Simon Calder: The Man Who Pays His Way

Go to town on the beaches of France

Right place, wrong time: that is many a traveller's misconception about Paris in August, when the capital of the most popular tourist nation in the world puts the "vacant" in
vacances. Newspaper kiosks,
boulangeries and restaurants have polite notes in the window saying they'll be open again at the end of summer, often with helpful directions to somewhere you might meanwhile be able to buy
Le Monde. The running of the French capital is handed over to a skeleton staff who keep the place ticking over for the tourists while most residents head for the coast or
la campagne for the month. The vacuum is promptly filled by smart visitors who realise that this is exactly the time to enjoy Paris.

Right place, wrong time: that is many a traveller's misconception about Paris in August, when the capital of the most popular tourist nation in the world puts the "vacant" in vacances. Newspaper kiosks, boulangeries and restaurants have polite notes in the window saying they'll be open again at the end of summer, often with helpful directions to somewhere you might meanwhile be able to buy Le Monde. The running of the French capital is handed over to a skeleton staff who keep the place ticking over for the tourists while most residents head for the coast or la campagne for the month. The vacuum is promptly filled by smart visitors who realise that this is exactly the time to enjoy Paris.

Parisians are often unfairly maligned; they are overwhelmingly pleasant, friendly and interesting. But when they leave town, they take with them their terrible driving, their badly-trained chiens and their propensity to go on strike. Without the usual supersonic swirl of traffic around the Place de la Concorde, visitors can cycle without fear; pedestrians can gaze in awe at the fine buildings without keeping one eye on the trottoir; and public transport is a reliable pleasure to use.

The habits of a lifetime may be changing, thanks to a record-breaking year for Paris Plage, the ersatz beach that has enlivened the French capital for three summers. A 2km stretch of the Right Bank of the Seine between Quai Henri IV and the Pont Neuf has been commandeered for holidaymakers. The highway that blights the Rive Droite was largely concealed by a swimming pool, cafés and 2,000 tons of sand - some of which was turned into dramatic sand sculptures. More than three million people visited the beach, some of them Parisians glad to be able to stroll along the prom in their home town rather than driving hundreds of kilometres to the sea. The authorities in the Channel resort of Le Touquet, whose official subtitle is Paris-Plage, are so worried by the competition that they have launched a poster campaign insisting that they possess " La vraie Paris-Plage".

A surprise third option could prove the most successful long-term lure for beach-hungry Parisians and, indeed, British travellers en route to the south. Take the train north-east from Paris along the Oise valley, past strange Art Deco stations and through cheerful-sounding villages like Appilly, and you eventually reach the town of St-Quentin. Much of the city was destroyed during the First World War, but the main square has been artfully restored. Not that you'd notice in summer, though: the whole place has been turned into a beach resort. The effect is far more impressive than in Paris because of the wit and energy employed to create the sensations of the seaside - complete with a pool, water slide and sand dunes - in a usually sober square. Probably one million or so British travellers will have driven right past it this year without stopping: it is barely 10 minutes from the main A26 autoroute from Calais to the south.

Alas, it is too late this summer for urban beach boys and babes. St-Quentin Plage has just been dismantled, while Paris Plage (not the one on the Channel) closed last night. Perhaps a British town or city will be brave enough next yearto create a similar resort. The prime candidate is our furthest city from the sea: Coventry-sur-Mer, as it will surely be known.

Brussels has long lived in the shadow of Paris and has traditionally been harder to reach from Britain. Recently, though, Eurostar has made it the most accessible capital from London.

Brussels' hilarious Atomium is not in the same league as the emblematic Eiffel Tower; and the city has no artery to match the Seine. Undeterred, the Belgians have indulged in a "my sand castle's bigger than yours" contest. City bosses chose to quadruple their order of North Sea sand to 4,000 tons, twice as much as in Paris. "Bruxelles Les Bains" was a triumph in all respects but one - the decision to close the site on Mondays, the ideal day for long weekenders to visit.

DOWN AND OUT TO PARIS FROM LONDON

So crucial is Paris to the travel plans of Brits that the last page and inside back cover of the book Europe: a Manual for Hitch-hikers are given over to a big sign reading PARIS SVP ("s'il vous plait".) The French capital was judged to be the most popular destination for hitchers, who could simply hold up the book and, with luck, promptly secure a lift.

Hitching is one of the many means I have used to travel between London and Paris on the cheap. One of the stranger short-lived options was the Silver Arrow, a train-plane-train combo featuring a short jet flight from Gatwick to Le Touquet and a long train journey from there to Paris Gare du Nord. Later, Heathrow Terminal 3 became the place to start: you could get cheap tickets on Gulf Air or Aerolineas Argentinas, which flew to Paris as the first leg of flights to Bahrain or Buenos Aires. These were not advisable for anyone on a tight schedule; often the inbound plane was late, and you could be stuck at Heathrow for hours. Then came TAT, a funny, low-fares, high-standards outfit that boasted: "It's all business class on this Fokker", and for a very short while you could fly luxuriously from Gatwick to Paris for £99 return.

For many years before the Channel Tunnel was built, the train-hovercraft-train arrangement via Dover and Boulogne was the fastest way between the capitals without paying a fortune to fly. You can still put together trains and ships, but the railway stations that used to serve the ports on either side of the Channel have been abandoned.

Happily, the combination of new competition from Eurostar and easyJet, plus a robust response from Air France, BMI and British Airways, has stimulated drastic price-cutting. When the first trains ran between London Waterloo and Paris a decade ago, the lowest return fare was £95; today it is £59 (or £10 less if you start your journey in the French capital). The opening price for a flight from London to Paris is £60 return, the same as Aerolineas Argentinas demanded a dozen years ago.

But if you turn up and take off by air or train, you are still likely to pay a fortune; a one-way Heathrow-Paris flight on BMI, bought on the day, typically costs £170; easyJet charges more than £100 for some short-notice journeys from Luton to Charles de Gaulle; and Eurostar demands £149 for a one-way trip from Waterloo to Gare du Nord.

The answer is Eurolines, which has a turn-up-and-go fare of £44 on its key route between London and Paris. The company has just introduced bigger, more comfortable coaches. But the trip still takes more than nine hours, including a pointless 45-minute stop on the motorway south of Calais, at an aire bereft of beach.

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