P is for push-chair, play and ... Paris

Most people choose to leave the children at home when they take a trip to the French capital. But this city is not just a playground for lovers, writes Antony Daly
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The Independent Travel
IS THERE any sight on earth less chic than a very hot parent struggling with a very cross three-year-old? And is there any place on earth more able to make you feel your disadvantage - your graceless, sweating, red- faced ineptitude - than Paris?

As I battled with Conor's push-chair on the Metro, surrounded by immaculate Parisians, all of them, in my fevered brain, sneering at my typically English clumsiness, I did begin to wonder if we had made a mistake bringing a child here. Perhaps we would have been better heading further south or, indeed, giving France a miss and heading for child-friendly Italy instead. But I was wrong. It was just that we had to adjust to the French way of doing things. So long as you never reveal that Disneyland Paris is only 20 miles away, you will have a great time and your children will, too.

Yes, the people of Paris really are remarkably well turned out - all the time - and this also goes for their children. Parisian parents just do not seem to have grasped the fact that we British well and truly have: that children are from another planet. So they feed them three-course meals and dress them like miniature adults, almost as if they were real people. And a typical English couple like us, with our alien child, dressed apparently in the dark in an Oxfam shop, who throws chips at waiters and refuses to eat anything but chicken nuggets, can feel a sense of enormous inadequacy.

But once you begin to adjust, and accept, that a certain amount of public humiliation is the inevitable downside of taking children to Paris, then the advantages suddenly become apparent. We discovered all sorts of new places that we might otherwise never have visited and, of course, it provided a wonderful excuse for doing all the fun things that we had not done for years, like climbing the Eiffel Tower and going on a bateau- mouche, and generally discovering the world's most beautiful city all over again.

Because we live near Waterloo and stayed at a hotel near Gare du Nord, the trip by Eurostar, door-to-door, took three and a half hours. It takes us longer to drive to a friend's house near Bristol than it does to get to Montmartre.

Even though it is so fast, three hours on a train with a three-year-old can still be a taxing experience, so we stocked up with jigsaws and children's books, including one about our destination (France, published by Wayland). This proved a real winner, and Conor started talking about the Eiffel Tower (which he called a rocket) many hours before he saw it. When he did, it was with joyful recognition. He also knew the Arc de Triomphe on sight. A foreign trip is also the obvious time to start language skills and we took Thomas the Tank Engine's European Word Book with us. Being able to say Je suis une locomotive vraiment utile, and discuss the behaviour of le gros controleur is a step in the right direction.

Staying in Paris with children is very easy compared with other cities, again based on this eerie idea that children are people. Parisians just accept them in hotels and restaurants as if they were a part of life, rather than, as so often in England, trying to corral them into special "child-friendly" corners. The drawback is that they expect them to be well behaved and disciplined.

English-speaking babysitters are available in Paris, you can contact them through various agencies and they should be booked in advance. Rates are around 30 francs (pounds 3) an hour and there is often a booking fee on top. For a short wine-and-croissant break, a good option is the drop-off creche, of which there are several in the city. Here you can leave your child in safe hands for a few hours.

Paris is a wonderful city for walking and, because people actually live in the centre of the city rather than commuting, children are properly catered for. Tiny squares offer unexpected delights: swings, wonderfully designed toys on springs for riding, clean sandpits, roundabouts, carousels and miniature fairground. Be prepared to stop and play or watch: most of Paris, but especially Montmartre and the area around the Pompidou Centre, offers enough street entertainment and new sights and sounds to thrill any child.

The best place for meeting other children and generally relaxing is the Jardin d'Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne. This is a cross between a zoo and a fair, with a miniature train, a hall of mirrors, camel rides, Asterix the Gaul and live entertainers. You pay just one admission fee of 10 francs and then most things are free. Paris parents speak of it as a sort of second home and it is fabulous; we should have one in London.

French parks are often disapproved of by the English because you can't sit on the grass and they seem over-designed and fussy. This is true. But even so, the parks of Paris are part of its attraction and its history and they do cater for children. The Jardins du Luxembourg, for example, has sandpits and swings and, believe it or not, a little designated area where children can run on the grass. The Tuileries has a roundabout and pony rides. The Parc de la Villette, however, is best of all. It is composed of eight gardens, each with a different theme - there is a real submarine and an enormous dragon slide - and it connects to the Science Museum (Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie) which contains the unmissable Cite des Enfants. This is a children's museum where they can perform hands-on experiments with water, watch butterflies hatch, construct miniature buildings using cranes and wheelbarrows, use computers and generally forget that their parents are there at all.

If you can drag them away, the rest of the museum is well worth a visit, and they may even stop crying when you show them the planetarium, which is magical. Another huge advantage is the presence in the museum complex of two creches, one for two to five-year-olds (La Petite Folie), where they can play numerous games, and one for seven to 10-year-olds (Folie Arts Plastiques), which is a painting workshop. (Why this prejudice against six-year-olds we never discovered.)

The Aquarium Tropical, which is part of the Musee National des Arts d'Afrique et d'Oceanie, is another place I would probably never have visited without Conor. In fact, this old-fashioned aquarium, with its crocodiles and piranhas, is a wonderful place, especially when it is raining. Ideal for older children, although a little too scary for Conor, is a trip to the Catacombs and sewers, where you can view the bones of millions of dead Parisians and smell some of their descendants' waste products.

What Conor did love was the boat trip up the Seine (covered when it is raining). Unfortunately, he twice pulled the hair of a very well- to-do Provencal woman in the seat in front and almost started a fight, but that aside, it was an ideal way to get a sense of the scale and character of the city. It also provides the best view in the city of Notre Dame. Needless to say, the cathedral should also be seen from the inside - its gargoyles are an excellent incentive to the non-religious child (especially when they bear a striking resemblance to his father).

