48 Hours In: Paris, Left Bank
Be first to visit the striking new Musée du quai Branly, then roam the Left Bank, from Eiffel Tower to St-Germain to La Coupole, says Simon Calder
Saturday 24 June 2006
WHY GO NOW?
Yesterday, the latest addition to the cultural wealth on the south side of the Seine finally opened. The Left Bank's Musée du quai Branly (1) may be nearly two years late, but it adds yet more cultural weight to the glories of the Musée d'Orsay (2) and the Panthéon (3), not to mention the symbol of the city, the Eiffel Tower (4). Added to iconic cafés, lively markets and the intensity of the Latin Quarter, you can enjoy a weekend on the economically poorer but intellectually superior Left Bank with no reason to cross the river.
The Left Bank's airport is Orly, but you can fly there from only three UK departure points: Coventry and Doncaster-Sheffield on Thomsonfly (0870 1900 737; www.thomsonfly.com), or London City on Air France (0870 142 4343; www.airfrance.com/uk). From Orly, the best way to the Left Bank is on the Orlyval shuttle to the Antony station on the RER (suburban railway) line B. From here, take a train to Luxembourg (5) or St-Michel (6) stations. The total journey time is around 30 minutes.
Flights from most UK airports, for example Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester on BA Connect (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), and Heathrow on Air France, BA and BMI (0870 60 70 555; www.flybmi.com), arrive at Charles de Gaulle. This is at the opposite end of RER line B, and has fast links to Gare du Nord (7). These trains continue to the St-Michel (6) and Luxembourg (5) stations. Gare du Nord is also the terminus for the Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com) trains from London Waterloo and Ashford.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The heart of the Left Bank, and the oldest settlement, is the Latin Quarter. To the east, St-Germain is a mixture of bohemian cafés and stylish shops. Continuing downstream, the Seine curls around to the south and the elegant buildings of the 7th arrondissement come to an abrupt halt to allow space for a proper appreciation of the Eiffel Tower (4), which, from almost anywhere on the Left Bank, is a useful fixed point by which to navigate.
On the Left Bank, most places are walkable, but a €1.40 (£1) ticket for the highly efficient Métro, bus and RER networks covers any distance within the city limits. A carnet of 10 tickets costs €10.70 (£7).
For understated luxury, try the minimalist hotel Esprit Saint-Germain (8) at 22 rue St-Sulpice (00 33 1 53 10 55 55; www.espritsaintgermain.com). Once a two-star hotel, it reopened in 2004 with a chic decor and elegant furnishings, plus a spa and gym overlooking the city's rooftops. Doubles from €310 (£222), with breakfast an extra €18 (£13) per person. For tranquillity, head for the small, elegant and luxurious Relais Christine (9), a 16th-century mansion at 3 rue Christine (00 33 1 40 51 60 80; www.relais-christine.com). The special offer at present is €330 (£235) for a double room, with breakfast, and a one-hour boat trip on the Seine.
At the other end of the scale, the cheap and cheerful Young & Happy Hostel (10) is well placed at 80 rue Mouffetard (00 33 1 47 07 47 07; www.youngandhappy.fr). A bed in a dormitory costs €23 (£16), including a modest breakfast served in the basement bar. And for an unusual mid-range place, you could try the Hotel de Nesle (11) at 7 rue de Nesle (00 33 1 43 54 62 41; www.hoteldenesleparis.com), exotic and atmospheric, with overtones of Marrakech. But now that it has outgrown its hippie roots and the clientele is older, balder and richer, a double room costs €75 (£53) excluding breakfast.
TAKE A VIEW
France has always realised the importance of grands projets, or grand architectural projects. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower (4) on the Champ de Mars (00 33 1 44 11 23 23; www.tour-eiffel.fr) was erected to celebrate the centenary of the French Revolution. Gustave Eiffel's structure was initially controversial and was intended to be temporary - but unlike London's Millennium Dome, it was (eventually) embraced by the Left Bank intellectuals who had opposed it. Taking the series of elevators to the top platform (276m) costs €11 (£7.50), but if you are saving cash and feeling fit, you can walk up to the second level (of three), at a height of 115m, for €3.80 (£2.70). The tower opens at 9.30am, which is a good time to go if you want to avoid the worst of the queues, and in summer, closes after midnight.
