Jewels in the city of light: Simon Calder savours some of the best of what Paris has to offer this summer

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The Independent Travel
Half of Paris is being dug up with a sense of timing which suggests a 'let's annoy the tourists' attitude, and some of the locals are almost gleefully unhelpful. But Londoners continue to return to the city with an almost childlike enthusiasm.

Here is a capital with a sense of danger, of exuberance, of reckless romance. The city develops at a much brisker pace than London, and this summer there is much to be savoured that is novel. The sea is being piped (aurally at least) all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, while the Americans have landed with an architectural vengeance.

SOUND ISLAND

Standing at the western end of the Champs-Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe is its usual bulky self, squat above the swirling traffic. The only sensible way to reach it is by subway tunnels, and the first surprise of the summer is that in reaching it you become enveloped in a 'sound sculpture'.

The Ministry of Culture has fitted out the tunnels, and the monument itself, with dozens of loudspeakers. These blast out neither music, nor reprimands to mischievous tourists, but the sounds of the sea. While you submerge yourself under the traffic of Paris, you listen to the live sound of the sea, picked up by hydrophones installed in the Channel off the coast of Normandy and despatched digitally to central Paris. The effect is to drown out the noise of the traffic beneath a blur of white noise.

The 'sculptor' is Bill Fontana. His ideas get wilder still when you ascend to the viewing platform. You don't just see the view; you hear it. Microphones have been set up at points around the city, so as you peer across the city of light you are surrounded by the sounds of the arrondissements .

Don't let your ears distract your eyes. The Arc, a monument to Napoleon's expansionism, occupies a glorious position in the city's grand plan, astride a clock face from which a dozen avenues radiate. Glittering in the distance, the Grande Arche de La Defense shows a commitment to regeneration without losing a gram of style.

The Arc de Triomphe opens 9am-5.30pm daily, with late opening to 9.30pm on Fridays. Metro: Charles de Gaulle-Etoile.

VIRGIN MEGASTORE

The Virgin logo is familiar, but any resemblance between the Virgin Megastore in Paris and the record store in London ends at the front door. In Oxford Street you wander in from the pavement straight into the chart CDs. On the Champs-Elysees, a staircase ushers you upwards to what would be the chintziest of salons were it not full of rock music. You choose Piaf or Pink Floyd under the light of implausibly grand chandeliers.

The Megastore is one of the few retail outlets open on Sundays, after a mega-battle between Richard Branson and the authorities. Mr Branson, citing culture as his defence, won. So you can now buy Mr Blobby and Johnny Halliday records seven days a week.

The Virgin Megastore opening hours are 10am-midnight, Monday to Thursday; 10am-1am, Fridays and Saturdays; noon-midnight on Sundays. Metro: Franklin-Roosevelt.

IMPRESSIONISM: THE ORIGINS

In a city as drenched in art as Paris, it can be difficult to pick the finest from among the cultural gems. But not this summer. Impressionnisme: les origines restricts itself to the decade from 1859, when Monet, Renoir and Degas sowed the seeds for the Impressionist revolution. The collection, from public and private collections around the world, is breathtaking; the queues are depressing, snaking out from the sumptuous Grand Palais on to the Champs-Elysees. Book in advance if you can; if not, take advantage of late-night opening on Wednesdays.

The exhibition opens 10am-8pm daily except Tuesday; until 10pm on Wednesdays. Admission is Fr38 on Mondays, Fr55 on other days.

Tickets can be booked by calling 44 78 25 05, or through branches of FNAC. Metro: Champs-Elysees Clemenceau.

AMERICAN CENTER

This new venue has no queues and plenty of style. A month ago, the American Center opened its bright, spacious rooms to the public, but most people have yet to realise. It could be the area which deters them. The new structure is in Bercy, a neighbourhood as hard to reach as Deptford. And like London SE8, Bercy gives the impression of having recently suffered a catastrophe, much of the area being dug up for the latest Metro line.

Yet it is also the venue for some heroic architecture. The new structure, by Frank Gehry of Los Angeles, is a deft geometric cluster of conic sections. The opening exhibition is called Stations and comprises a pile of televisions showing the interaction of humans with water. Bill Viola, the artist, is also from Los Angeles.

American Center, 51 rue de Bercy (44 73 77 00). Open 11am-7pm daily except Tuesdays. Metro: Bercy.

VICTOR HUGO

Although only eight miles south-west of the Eiffel Tower, Bievres is more like a peaceful village than a suburb of Paris. In the 1820s and 1830s it was a prime location for the development of literature. Nineteenth-century luminaries such as Chateaubriand, Berlioz and Hugo, congregated at the Chateau des Roches.

You reach it by taking a gentle stroll beside the Bievre river until a twist reveals a pastel-pink chateau amid generous green grounds. It has served as a boarding school and a hospital, and now a Japanese tycoon has transformed the house into the Maison Literaire de Victor Hugo. An almost obsessive tribute to the author, it is full of memorabilia, from first editions to Hugo's death mask.

Bievres is 30 minutes by train from Gare d'Austerlitz. The Maison Literaire de Victor Hugo (69 41 82 84) opens 2.30-5.30pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

VISITOR'S FACT FILE

Getting there:

London-Paris is the most competitive international air route in the world, and fares are consequently low. Nouvelles Frontieres (071-629 7772) has an allocation with British Midland from Heathrow to Charles de Gaulle for pounds 79 return - with the only condition that you stay one night. British Airways (0345 222111) has flights from Gatwick, Heathrow and Luton. Air France (081-742 6600) flies from Heathrow and London City. Air UK (0345 666777) operates from Stansted.

Accommodation:

The 'Summertime in Paris' package, organised by the French tourist office (see below), costs pounds 92 per person for the following: two nights bed and breakfast in a two-star hotel, a three-day museum pass and guide book, a three-day travel card, a 'bateau-mouche' ride and a dinner.

Money:

pounds 1 is 8.50 francs. The Eurocard and Carte Bleue signs at many enterprises suggest that Access and Visa cards are widely accepted,. Unfortunately, British credit cards are less sophisticated than their French counterparts, which contain a tiny microchip. Many British visitors find their perfectly valid cards rejected, so carry some cash in case you are not allowed to pay with plastic.

Further information:

French Government Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (0891 244123), a premium rate number costing 50p per minute peak rate. It is cheaper (40p a minute) to call the main tourist office in Paris, at 127 Champs-Elysees (49 52 53 56) for information in English. The office opens 9am-8pm daily; there are branches at the Gare du Nord and Charles de Gaulle airport Terminal 1.

(Photograph omitted)

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