The best time to visit Paris? When all the Parisians are on are holiday...
They are pushy, rude and tiresomely chic. And soon the city's inhabitants will all be heading for the beach or the countryside.
Saturday 09 July 2011
High summer is the Parisian answer to the neutron bomb. You get the city but not the people: Paris but not the Parisians. "Hooray!" you say. What could be better? The most beautiful city in the world is, by common consent, spoilt by its inhabitants. They are rude, pushy, opinionated, annoyingly good-looking and effortlessly well-dressed. How wonderful the city would be if the Parisians were all to vanish.
Most Britons associate summer in France with the beach or countryside. So do most Parisians. In August, the wealthier Parisians ship themselves off to St-Tropez or Cap d'Agde or the Ile de Ré or to sponge off grande-mère in her house in the country. The city is therefore left, in theory, to tourists and to the poorer, better-behaved classes of Parisians, who have to stay to look after the visitors.
In fact, this is less true than it once was. France having accepted, reluctantly, that it is also a part of the wider world, some Parisians now work on in offices and trading rooms. Other Parisians elect to stay.
"I adore Paris in August," said Thierry, a fortysomething physiotherapist. "It becomes like a provincial city. You can get on the Métro without being crushed. You can cycle without being run over. You can sit out on the terraces of cafés and hear the birds singing, or even listen to what your friends are saying. You can park on the street for free and for as long as you like. The whole city seems relaxed, happy, playful, less stressed. I was once forced to work through August and complained bitterly beforehand. Now, every year I ask to do so."
But isn't Paris in August a teensy bit dull? Without the Parisians can it really be Paris? Most of the good restaurants, and some of the shops, are closed, aren't they? Once you have done all the obvious things – Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, Musée d'Orsay – there is nothing very interesting to do. All the best art exhibitions end in July and start in September. There may be fewer Parisians but the city teems with tourists. It is difficult to find somewhere to stay; or somewhere to eat. The queues for the Eiffel Tower extend to Le Havre and back again.
Actually, these things are not wholly true; and some of them are not true at all. In Paris in August, indoor fun and culture is replaced by outdoor fun and culture. The best exhibitions at the Grand Palais, the Louvre or the Musée d'Orsay tend to avoid high summer. But to the usual free, or cheap, entertainments, Paris adds two special events every late July and August.
This year will be the 10th Paris Plages, or "Paris beach", which runs from 21 July to 21 August. The urban motorway along the right bank of the Seine will once again be closed and transformed with palm trees in tubs, deck chairs, sandpits, swimming pools, ball-room dancing, table tennis, fencing, concerts and bars. To mark the anniversary, Paris Plages will be genuinely a plage for the first time. A whole kilometre of the two-lane Voie Georges-Pompidou close to the Louvre will be covered with sand.
At any time of the year, Paris is a cinephile's delight, with more than 300 screens showing everything from the most recent Hollywood rom-com to the Marx Brothers or John Wayne westerns. Following the Paris Cinema International Film Festival, there are also two free open-air film festivals: La Villette's, in the 19th arrondissement ( villette.com), which runs from 19 July to 21 August; and the "Cinéma au clair de lune" festival ( www.forumdesimages.fr) from 2 to 21 August.
The big art exhibitions – such as the present Edouard Manet retrospective at the Musée d'Orsay (00 33 1 40 49 48 14; musee-orsay.fr; €10) – tend to close in July or open in September. This year, a couple of relatively minor exhibitions will stay open in August. At the Louvre (00 33 1 40 20 53 17; louvre.fr; €6), from 7 July to 10 October, there are two linked exhibitions on medieval and renaissance illuminated manuscripts and Italian renaissance prints and engravings. At the Centre Georges Pompidou (00 33 1 44 78 12 33; centrepompidou.fr; €12), "Paris-Delhi-Bombay", an exhibition of views of India by contemporary French and Indian artists lasts until 19 September.
You can shop in Paris in August, but it is probably not the most sensible time to do so. The big department stores and all the shops on the Champs-Elysées and the rue de Rivoli are open. So is the flea-market at the Porte de Clignancourt. But smaller boutiques may well be closed – such as those little clothes shops in the Left Bank that sell more unusual (and better value) clothes than the city's department stores and luxury-brand supermarkets.
An annoying number of bakeries and local butchers and grocers are also shut. Paris in August may be fine for the tourists, but it can be infuriating for those Parisians who do remain and want to cook for themselves. Bear that in mind if you are not staying in a hotel but renting, or exchanging, an apartment. The internet teems, by the way, with advertisements placed by Parisians who want to escape but happen to have no grande-mère to sponge off. A typical one says: "Echange apartement a Paris en Aout pour n'importe où." (Will swap apartment in Paris in August for anywhere.)
If you plan to stay in a hotel and eat out, there should be no problem at all. Many restaurants do close, for half the month at least. August is the traditional time for small Parisian neighbourhood restaurants, and some of the posher power-dining restaurants, to take their holidays and paint their kitchens. However, the larger brasseries, and many restaurants in all categories, remain in business.
Naturally all the worst tourist-trap restaurants remain open, ex officio, so you have to be careful. Avoid like the cholera all nondescript cafés or brasseries on large squares or avenues near tourist sites. Turn down any side-street and you will do better.
Here are a couple of suggestions. For a cheap, but usually wholesome, hyper-Parisian experience, try the vast Chartier restaurant at rue du Faubourg Montmartre 7, near Grands Boulevards Metro in the 9th arrondissement (00 33 1 47 70 86 29; restaurant-chartier.com). The service, by waiters in long white aprons, is rapid and legendarily rude. The wood-panelled dining room is classified as a historic monument. The main dishes (stick to the simple ones) are €8-€12.
