TRAVEL / Playtime in Paris: It's renowned as the city of romance, but the French capital offers plenty for les enfants too. Madeleine Marsh reports

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WINTER, according to travel companies, is the traditional time for that romantic weekend in Paris. If you believe the brochures, the city's tourist population consists entirely of dewy-eyed lovers strolling along the boulevards with a bottle of champagne in one hand and a single red rose in the other.

But apart from desperate attempts to entice families to Euro Disney, the French capital is rarely represented as a place to visit with children. Yet Paris is a great place for a family weekend. To begin with, it is extremely accessible. Flights are reasonably cheap and mercifully short. So, even if your child does its 'baby from hell' impression throughout the journey, you and your fellow travellers will only have to suffer for 45 minutes.

The best place to base yourself with young children is central Paris, close to the sights and the parks. As young lovers we had been happy to stay in flea-pits where the only stars were those visible from the window. As parents we chose a small and comfortable three-star hotel in the Latin Quarter, close to the Pantheon and with a view across the rooftops to the Sacre-Coeur, a fridge for nightime bottles of milk, and the shameful attraction of a telly.

Paris, famed for being the perfect place for walkers, is not particularly pushchair friendly. The metro, though quick and efficient, has many stairs and horribly stiff turnstiles. If you are travelling with a small child, take a backpack or a collapsible pushchair. Above ground, pavements are narrow and drivers seem to regard zebra crossings as decorative features. The beauty of the city, however, makes up for niggling disadvantages. There is always something to look at, for children as well as adults.

Our first stop was the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of the most famous parks in Paris and one of the few where you are allowed to walk on the grass. It is full of children's attractions: puppet theatre, go-carts, pony rides and a state-of-the-art playground for which, to our amazement, we had to buy tickets (10 francs per child; 6 francs per adult).

At the centre of the park is a large boating pond where, for 13 francs, you can hire a model yacht and a long bamboo cane to launch it with. Even on a wet and windy Saturday afternoon, the pond was surrounded by chic children in smart coats and three-quarter length shorts politely sailing their craft. We decided to join in. But once possessed of a big stick, our delightful toddler turned into a diminutive thug, abandoning the boat in favour of hitting pigeons and passing children. Muttering apologies in French and threats in English we left our boat to make its own way back and retired shame-faced to a local creperie.

Eating with children is not a problem in Paris. The proliferation of small restaurants and brasseries means there is always somewhere child-friendly, without having to resort to plastic hamburgers in plastic settings.

We managed to spend a whole day at the Cite des Sciences at la Villete. Opened in 1986, the huge site looks like a combination of the Barbican, the Lloyd's building and a futuristic city, cold but undoubtedly cool. Plenty for children to do here. In the Cite des Enfants, the museum runs 90-minute activity sessions for children between the ages of three and 12 (price 20 francs, booking advisable). The section reserved for three- to six-year-olds includes water play, computer games, a maze and machines exploring all five senses. It culminates in a mini building site, where children decked out in plastic hard hats and colourful overalls are encouraged to work together to build a room-sized house with the help of miniature cranes and wheelbarrows.

Other attractions include an aquarium, a large outdoor playground with death-defying slides, a real submarine and La Geode. This massive silver sphere, 36 metres in diameter and set on a reflecting pool, contains the largest hemispherical cinema in the world, showing spectacular nature and documentary films.

From one of Paris's most modern children's attractions to one of its oldest, the small menagerie in the Jardins des Plantes, the French equivalent of Kew Gardens, founded in 1626. Unlike practically every other site we visited in Paris, this zoo is appealingly shabby and surprisingly cheap (25 francs for adults, 13 francs for under-18s, free for children under six). No mirrored spheres or glassy pyramids here. Animals are housed in pretty, slightly dilapidated 19th-century buildings, snakes hiss behind huge mahogany display cases. There is a good range of wildlife (from bears to giant tortoises) and a pleasant air of informality - you can feed many of the animals and get up close to them.

After parks, zoos and museums, what else but a toyshop? The theoretical equivalent of London's Hamleys is Au Nain Bleu (406-410 rue St-Honore), the oldest and most prestigious toyshop in Paris, opened in 1836. Toys are beautifully disposed all over the floor, not for playing with but purely for elegant display. We were the only customers under 40 and minus fur coats. Not so much an Early Learning Centre as an Aged Posing Centre and a nightmarish place to visit with a child. Parisian friends recommended the recently opened Toys'R'Us (plus ca change. . .) and the toy sections in major department stores, also good for delightful but costly children's clothes.

