", because the bald waiter was charmingly attentive, and because pigeons nibbled around her toes. And then we went shopping.

After having 98 per cent of my suggestions rejected or found wanting, I dreaded taking the teens to the Galleries Lafayette. Would they find it just a dull department store? But I could hardly drag them around the designer salons of the Faubourg St-Honore, could I?

Where could we go? Then I had a brainwave. I discreetly looked up "secondhand and retro clothes shops" in my handy guidebook and hailed a cab. Ten minutes later we were deep in the Marais district, the Fourth-arrondissement Jewish quarter, strolling in a street called the Rue du Roi-de-Sicile, where every other shop was a quirky, edgy, one-off emporium of street chic.

It was paradise for the 13-19s. They lingered in a tiny shop selling designer jackets (and superhero capes) for dogs. A place called The King of Frip was filled with racks of cheap secondhand jackets, frocks, skirts and cool army caps.

In Alternatives, Max bought some long Levi check shorts and Clementine marvelled at the secondhand Chanel shoulder-bag costing €1400.

Best of all was Noir Kennedy, a mad Gothic extravaganza of a shop, where you check your look in the mirror inside a coffin, the walls are festooned with rat- and mouse-traps (containing the odd mouse and rat) and dolls' heads in specimen jars, the five changing-rooms are London telephone boxes and a groovy 1950s Vespa has pride of place on the floor. Oh, and it sells T-shirts and skinny jeans and sequinned jumpers.

"Are coffins cool?" asked Max. "I hadn't thought about it before." But I knew he was impressed.

This was one of the bits of Paris he wouldn't forget because he and Clementine had discovered it all by themselves, without (it seemed) the help of know-all parents and tourist guides.

That's what teenagers want on holiday: to wander, to discover and never to be pushed into Being Impressed.

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