For something much better and still good value, try La Maison, a brasserie that provides copious, traditional dishes from €25 for a three-course menu at Place St-Ferdinand (near Metro Argentine) in the 17th. For a grander, and pricier, traditional Parisian brasserie, try La Lorraine on Place des Ternes in the 8th arrondissement (00 33 1 56 21 22 00; brasserielalorraine.com), which is especially popular for its fish dishes (€30 and rising).
As for accommodation, my friend Michel, who owns a pair of two-star hotels in Paris, says that August is far from being his busiest month. May, June and September are the peak times for visitors to Paris. In high summer, the tourists may be more visible because so many Parisians have gone, but they are less numerous than in the early summer and early autumn. Queues to the Louvre or the Bateaux Mouches or the Musée d'Orsay can, as a result, be pleasantly manageable.
The exception to this rule is the top end of the market. Paris in August is a playground of choice for the super-rich. The Champs-Elysées is transformed into a fascinating parade ground for princelings and their extended families. During the whole of last August, there were no €1,000-a-night rooms available in any Parisian five-star hotel.
Several new top-class hotels, including the Mandarin Oriental, the Shangri-La and Le Royal Monceau have opened recently, so availability at the Ritz, Crillon, George V and Bristol may well improve this year, if that is how you want to spend a great deal of money. A standard room at the Crillon (00 33 1 44 71 15 00; crillon.concorde-hotels.com) in the first week of August, for example, costs around €610 for a single night with breakfast, while the Ritz (00 33 1 43 16 30 30; ritzparis.com) charges €670 room only.
Lower down the market – from four-star to no-star – there should be no problem finding accommodation. The Regina (00 33 1 42 60 31 10; regina-hotel.com), an Art Nouveau hotel opposite the Jardin des Tuileries, has rooms available for €170 per night, room only.
Paris is also the world's greatest walking city, although summer may not be the best time to prove it. It tends to be dusty and baking hot or pouring with rain, sometimes both in the same afternoon. But the Luxembourg or Tuileries Gardens; or the lock-up book-sellers (bouquinistes) on the Seine; or the Canal St-Martin; or the little medieval streets of the Left Bank or the Marais; or the elegant 17th-century townhouses of the Ile St-Louis will usually provide a memorable morning's stroll – and plenty of places to shelter from the elements.
But don't expect to see me as you amble around the city. Living in Paris is a wonderful experience but 11 months is quite enough. I shall be in Normandy.
John Lichfield is The Independent's Paris correspondent
Travellers to the French capital are spoilt for choice this summer. The choice of train or plane mostly depends on where you live, and also your sensitivity to your carbon footprint. From the London area, Sussex and Kent, Eurostar is the most tempting option, which is why the cross-Channel train company has something like 80 per cent of the market. It connects London St Pancras, Ebbsfleet (for the M25) and Ashford with Paris Gare du Nord. The train also boasts a "greener" image than the airlines. However, fares for the summer can be high; the cheapest return for next weekend is £189, rather than the £69 "entry-level" fare.
* By air, links from UK airports outside London are very good, making this a sensible option for a short break; but factor in the high cost (€9.10 each way) of the RER train from Charles de Gaulle airport into the city centre.
* If you're struggling with lots of luggage, don't overlook the bus links: Roissybus from all the terminals to Opéra in central Paris; bus 350 to Gare de l'Est; and, from Orly, the Air France bus to Invalides. The Eurolines coach from Victoria Coach Station in London to Gallieni in Paris is slower (typically nine hours compared with 2h 15m on the train), but fares are much lower (from £39). Also, the carbon footprint is low.
* Some people take their own car. The economics of this can be good, with low ferry fares across the Channel even in the school summer holidays. Driving and parking in Paris itself is a nightmare, but the superb transport system makes it possible to base yourself outside the capital and commute in.
* To have the greenest journey of all – ride a bike, along the London-Paris dedicated route.
* Paris is a very walkable city, so it could well be that you need only a carnet of "t+" tickets for occasional journeys on the Metro, bus or tram. You buy them at 10 for €12.50 from Metro ticket machines, saving you 45c a journey compared with individual tickets. All the journeys you are likely to make require only one ticket, except for bus 350 to/from CDG airport, which "costs" three tickets. Incidentally, a carnet is the only way to get child reductions (10 for €6.25) for the Metro. They have no time limit, so if you don't use all 10, save the remainder for next time.
* RATP, the transport authority, has a series of "Archi Bus" downloadable leaflets that show you the sights as you travel around by the capital's excellent bus network. You can discover fascinating corners on 10 different bus routes – and it has been extended to the tram through La Defense, and even Metro Line 6.
* There are many other ways to get around, starting on the river. While the Bateaux Mouches are fine for a 70-minute there-and-back trip (€11), a smarter move in June, July and August is to use the Batobus along the Seine, stopping at the Eiffel Tower, Musée d'Orsay and Notre Dame. Three or four every hour, 10am-9.30pm daily. An all-day ticket is €14; a second day is €4 more.
* For a tour with a difference, take a ride in an open-top Citroen 2CV: 4 roues sous 1 parapluie has been offering these for the past five years. The iconic car provides a great way to see the city in style; not for the self-conscious because you become a tourist attraction yourself.
* The Parisian predecessor of the London "Boris Bike" scheme is known as Vélib'. You can access the scheme when you turn up, with a credit card and a bit of patience in deciphering the instructions, but far better to enrol online (en.velib.paris.fr) before you go. The day rate of €1.70 or the week rate of €8 is the basic fee; if you ride longer than 30 minutes for any journey, you start paying extra. But if you can't get there in half an hour on a Vélib' bike, it's probably not worth going.
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