You need not confine yourself to purely child-orientated sights and venues. Going to the top of the Eiffel Tower is a remarkable experience whatever your age. Most famous museums have bits that will appeal to children, even if it's only the transparent escalators at the Pompidou Centre and the wonderful glass pyramids at the entrance to the Louvre. Some museums open on specific weekday evenings, enabling you to avoid the crowds. On Monday at 7pm at the Louvre, we were almost the only people in the antiquities galleries.

We were in Paris for three days and would have been happy to stay far longer. As we watched our child wind spaghetti round his ears, my husband and I did pine for those intimate dinners a deux. L'Official des Spectacles, the French version of What's On, and certain guide books (see below) list baby-sitting services (the phrase is the same in French), but we were enjoying ourselves enough not to bother. We had a lot of fun, if not much romance, and our son didn't mention Euro Disney once.


PARKS AND ZOOS: Jardin du Luxembourg: main entrance, corner of boulevard St-Michel and rue de Medicis. Metro: Cluny la Sorbonne, Odeon; RER: Luxembourg.

Jardins des Plantes: main entrance on place Valhubert. Metro: Jussieu, Monge, Gare d'Austerlitz. Zoo open 9am-5pm.

Jardin d'Acclimatation: Bois de Boulogne. Metro: Porte Maillot. More a site for summer: a combination of park, zoo and funfair with everything from dodgems to camel rides (prepare to dip into your purse).

Le Parc Floral: route de la Pyramide, Bois de Vincennes. Metro: Chateau de Vincennes then bus 112. Good park and playground; also the Zoo de Vincennes (entrance 53 avenue St-Maurice. Metro: Porte Doree), open daily 9am-5.30pm (4.30pm in winter).

Jardin des Tuileries: a good place for a quick run before carting your children round the Louvre. Metro: Tuileries, Concorde.

MUSEUMS: Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie: Parc de la Villette, 30 avenue Corentin-Cariou (tel: 40 05 70 00). Metro: Porte de la Villete. Open 10am-6pm (closed Mondays). City ticket: 45 francs; under-25s 35 francs; under-sevens free. Cite des Enfants (children's activity sessions): 20 francs per child, accompanying adults free. La Geode 55 francs; under-25s 40 francs (children under three not admitted). Films run hourly from 10am, book before visiting or as soon as you arrive at the museum.

Parc Oceanique Cousteau: Forum les Halles. Metro: Chatelet, Les Halles. Adults 85 francs, students 65 francs, under-12s 50 francs, under-fives free. No live fish but a simulated underwater trip with audio-visual aids and models.

Musee Nationale d'Histoire Naturelle: 57 rue Cuvier. Metro: Jussieu, Austerlitz. 10am-5pm, weekends 11am-6pm, closed Tuesdays. Dinosaur skeletons, etc.

Musee des Arts Africains et Oceaniens: 293 avenue Daumesnil. Metro: Porte Doree. 10am-5.30pm; adults 20 francs, free for under-18s. Upstairs African arts, downstairs a huge tropical aquarium and a crocodile pit, very popular with children.

Palais de la Decouverte: avenue Franklin D Roosevelt. Metro: Franklin D Roosevelt. Tues-Sat 9.30am-6pm, Sun 10am-7pm; adults 22 francs, under-18s 11 francs, under-sevens free. If your children are of a ghoulish disposition visit the Catacombs (place Denfert-Rochereau. Metro: Denfert-Rochereau; Tues-Fri 2-4pm, Sat-Sun 9-11am and 2-4pm). Another underground attraction often recommended for children (particularly those insensitive to smells) is sewers. Les Egouts can be explored at Quai d'Orsay. Metro: Alma-Marceau, RER: Pont de l'Alma; Sat-Wed: 11am-6pm.

GUIDE BOOKS: The Time Out Paris Guide (Penguin pounds 9.99); Paris, The Virago Woman's Travel Guide (Virago pounds 7.99); Paris The Rough Guide (Penguin pounds 7.99). Pariscope - the French version of Time Out - and L'Officiel des Spectacles include children's sections.

(Photographs omitted)