Playing Games in Paris: How a father and son used Assassins' Creed as their city guide...
City of Light
Published 11/10/2015 | 02:30
Conor Power loves Paris. His son loves the video game 'Assassin's Creed'. Together, they cook up a whole new kind of city break.
I'm 65 metres above ground at the top of Notre Dame Cathedral, peering through protective netting across the Île de la Cité. It's raining, but there's no shortage of tourists. And besides, the City of Light looks resplendent in any weather.
I've been to Paris several times. I know sights like these intimately at this stage. But my teenage son, Mark, has an even clearer map of the city in his head.
"Over there is the Pantheon," he points out. "Mirabeau was buried there… and there's the Hôtel de Ville. Robespierre was shot in there and his brother jumped out the window on the right and broke his legs. They were both guillotined."
How does he know all this? Assassin's Creed is how. The game is immensely popular amongst the global teenage gaming community, with players following a series of assassins as they find their targets at various points in history. From the Middle East via Renaissance Italy, the Golden Age of Piracy and the American Revolution, the games feature real historical settings and characters - educating their players in a setting as different from the classroom as it's possible to imagine.
The latest version, Unity, is set in Paris. What's more, French-based makers Ubisoft have accurately reconstructed detailed interiors of buildings for the first time. The virtual Notre Dame Cathedral took over 5,000 man hours to build - not as long as the 200 years required for the original, but an impressive effort nonetheless.
After the Cathedral, Mark leads me unerringly down the street to the Sainte Chapelle (above). Built as a private chapel by the 13th-century King Louis IX (known as Saint Louis), it's just been given a seven-year dose of restoration and is looking splendid. Downstairs is the Lower Chapel for the servants - inside of which no royal has ever set foot. It has a colourful interior of frescoes - some restored and some original, including the oldest one in Paris (it's down the end on the left).
Up a short stone flight of stairs, however, is the stunning pièce de résistance: the Upper Chapel, which boasts the single most important collection of medieval-era stained glass in the world. There is so much coloured light flooding into its open-plan interior that your eyes tend to ignore what's on the floor or the walls around you. I've never before seen a teenager get so excited about a church.
Mark points out the spot in the floor below the main altar where (in the game) a trap door opens up just as the assassin falls towards it. I tap the floor with my foot but there's no sign of a hollow. I make a mental note to actually have a go at playing Assassin's Creed when I get home. The more of revolution-era Paris we track down (and it's thrilling to see how much is still standing), the more I want to see what the game version feels like.
Almost right next door to the Sainte Chapelle is the Conciergerie. It's another gem of a building that many visitors to Paris miss completely.
Originally built by Louis IX to house his royal guard, its eerie interior served as a revolutionary court during the Reign of Terror. Innocent citizens were made to sit on straw awaiting swift justice here. Most were found guilty and brought to a room where their last possessions were taken. The napes of their necks were then shaved, their collars were torn open, and they were put on an open cart for the final journey to the guillotine at the Place de la Révolution.
Today, there's nothing left of the horrific scenes that took place before baying crowds. Instead, the renamed Place de la Concorde (pictured above) contains an Egyptian obelisk at its centre (a heavy piece of booty brought back by Napoleon), around which a constant stream of traffic circulates. Mark is slightly disappointed not to find even a false guillotine on site, so we cut our losses and proceeded to the Pantheon.
This impressive and imposing edifice was originally built as a church, but became a secular temple at the time of the revolution. The interior is like a cathedral with no seating, and features statues dedicated to a variety of French political, scientific and literary heroes. My son was more keen to get to the crypt, however - and he knew exactly where the staircase to it was located.
According to Mark, both in real life and Assassin's Creed, a certain Comte de Mirabeau is buried at the end of the long basement. Making our way there, we pass the final resting places of famous names such as Victor Hugo, Voltaire and Marie Curie. When we reach the end, there's no trace of our man - just a panel telling us that he was the first person to be interred here in 1791, before being re-interred three years later.
In reality, this was because Mirabeau was discovered to have been dealing secretly with the king while publicly working with the revolution. In the game, however, he is cast as the Grand Master Assassin. To this day, nobody knows where his body is. Did Mirabeau die of natural causes or not?
The next morning, over croissants and orange juice, Mark and I debate the enigma. Fact and fiction have come together in a whirlwind weekend appreciated equally by both father and son.
Even if we never return, I know we'll always have Assassin's Creed Paris.
Île de la Cité lunch
The understated belle époque interior of Le Petit Plateau (+33 1 4407 6186) is matched by a simple and reasonably priced menu with homemade quiche as the mainstay. The experience is enriched by a view across the Seine to the building that serves as the assassins' hideout in the game.
Get your blades on!
If you find yourself in Paris on a Friday night, don't miss Pari Roller (pari-roller.com) for a rollerblade communal tour of Paris by night, weather permitting. All are welcome and the streets are blocked off to accommodate the huge horde of happy rollerbladers that swish through the city.
Dine in style
For cosmopolitan dining with delicious French food, try Le Hide (lehide.fr). For its situation so close to the Arc de Triomphe, the price is seriously good value. If you're looking for something extra special in that same locale, consider a table at the luxurious Taillevent (taillevent.com).
What to pack
Getting around Europe's most densely populated capital city can be stressful, but if you bring along a tidy-sized rucksack with water, a small umbrella, lunch and snacks, you'll be well prepared. A Paris Visite card (parispass.com), which combines museums and travel, is a good addition.
Conor and Mark travelled with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com), which flies direct from Cork and Dublin to Paris Charles de Gaulle. From there, the city centre is about 40 minutes via the RER train service. A travel pass is available at most metro stations at €18 for two days (zones 1-3).
Where to stay
We stayed at the Best Western Marais Bastille (maraisbastille.com); a 3-star with funky décor and a good business-level standard of service including a fine breakfast, free WiFi and morning papers. Twin/double rates start from €100 per night. Nearest metro: Bréguet-Sabin.