France - a weekend in Paris to remember
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Nightlife, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range, Expensive
Montmartre is just a mile from the Gare du Nord where the Eurostar train will deposit you for a weekend of frankly shocking exuberance. There's a new dance in town which is not for the faint-hearted
"So where are you staying in Paris?" my French client, Alain Boulet, enquired after I had dropped by with the family on our French vacation journey to the south.
"Pigalle", I answered.
It was noticeable that his eyebrows seemed to raise a little, just momentarily.
Even some 100 years and more after this working class district first shocked the haute bourgeoisie with its exuberant theatres, cabarets and dance halls, there is still a faint air of sauciness about this part of town.
Your preparation for its assault upon your senses should begin as you arrive at the Gare du Nord and make your way towards La Butte Montmartre (Montmartre Hill) overlooking the grand Parisian boulevards designed by Baron Haussmann.
You can easily walk the mile or so to Pigalle by turning left out of the station and walking along Rue de Dunkerque and then left again at Boulevard de Rochechouart which takes you into the heart of Pigalle, where you will find the fabled Moulin Rouge cabaret club.
The name means 'Red Mill' and this was a semi-rural area of Paris with working windmills until in the late 19th century artists like Edouard Manet and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec helped to popularise its delights to a wider audience.
Manet's Bar girl at the Folies Bergere captured a favourite English bookmakers watering hole. While Toulouse-Lautrec created one of the first modern advertising posters with his promotion of La Goulue (the greedy one aka Louise Weber) for the Moulin Rouge show, which featured her shocking new dance, the Can Can.
If, like me, you decide to stay in the area to absorb the atmosphere that still lingers from the heady days of the French impressionists, then head for the Chat Noir Design Hotel (68 Boulevard de Clichy) where you are just along the road from the Moulin Rouge.
The hotel is loaded with more glamorous, luxurious ambience than you could shake a cat at, which is appropriate since it is named after Montmartre's first famous night spot, le Chat Noir.
Ask for rooms on the 6th or 7th floors of the hotel and you will get panoramic views of the whole of central Paris spread out before you.
Being right in the heart of the action will allow you to wander up the narrow lanes and buzzing coffee shops that make up the village of Montmartre, just as it did when the impressionists gathered here. The colours and layout of the streets are recognisably the same as in the impressionists' pictures.
Van Gogh first discovered the glories of French light and colour while staying in Montmartre. In fact, a recently authenticated early van Gogh shows people descending down some wooden steps, in the background...a working windmill.
The Left Bank
As part of your orientation you will want to ascend right up the hill to the Basilique du Sacre Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) in order to gaze over Paris, then grab a coffee and croissant before plunging into some cultural familiarisation along the Left Bank of the Seine.
This is the other southern side of the river from where you are located in Montmartre. Again you have the choice of walking (Paris is a relatively small walkable city, at least within the bounds of the Periphique ring road) or of taking the metro.
You could also stay here at a gem of a hotel, the Nouvel Hotel Eiffel near the Eiffel Tower if you want to be located near the museums and stores of central Paris.
Your two or three must see French cultural icons on your weekend visit should definitely include the Musee d'Orsay, a converted railway station, at 1 Rue de la Legion d'Honneur (+33 1 4040 4814), which houses the cream of the impressionist crop. Gauguin, van Gogh, Degas, Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec and Manet all have pride of place here in what is now a stunning art palace.
Napoleon and Les Invalides
Your next stop on this weekend tour is a little further along the Left Bank heading towards the Eiffel Tower. Les Invalides near the Pont des Invalides is the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte. He lies under the great dome, suitably resplendent as it embodies the past and present glories of the French nation.
St Germain de Pres
Since this tour includes a night time visit to the Moulin Rouge, you may want to slow down and take in the passing show at a brasserie along St Germain de Pres: people watching is an obligatory French occupation, and it will help you to prepare for your evening excitements.
The Eiffel Tower
However, if you are still full of pep you can proceed along the River Seine and arrive at the Eiffel Tower where you ascend and take in the view from a dizzying height. There are very few tall buildings in Paris, you will be able to see for miles.
Cabaret at the Moulin Rouge
But on with the show. Come the evening, there are two nightly shows at the Moulin Rouge, at 9 and 11pm (reservations can be made online at www.moulinrouge.fr/html_gb/reservation_sommaire.htm or phone +33 1 53 09 82 82).
The cost of the earlier show is 102 euros, the 11pm show is 92 euros. If you wish to dine as well costs rise to 165 euros (including 1/2 bottle of champagne) for the Toulouse-Lautrec menu (that alcoholic dwarf again).
The current show features the 60 Doriss Girls, and enough sequins and rhinestone to outshine the very stars themselves. This is, after all, the most celebrated cabaret in the world. As the poster says, 'Nous sommes toujours sexy'.'
Useful booking service
A very handy booking service for shows and museum passes where the tickets are delivered to your hotel can be arranged through www.conciergerie.com. This way you avoid the queques, especially in peak tourist season which is now anytime outside January and February.