Travel: Paris en famille: Artful dodger and la fille diabolique: Post-Impressionism pre-puberty? Perhaps not, but David Lister took his two children to the French capital and still had a good time

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The Independent Travel
BEFORE ascending the Eiffel Tower I made my daughter empty out her pockets. I confiscated the few centimes that were there, but still felt queasy. Nightmare visions swam before my eyes - a blood-splattered tourist; a night in a Parisian jail; a front-page picture story in Le Monde: 'La Fille Diabolique'.

Back at school in a pre-Maastricht French lesson, her teacher had helpfully informed her class that a small coin dropped from the top of the Eiffel Tower would have gathered enough force by the time it reached the bottom to break open a person's skull. With treats like that to look forward to, who needs Euro Disney?

In fact, Euro Disney did not figure on the agenda for our week in Paris, which was taken before the opening of the theme park. It must, I suppose, therefore rank as one of the last family holidays in Paris to include neither a visit to Euro Disney nor a row about why we were not going. Now, when Paris sans Disney seems as radical a family choice as not straying out of downtown Orlando, I still maintain, looking back, that it can be done. Just.

When we went for a summer half-term week, the children, Sara and Mark, were aged 12 and eight. Peter Sellers once described eight as 'the awkward age, too old for Mother Goose, too young for Lolita'. Certainly too young for the Louvre. Indeed, both eight and 12 were potentially awkward ages in a city noted for art treasures, frenetic night-life and small, romantic Left Bank hotels.

We solved this last problem by staying at a Novotel. The chain, usually situated on the edge of motorways, has a prestige site in Paris, in the centre of Les Halles, the former city market that is now a Covent Garden-style bustle of shops and galleries by day, coffee bars, jugglers and street entertainers by night. This large and comfortable base, five minutes' walk from both the Louvre and the Pompidou Centre, was useful both for its family-sized rooms, with children at no extra charge, and its generous buffet breakfasts that neatly doubled as packed lunches, courtesy of a big serviette and an adjacent shoulder bag - another offence to be taken into consideration by the gendarmerie.

Meals, indeed, tended to become theatrical performances: the kids auditioning for the Artful Dodger in the morning, and being spectators at a Hogarthian romp every evening.

This occurred at an establishment called Chartier, a 90-year-old restaurant about a 20-minute walk north of Les Halles. I came across it by asking at the tourist office for somewhere that French families went to. The two people behind the desk debated whether to give me the name or not, fearing it might be a little too bohemian - which, of course, put it at the top of the list.

Chartier does not take bookings and queues form in the courtyard from just after 6pm. Inside you are placed at long tables with no idea who your neighbours are going to be. Jugs of wine, fresh crusty bread and large portions were of secondary importance for the kids, who watched enthralled as the waiters, dressed in butchers' overalls, wrote down the order on the paper tablecloths, where they also added up the bill.

The nights tended to be the highlights, even with relatively young children. They adapted effortlessly to Parisian hours, enjoying, much more than I expected, sitting in pavement cafes watching street theatre, planned and unplanned. The cafes in Les Halles and in the square by the Pompidou were full of life, and an evening in Montmartre proved particularly popular for the thrill of having portraits drawn and, not least, having small crowds gather to compare model and finished article.

The days were not so easy. Even the Eiffel Tower did not prove the treat we had hoped. Both children tired of the queues, so lengthy we had to give up on the final stage. As for art galleries, I refuse to believe anyone who claims their children take to Post-Impressionism pre-puberty. Enthusiastic tones in the Musee D'Orsay about how a railway station was transformed into a museum cut little ice. Smart kids know an art collection is an art collection. The building's antecedents are irrelevant.

There was more joy at the Pompidou, where the escalator outside the building was a novelty they took advantage of more than once. And the germs of an interest in modern art were nurtured by daring them to imagine what incomprehensible and outlandish items the next room might contain.

If arriving was occasionally a disappointment for them, the travelling there and back never was. The Metro is a box of delights for children: colourful stations and equally colourful travellers. Shouting, singing and, on one occasion, vomiting drunks are among their more vivid recollections.

It is a topsy-turvy way of seeing Paris, doing it en famille. The cultural sights have to be relegated to near the bottom of the list, or do as we did and have the adults take it in turns to nip out while the other stays around the hotel with the children. The Eiffel Tower, a trip down the Seine and a visit to Notre-Dame (complete with Charles Laughton impersonations) scored reasonably. The Metro, evening strolls and cafe life were surprise hits.

But then I have always been hopeless at predicting what children will enjoy on holiday. This week I asked my son what his best memory of Paris was. He replied that it was landing at the airport. The runway was constructed over a bridge, so you could look out of the window and see traffic just beneath as the plane taxied in. I had not even noticed.