TAKE A HIKE
The Eiffel Tower stands astride the trans-Paris west-east footpath, the Traversée No 1, which runs for a total of 19km from the Bois de Boulogne to the Bois de Vincennes. It is marked by small red and yellow stripes. For this stretch, aim from the tower south-east across the Champ de Mars (laid out as a parade ground) and around the back of the Hôtel des Invalides (12), built for wounded soldiers by Louis XV. Napoleon Bonaparte is buried here.
From Avenue de Breteuil, turn left along the rue d'Estrées, then right when you see the Chinese Pagoda (13), built in 1896, on the corner of rue Monsieur. At the end of this short street, turn left then immediately right into rue Rousselet, and zigzag on to the rue de Vaugirard for a short walk along part of Paris's longest street, as far as St-Placide Métro station (14).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Walk a short way north-west along rue St-Placide to La Grande Epicerie (15) at 36 rue de Sèvres, and buy the ingredients for a picnic - or, if you are feeling lazy, a ready-made salad. Just north-east, abutting the Place le Corbusier, is your lunch venue: a small park called the Square Boucicaut.
How did the Square get its name? After lunch, find out next door at Le Bon Marché (16) at 24 rue de Sèvres (00 33 1 44 39 80 00; www.lebon marche.fr), transformed by a 19th-century entrepreneur named Aristide Boucicaut from a small business into the first French department store.
Place de la Contrescarpe (17) feels like a village square at the heart of the 5th arrondissement - an ambience that has helped to make it one of the most touristic locations in the city. Yet, barely 100 metres south along the rue du Cardinal Lemoine, you can find a convivial bar, the Café le Descartes, filled with locals rather than visitors. Impress them, as you sip a kir or un demi (beer) with your knowledge that Ernest Hemingway's first Parisian apartment was close by, at 74 rue du Cardinal Lemoine.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
When he was feeling flush, Hemingway would wander across to La Coupole (18), at 102 boulevard du Montparnasse (00 33 1 43 20 14 20) - also a former haunt of Lenin and Trotsky. Prices for superb seafood, served in a lively (bordering on raucous) brasserie beneath the vast art deco dome are pleasingly proletarian.
For poissons et fruits de mer in a place more intimate and expensive, Restaurant Fish la Boissonerie (19), at 69 rue de Seine (00 33 1 43 54 34 69), has an eye-catching blue fish mosaic exterior - a clue to the menu - and bare stone walls inside, with quirky fish sculptures hanging from the ceiling. Try the roast red cod with shallots.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
Place St-Sulpice (20) is usually one of the most pleasant squares on the Left Bank; at present, the eponymous church on the east side is one of several places of worship under wraps for refurbishment, but it is well worth popping in to see a couple of murals by Eugène Delacroix, the mid-19th-century Left Bank artist. They are on the right as you enter.
TAKE A RIDE
...to Versailles. By quad bike. In the car park between Place St-Sulpice (20) is the office of Paris Quad Visite (00 33 1 46 33 11 44; www.parisquadvisit.com), which rents out bright yellow quad bikes. It has just started running guided trips from Paris to Versailles, where you can deafen the tourists around the château before roaring back to Paris. The two-hour trip costs €59 (£42) if you drive the quad-bike alone, or €88 (£63) if you have a friend on the back. A British driving licence is all you need to rent the bike.
OUT TO BRUNCH
During his year-long exile in Paris, Oscar Wilde is said to have had breakfast every day at Les Deux Magots (21) at 6 Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés (00 33 1 45 48 55 25; www.lesdeuxmagots.fr). Croissants, brioches and boiled eggs are laid out to tempt passers-by into the art deco interior, or to sit at the marble-topped tables on the terrace - which is not such a fume-filled experience on a Sunday, at least. The café opens 7.30am-1am daily.
The Musée du quai Branly (1) occupies a dazzling new building at 37 quai Branly (00 33 1 56 61 70 00; www.quaibranly.fr). It was designed by Jean Nouvel to house the collections from the Musée de l'Homme and the Musée national des arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, previously located on the far side of the city. If you can get there today or tomorrow, you will be allowed in for free; from Tuesday, it's normal opening hours (10am to 6.30pm daily, except Monday) and entrance price (€8.50/£6).
A WALK IN THE PARK
The Jardin du Luxembourg is the most charming park in central Paris; it also acts as the backyard for the Sénat, the upper house of the French parliament.
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