Tuesday 17 September 2019

Perfect Paris: You can’t beat the City of Light

A view from Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
A view from Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
Love locks line the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris
The Eiffel Tower, Paris
A 2CV car in Paris

Jillian Bolger

You can't beat Paris for romance, rugby or a good, old-fashioned girls' getaway says Jillian Bolger - who took to the city with two wheels... and a 2CV.

'Can we do one more lap?" I ask giddily, staring up at the Arc de Triomphe. Last time I circumnavigated this impressive arch was as a child, my dad at the wheel bravely negotiating eight concentric lanes of traffic. This time I'm in the hands of Laurent, a witty local, who cuts as cool a dash as the car he's driving.

The shiny 2CV - a vintage Citroën with more curves than Kim Kardashian - turns heads everywhere, its cheerful orange livery drawing admiring glances from tourists along the Champs-Élysée. Quintessentially French, it deserves a quintessentially Parisian chauffeur, and Laurent doesn't disappoint.

Dispensing nuggets of history and trivia, spiced up with a little French scandal, we make an appreciative backseat audience to his secret-spilling tour. With the roof rolled back like a canvas baguette, the breeze whips at our hair. My friend Ruth and I gawp skywards at Paris's embarrassment of handsome landmarks. "Paname is our preferred nickname for this town," Laurent purrs in perfect Gallic English. Apparently the term has been around since World War One, but tourists tend to ignore it in favour of the more romantic City of Light.

A 2CV car in Paris

Exploring Paris with two wheels... and a 2CV

And it is romantic. Paris is an obvious choice for a Valentine's weekend (or a date with Les Bleus in Stade de France, if rugby's your thing), but it's also a fun spot for a jaunt with friends. Ruth and I first visited the city together as geography undergraduates, learning about its urban planning; today we find ourselves sipping G&Ts while, serendipitously, ensconced in Europe's earliest example of city planning.

After our 2CV trip, we're back in Le Marais, quaffing pre-dinner drinks at Pavillon de la Reine, our boutique digs and part of Place des Vosges, one of the smartest addresses in Paris.

The capital's oldest and, arguably, loveliest square, its imposing façades belong to 35 identical houses surrounding two royal pavilions. Commissioned 400 years ago by Henri IV, it's a magnificent snapshot of pre-Revolution France, although monarchs never did manage to take up residence in this swanky neighbourhood.

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Our ivy-clad hotel, accessed from the square through a private courtyard, is stylish, chic and beloved by celebrities for its discrete demeanour. A regal retreat, named for a queen, we feel suitably entitled following a relaxing session in the hotel's Jacuzzi.

Primped and preened, we're inspired to go and eat cake with the hoi polloi. (We're not really hankering after cake - more seafood and pastis - but can't resist the urge to make Revolution references. Well, we are just minutes from Place de la Bastille.)

The Eiffel Tower, Paris

The Eifel Tower, Paris

For over two decades, the aristocratic Marais has been one of the city's hippest quarters - a happy marriage of cool boutiques, expensive galleries, smart museums and buzzy bars. It has its fair share of vintage stores too, but nothing is going to scratch our vintage itch as much as a trip to Les Puces, Paris's fabled flea markets in Clignancourt.

Here we side-step pushy lads selling gawdy watches and make for the vast warren of laneways that house some of the city's finest antique shops. "I see the trappings of a cool loft apartment here," I murmur dreamily, pawing a zinc-topped desk, imagining a little pied-à-terre far from the children I've left at home.

Dazzled by Art Deco gloss, antique fairground horses and faded prints of bucolic French scenes, we stop for espresso and ice-cream while watching well-heeled folk haggle over a staggering chandelier.

Having already tried out a Citroën 2CV and the Metro, Ruth and I agree that a bicycle will make another memorable mode of transport on such a fine day. We borrow ours from the station at Bastille and head off into the traffic. Zipping along the busy banks of the Seine, we're happy to retreat on to Île Saint Louis and Île de la Cité, the two elegant islands that float romantically in the middle of the river.

We take a spin through the impressive Jardin des Tuileries - Catherine de Medici's extravagant gardens - weaving along the pathways and avoiding snap-happy tourists. A maintenance vehicle, the only car on site, seems to be on a mission, and it's only after it pulls-up alongside us that we realise we are the objects of its pursuit.

"Pas des bicyclettes ici!" an angry worker yells from his car, gesturing at our bikes and the innocent pedestrians around us.

Blushing from our dress-down, we agree a shopping trip to Galeries Lafayette might calm our nerves. That and a bottle of wine.

Sitting in L'Excuse Mogador, a little crêperie frequented by office workers, we tuck into galettes, Breton buckwheat pancakes filled with molten cheese. The cycle back to Le Marais is now essential if I want to stand a chance of squeezing into the dress I've just bought.

Love locks line the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris

Pont des Arts, Paris

I leave Paris before Ruth. She texts me from our beautiful hotel to tell me John Malkovich has just appeared for breakfast. I feel jealous. I vividly picture him as Viscomte de Valmont in his Dangerous Liaisons pre-Revolution wigs.

Still, it's a relief to learn that Place des Vosges is still attracting royalty after all these years.

What to pack

Paris is not only one of the world's most romantic cities - it's also one of the world's greatest shopping destinations, so come with an empty suitcase and fully-loaded credit card. A spritz of Chanel No.5 and slick of Rouge Allure should help you fit right in.

Getting there

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Cork and Dublin to Paris; Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Shannon three times a week and Air France (airfrance.ie) flies from Dublin. B&B at Le Pavillon de la Reine (pavillon-de-la-reine.com) starts from €380 per room, per night. Book 2CV tours at 4roues-sous-1parapluie.com

Love bites!

Looking for an aphrodisiac to spice up a romantic weekend? Hit one of the city's oyster houses (when there's an R in the month, as the old food safety rule holds) and order a platter of glistening molluscs with a glass of champagne. Top spots include Huîtrerie Régis (huitrerieregis.com) in the 6th arrondisement and L'Huîtrier (huitrier.fr) in the 17th

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