But don't restrict your entertainment to buildings. Even if your French is limited, there is much that can be enjoyed. The circus, for example, is largely language-free. The French love circuses and puppet shows (Guignol is their equivalent to Punch and Judy) and at the Cirque de Paris, you can spend an day learning the art of tightrope-walking and meet the animals.

Food is another Parisian speciality that does not exclude children. There is a chain of restaurants called Hippopotamus which specialises in catering for children, and no trip to France should go without at least one visit. Every table is provided with colouring sets, games and balloons. Le Meridien Montparnasse has a Sunday lunch "Baby Brunch" during which over-excited children can have their faces painted and be entertained by singers and dancers, participate in an organised treasure hunt and generally not eat anything they are told to eat. Otherwise, restaurants are very accommodating to children, but because they are treated like adults, they are expected to be well behaved and not scream or run about.

And toy shops? Every city has a terrible place designed to turn parents' hair grey and leave them hoarse and unhappy. In London, it is Hamleys, in New York, FAO Schwartz. In Paris, it is Au Nain Bleu. This is a profoundly religious place for a three-year-old, containing as it does a vast collection of traditional toys: soldiers, dolls' houses and so on, but it also stocks all the latest bleeping and flashing varieties.

Paris's other famous toyshop is Jouets & Cie, which is huge and thankfully less fussy than many of the others. And fussiness is a problem: the French have a liking for neat little wooden toys which always seem to me more designed for parental delight than for actual play. Tintin and Asterix are everywhere, both having progressed long ago from children's favourites to international icons. The famous Galeries Lafayette and La Samaritaine are also treasure houses for children and the escalators offer easy access to terraces with fabulous views of the city.

I am not sure I want Conor to look like a French child and I made him a solemn vow that I would never dress him up in the knickerbockers that we saw several boys wearing in the parks. But French children's clothes can be beautiful and there are several shops worth a visit. Nahala, for example - even though no one I have ever met could afford to shop there. Conor, thankfully, is not interested in haute couture.

What surprised us most about Paris was that the expected sneers at our lack of chic were often replaced by generous smiles for Conor. We even ended up getting a "Bonjour Baby" from the crowds around the Gare du Nord. By learning to sit outside wherever possible, where misbehaviour was less noticeable, Conor even began to seem a little bit French. Maybe knickerbockers aren't such a bad idea after all.

FACT FILE

children's paris

Useful contacts

Inter-Service Parents (tel: 43 48 28 28) is a free parents' advisory service.

Message (tel: 47 22 50 88) is an English-speaking organisation for parents, which publishes a very useful quarterly newsletter.

Babysitters

A baba (tel: 45 49 46 46).

Contact B (tel: 45 26 81 34) which specialises in English-speakers.

Creches

Les Petits Dragons, St-Georges Church, 7 rue Auguste-Vacquerie, 75016 (tel: 42 28 56 17). Bookings should be made at least a week in advance.

La Petite Folie, at the Cite des Enfants, (tel: 42 40 15 10), three- hour maximum stay.

The Folie Arts Plastiques, at the Cite des Enfants, (tel: 40 40 03 22).

Atelier des Enfants, Centre Pompidou, Plateau Beaubourg, 75004 (tel: 44 78 12 33) is a free drop-off for children aged six and over.

Eating out

Hippopotamus, 1 boulevard des Capucines, 75002, and 6 avenue Franklin- Roosevelt, 75008, plus other venues across the centre of the city.

Chicago Meatpackers, 8 rue Coquilliere, 75001 (tel: 40 28 02 33).

The Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, 5 rue de Berri, 75008 (tel: 45 62 50 23).

Le Meridien Montparnasse, 19 rue du Commandant Mouchotte, 75014 (tel: 44 36 44 35).

Entertainment

Cirque de Paris, on the corner of avenue Hoche and avenue de la Commune de Paris, Nanterre (tel: 47 24 11 70).

Boat trips depart every half hour from Square du Vert Galant, Eiffel Tower and Pont de l'Alma.

The Catacombs, 1 place Denfert-Rochereau, 75014 (tel: 43 22 47 63).

The Sewers, place de la Resistance, 75007 (tel: 47 05 10 29).

Pariscope is an English-language newsletter which contains details of fairs in the city, as well as many other events.

Things to do

Cite des Sciences et de l'lndustrie, including Cite des Enfants, Parc de la Villette, 75019 (tel: 40 05 80 00).

Jardin d'Acclimatation, Bois de Boulogne, 75016, (tel: 40 67 90 80).

Le Palais de la Decouverte, avenue Franklin D Roosevelt, 75008 (tel: 40 74 80 00).

Children's activities in museums are detailed in the Objectif Musee brochure, from all major museums.

Toy shops

Au Nain Bleu, 406-410 rue St-Honore, 75008 (tel: 42 60 39 01).

Jouets & Cie, 11 boulevard de Sebastopol, 75001 (tel: 42 33 67 67).

Clothes shopping

Agnes b, 2 rue du Jour, 75001, sells expensive but lovely clothes.

Cyrillus, 8 rue Chanez, 75016.

Bonpoint, 67 rue de I'Universite, 75007, and 64 avenue Raymond-Poincare, 75016, sells archetypal French chic for children.

Du Pareil au Meme, 135 avenue Emile Zola, 75016 (tel: 40 59 48 82), sells fashionable but reasonably priced clothes.

Chipie, 31 rue de la Ferronerie, 75006 (tel: 45 08 58 74). French-style jeans and T-shirts.

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