FACTFILE

NOT counting Euro Disney, there is enough to see and do in Paris to keep anybody occupied for at least a week. First-time visitors will probably want to go up the Eiffel Tower, take a look at the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, visit the cathedral of Notre Dame, study the magnificent array of paintings in the Musee d'Orsay, see the pavement artists in the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, wander up the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, shop for bargains in the flea-market at Porte de Clignancourt and window-shop the expensive fashion collections in the smart boutiques along the Rue du Faubourg St-Honore.

But there is much more to Paris than its tourist attractions. For many it will be enough simply to stroll along the boulevards.

Top 10 sights

1 Eiffel Tower: This is the symbol of the city: whether you enjoy the view depends on the weather and your head for heights. To get to the top will cost pounds 6.

2 Louvre: If you do not take in the Mona Lisa and the Venus de Milo, at least see the famous glass pyramid.

3 Notre Dame: No sign these days of Quasimodo, the hunchback, but still a worth a visit. Its exterior, best seen from the Place du Parvis, is as sensational as the interior.

4 Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe: A walk down the wide boulevards of the Champs-Elysees, past the pavement cafes and cinemas, is one of Paris's free treats.

5 Montmartre/Sacre-Coeur: Now colonised by souvenir shops, but there is still enough of the old Montmartre to remind visitors why it attracted a generation of poets and artists.

6 Orsay Museum: The array of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings on the top floor is simply breathtaking.

7 The Palace of Versailles: One of the most magnificent royal palaces anywhere in the world. Take the tour or simply stroll around the gardens.

8 Faubourg St Honore: Part of the pleasure of Paris is exploring its elegant streets - and they do not come any more elegant than this one.

9 The Pompidou Centre: The famous Paris building that wears its innards on the outside. Enjoy an outside view or, if you have the time, browse through its unrivalled collection of modern art.

10 Cite des Sciences,

La Villette: The science-related exhibits are so compelling (a highly realistic flight simulator, for example) that children will be thoroughly absorbed all day.

Getting there: French company Nouvelles Frontieres (071-629 7772) has probably the best deal to Paris with its twice-weekly service from Gatwick to Charles de Gaulle: return fares start at pounds 79. Eurolines (071-730 0202) operates a service three times daily from London to Paris: the 8.30am from London, for example, arrives in Paris at 7.30pm; return fare is pounds 49.

Getting around: The Metro is the most sensible way to travel in Paris. Buy a carnet of 10 tickets for Fr39 ( pounds 4.80) and save 40 per cent on the price of individual journeys. Call 43 46 14 14 for information in French on the Metro, RER and bus network. Unlimited travel passes for the Paris region (including Charles de Gaulle airport and Euro Disney) cost Fr200 ( pounds 24.70) for three or Fr275 ( pounds 33.95) for five days. These tickets can be bought in London through Voyages Vacances International (071-287 3171).

Accommodation: The French tourist office publishes a list of more than 1,400 hotels, classified according to arrondissement (district). Expect to pay from around pounds 30 per night for a reasonable double room. Accommodation at Ibis, Novotel, Mercure, Sofitel chains - all part of the Accor group - can be booked in London through Resinter (071- 724 1000). There are an increasing number of self-catering apartments available by the day: the best known group is Residences Orion (010 33 1 40 78 54 54); these can also be booked through Nouvelles Frontieres in London (see above).

Museums: Most close on Monday or Tuesday. The standard charge is Fr30 ( pounds 3.70) for adults, with reduced prices for students, people under 25 or over 60 years, and for everyone on Sundays. The Museums Pass, which provides free access to 65 museums and monuments in and around Paris, costs Fr60 ( pounds 7.50) for one day, Fr120 ( pounds 15) for three days or Fr170 ( pounds 21) for five days: available from Metro stations or museums and in London from Voyages Vacances International (see above).

Euro Disney

Accommodation: Rooms at on-site hotels can be booked directly with Euro Disney via a London telephone number: 071-753 2900, or on 071-287 1819: rooms cost from pounds 55 (low season at the Cheyenne and Santa Fe) to more than pounds 200 per night (high season at Euro Disney); self-catering at the Davy Crockett Ranch starts at pounds 90 per cabin per night.

Admission: A one-day pass costs Fr250 ( pounds 30.86) for adults, children (between three and 11) pay Fr175 ( pounds 21.60), under-threes get in free. The rides are free, and you can go on them as often as you like (for as long as you are happy to queue).

How and when to visit: Avoid continental public holidays and get to the entrance by 8.30am at the latest.

Paris's other theme park: Parc Asterix, 60128 Plailly, Paris (44 60 60 00). A 20- hectare park based on the Asterix stories with white- knuckle rides and what it claims is Europe's largest roller-coaster.

(Photograph omitted)

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