48 hours on the Seine

Get to the heart of Paris in the spring by exploring its main artery. Natasha Edwards offers a riverbound guide to the city

Why go now?

The Seine is the lifeblood of Paris: it is not simply its historic heart, where the first settlement was founded 2,000 years ago; it is also the focus of a new Paris, with the fast-being-built areas of Bercy and at the new Bibliotheque Nationale in the east. Besides, as the song says, "I love Paris in the springtime ..."

Beam down

Eurostar (0345 303030) from London Waterloo and Ashford to Gare du Nord costs pounds 69 return if you go midweek and stay away a Saturday night; pounds 89 if you leave on a Friday. For these fares you need to book three days in advance. An unrestricted ticket costs pounds 179.

For specimen fares on some of the many air routes from the UK to Paris, the following airlines were called and asked for quotes departing the UK on 3 April and returning 6 April: Air France (0181-742 6600) from Birmingham pounds 169.40; British Midland (0345 554554) or British Airways (0345 222111) from Heathrow pounds 112.50; BA from Manchester pounds 123.50.

Get your bearings

You should have no problem finding your way here. The Seine runs through the centre of Paris, dividing the city both physically and psychologically between Rive Gauche (Left Bank) and Rive Droite (Right Bank), with the le de la Cite and le-St-Louis swimming in the middle. Numerous bridges link the two banks, and though some sections resemble an autoroute, cobbled verges mean that you can walk beside the river in much of central Paris.

For aerial views, Metro line 6 crosses the Seine above ground both west (Pont Bir-Hakeim) and east (Pont de Bercy), while line 5 crosses the Seine at Gare d'Austerlitz; or head for the riverside department store La Samaritaine, which has an open-air viewing terrace on the 11th floor.

Check in

Among the antique shops of quai Voltaire is the old-fashioned Hotel du Quai Voltaire (00 33 1 42 61 50 91) at No 19, where Oscar Wilde, Sibelius and Pissarro stayed. A double room, 690FF, could be noisy; sound-proofing is to come next year.

One hotel where you certainly won't see the Seine, but you will be right in the centre of it, is the Hotel du Jeu de Paume (00 33 1 43 26 14 18) at 54 rue St-Louis-l'le, the main street of the aristocratic le St-Louis. The hotel was originally a jeu de paume or real tennis court, built in the 1630s, and was brilliantly converted a decade ago. The beamed court is now a dramatic, galleried breakfast room, while the bedrooms offer plenty of creature comforts. Double room 1,230FF-1,385FF.

Not quite on the Seine, but great for those on student budgets, the MIJE hostel Le Fourcy (00 33 1 42 74 23 45) at 6 rue de Fourcy in the Marais offers pleasant hostel accommodation in a lovely 17th-century hotel particulier (from 125FF for a bed in a dormitory to 198FF for a single room).

Take a ride

Boats head off downstream past the Trocadero and the circular Maison de la Radio on the Right Bank. Catch a glimpse of Passy - this now rather snooty part of Paris was still a rustic village when Balzac lived here in the 19th century; it was originally a spa noted for the curative powers of its springs. Many Parisians perversely preferred the dubious delights of drinking the water of the Seine (one theory to explain this being a confusion between the words Seine and saine - meaning healthy).

As the boat passes the narrow Allee des Cygnes island, look out for the Statue of Liberty (reduced size) sticking up at the end, a reminder that she was sculpted by a Frenchman - Auguste Bartholdi - as a gift to New York.

The boat turns round here and heads upstream to take in several of the city's greatest sights: the Eiffel Tower, the ornate Pont Alexandre III, the golden dome of Les Invalides and the Musee d'Orsay on the Left Bank; the Grand Palais, Tuileries gardens and Louvre on the Right.

Lunch on the run

Stop off at Le Rallye (01 43 54 29 65), a rough-and-tumble riverside cafe-tabac at 11 quai de la Tournelle, with an authentic Fifties mirror and a plastic interior crammed with Tintin memorabilia. There's nothing fancy here, but it is a true local in the heart of Paris. Sit in the smoky inside, or outside at a pavement table, for an inexpensive beer or glass of wine, sandwiches or a hot plat du jour such as steak and chips or rabbit in mustard.

Cultural afternoon

With the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Institut du Monde Arabe and Palais de Chaillot all en route, you are not short of culture, but instead head for the turrets of the Conciergerie (1 quai de l'Horloge (00 33 1 53 73 78 50) - the Paris equivalent of the Tower of London - for an insight into French history at the city's first royal palace and later Revolutionary prison. You enter straight into the echoey, Gothic-vaulted halls of the Salle des Gardes and Salle des Gens d'Armes, built in the early 14th century by Philippe Le Bel, leading to a medieval kitchen with massive fireplaces. Later the palace became a prison, at its most notorious under the Terror when thousands of victims of the Revolution passed here on their way to the guillotine, among them Marie-Antoinette, Danton and Robes- pierre. In the Chapelle des Girondins are Marie-Antoinette's crucifix and a guillotine blade. The reconstructed cells give a pretty good idea of what lingering here involved, but money clearly helped; the poor slept on straw crowded in communal cells, while the well-off could pay for a private cell and such luxuries as a desk and bed.

Shop in a box

For quintessential riverside shopping go to the bouquinistes - the second- hand book, print and postcard dealers identified by their bottle-green boxes attached to the parapets of the quays. They stretch along both sides of the Seine in central Paris, perfect for buying a serie noire crime novel or that old Byrrh advertisement.

