Ballet fans in mourning for Monday's closure of the Royal Opera House should hotfoot it to Paris, says John Percival, and not just because of Bastille Day
After more visits than I can remember, it still gives my heart a lift every time I walk up the Avenue de l'Opera in Paris, because there at the top is the great Paris opera house, an exuberantly splendid Second Empire structure known, after its architect, as the Palais Garnier. Apart from its handsome appearance, this theatre thrills me with joyful memories and the anticipation of imminent further pleasure. And with Covent Garden closing, and Eurostar making Paris so easily accessible, it is high time for more people to find out for themselves how much grander, more elegant yet less snobbish the Garnier is than our Royal Opera House. Less expensive, too: the dearest seat for ballet there comes to between pounds 28 and pounds 40 depending on the programme, and the amphitheatre (where I sat on my first visits), with a high but unobstructed view, costs about pounds 9 to pounds 12.

Go through the portico and you are in a vast space with marble staircases, chandeliers, statues, huge pillars, painted ceilings - and all this grandeur before you even set foot in the jewel-like auditorium with its ornately painted curtain and Chagall ceiling (at 220 square metres, one of the largest of modern paintings). You do not even have to attend a performance to view the public parts: the house is open for visits most days, from 10am until 4.30pm. This includes a museum and exhibitions held in the halls and promenades: until September, the subject is the classical ballerina's dress, the tutu, with photographs and many historic costumes.

But it would be crazy only to look round, and to deprive yourself of going to watch one of the world's greatest ballet companies: wonderful dancers performing an unusually varied repertoire. One of many highlights for me this season was the sight of Elisabeth Platel and Charles Jude together in Balanchine's Tchaikovsky ballet Serenade: a dream couple, perfectly matched in beauty of face, physique and movement. If you are feeling jealous (and there were many other treats earlier this season that it would be too cruel to mention), there is still John Neumeier's new production to Delibes' Sylvia (one of the greatest 19th-century ballet scores) to come at the end of this month.

It doesn't matter too much which cast you catch; the rest of the principals and soloists, and the new youngsters besides, are all worth seeing. In this company, promotion goes partly by merit over the year, but partly (under a system devised by the great 19th-century ballerina Marie Taglioni) by open competition, dancing two solos in front of a jury, so every dancer has the incentive of trying to shoot quickly to the top.

This is the oldest company in the world, founded by Louis XIV in 1661, but it claims also to be one of the youngest in terms of the average age (25) of its present 148 dancers. They give more than 150 performances a year in Paris, and tour. Next season, between October 1997 and July 1998, they will present 12 different programmes (plus a gala honouring their former star, Yvette Chauvire). These include four of the big classics in productions by their former director Rudolf Nureyev, a revival of Giselle restoring the historic 1924 designs by Alexander Benois, and, at the other extreme, creations by four contemporary French choreographers.

Especially interesting should be an evening in November by French composers: Soir de Fete to music by Delibes (its 1925 choreography by Leo Staats was much admired by Balanchine), Bizet's L'Arlesienne in Roland Petit's staging, and Leonide Massine's production of Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. Most of these performances are in the Palais Garnier, but three of the biggest shows will be at the larger new Bastille opera house, which is mainly devoted to the opera company. In exchange, four of the smaller operas will be given at Palais Garnier. There is also always at least one visiting dance company at Garnier: next January Merce Cunningham from New York will bring two weeks of premieres.

Incidentally, Paris's prodigal daughter, Sylvie Guillem, is due to return as guest star for two performances each of Nureyev's Don Quixote and Romeo and Juliet and Kenneth MacMillan's Manon next summer. Expect to have to fight for tickets if you reckon that travelling to see her there would be more fun than the journey to Hammersmith or the Festival Hall for her London appearances.

Good food being another of the pleasures of Paris, you may like to know that there is no problem about eating after the show if you want to make a night of it. A late-serving and reliable old-fashioned bistro close by the Palais Garnier is Au Petit Riche (25 rue Le Peletier), and there are two good brasseries in the nearby rue Vivienne, Le Vaudeville and Le Grand Colbert. From the Opera Bastille go for Brasserie Bofinger (5 rue Bastille). Right opposite the Eurostar terminal, the brasserie Terminus Nord is famous, and reliable for the first or last lunch of a trip, or you could try Chez Michel, only five minutes' walk away at 10 rue de Belzunce, which has Breton specialities.

Tickets for ballet (and opera) at Palais Garnier or Opera Bastille can be bought by post, in person, or (with a Fr10 surcharge per ticket) by telephone. Payment by Visa, Amex, Eurocheque (or at the theatre on arrival). Full details of programmes and how to book are in the Season Guide, available from Opera National de Paris, Accueil, 120 rue de Lyon, 75012 Paris (fax: 00 33 1 44 73 13 74). Information also on Internet http://www.opera-de-

Three good-value ways to reach Paris without using British Airways (all prices are return, and include taxes): Eurostar (0345 303030) from London Waterloo, pounds 69. Thomson City Savers (0171-200 8809): three nights in a budget-grade hotel, flying from Birmingham on Jersey European, pounds 149. Air France (0181-742 6600): return flight from Edinburgh, pounds 139.60.

Three good-value ways to reach Paris using British Airways (0345 222111): From London Heathrow, pounds 74. From Plymouth, pounds 94. From Manchester, pounds 100. All these fares are subject to weekend surcharges, must be booked by 23 July and require advance booking and a Saturday night stay.