An aperitif

Take your apero on a boat while heading upstream for a slice of new Paris, where a little nucleus of floating music bars has moored on quai de la Gare in front of the vast Bibliotheque Nationale Francois Mitterrand, the new national library. Much the most romantic, and the most incongruous, is the Guinguette Pirate, a three-masted Chinese junk that sailed over to Paris from the Far East a few years ago. There's live music on deck most evenings.

Demure dinner

Make for St-Germain-des-Pres and the extremely successful Les Bookinistes (00 33 1 43 25 45 94) at 53 quai des Grands-Augustins, the best of five moderately priced offshoots run by superchef Guy Savoy. The dining-room is chic and contemporary - amber walls, wacky modern mirror frames - and the modern French cooking is original and stylishly presented.

Sunday morning; go to church

Notre Dame on le de la Cite is, of course, one of the most visited sights in France, but two of Paris's finest medieval churches are also nearby, in the Latin Quarter.

The little church of St-Julien-le-Pauvre overlooks the Seine and Notre Dame from a small garden. The outside is rather dilapidated, but the interior still has its richly decorated late-12th-century capitals among the icons - it is now used by the Greek Melchite community. St-Severin is a late- Gothic gem, famed for its double ambulatory and unique double-spiral column.

Bracing brunch

Back on board for a leisurely brunch on La Calife (00 33 1 43 54 50 04). Brunch is still viewed as an American import, but it is catching on, and this rather sophisticated barge shows why. From 1 April, the barge will be on its summer moorings on quai Montebello, where the 125FF all-you- can-eat meal includes a Mediterranean-tinged array of salads, freshly baked bread, blini, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon.

A step back in time

Sunday afternoon is the perfect moment to explore the timeless le St- Louis. This enclave remains much as it was when first built up in the 17th century, with elegant town houses and tree-lined quays. A visit is not complete without an ice-cream from Berthillon, at 31 rue St-Louis- en-l'le (closed during the school holidays), Paris's most famous ice- cream maker, which often draws a queue way down the street.

A plane

Central America opens up next weekend, when British Airways launches a new scheduled route from Gatwick to Cancn. Mexico's biggest Caribbean resort will provide a gateway for easy access to the Yucatn Peninsula, Belize, Guatemala and elsewhere in Central America. The lead-in fare direct from the airline (0345 222111) on the first flight out is an Apex ticket at pounds 648 (inc tax), but lower fares are available through discount agents. Next weekend's Time Off will feature a report on Cancn itself.

A train

You could be travelling to or from Inverness for next to nothing, providing you are old enough. Great (or should that be Grey?) North Eastern Railway is offering the over-fifties vastly reduced fares on the line from London King's Cross through York to Newcastle and Scotland. The return journey from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness to London costs pounds 19; call 0345 225225 for bookings.

The trick, besides being born before March 1948, is to choose your dates with care; GNER insists you travel on Tuesdays or Wednesdays only.

A boat

The only way to reach Tristan da Cunha, a speck of British territory in the south Atlantic west of South Africa, is to sail aboard RMS St Helena, which makes an annual visit to the island. It is not cheap: flying out to Cape Town, then spending a fortnight at sea with no absolute guarantee of being able to land on Tristan da Cunha, costs at least pounds 2,600. Book through Curnow Shipping in Falmouth (01326 211466). If this sounds too demanding in terms of time and money, you can read more about the island in Harry Ritchie's book The Last Pink Bits, now out in paperback (Picador, pounds 5.99).

A room

New Experience Holidays (01922 410909), which organises walking trips in Europe, does not mince words when describing the hotels it uses in the Moselle village of Alf. At the Hotel Junk, for example, you are told, the proprietor, Frau Johanna Junk, is also the local butcher: "Definitely NOT the place for vegetarians". Sadly, New Experience no longer offers a discount for customers called Alf.

A meal

Harry Ramsden's is rapidly becoming a multinational chain of fish and chip shops. But the original version at White Cross, nine miles north west of Leeds, remains a tourist attraction. To keep the interest value, the restaurant is staging a series of special events. On Monday (23 March), you can enjoy "Opera and Chips" for an all-inclusive pounds 16.50. Book on 01943 874641.

A drink

Lamberhurst Vineyard is one of the en-route attractions in a booklet called "Country Tours", published this week by Kent Tourism. The vineyard, near Tunbridge Wells, offers wine-tasting every day except Christmas. The bibulous theme continues with the Whitbread Hop Farm, the largest group of Victorian oasthouses in the world. Another feature of the publication is a list of more than 40 pubs belonging to the Shepherd Neame brewery. You may be surprised to learn, then, that the subtitle of the booklet (price pounds 1, from Kent Tourism, 01622 696165) is "Circular Driving Routes in the Kent Countryside".

A week from now

A month from now

A year from now

High Road

Soar away to the sauropods. Next Friday, the world's largest dinosaur exhibition opens at the Philadelphia Civic Center. Quest Worldwide (0181- 546 6000) is offering a fare from London, Birmingham or Manchester for pounds 197. Admission to the exhibition is an extra $15 (pounds 9).

Low Road

Alternatively, make do with Dinosaurs: the Next Generation at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds (0990 106666). Admission to the special event and the permanent attractions costs pounds 6.95 for adults and pounds 5.25 for under 15s.

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