Paris is the ultimate destination for a romantic mini-break. Find out how to enjoy the 'city of love' on a budget
I had pulled a last-minute panic-revision all-nighter for the last time, graduation was looming on the horizon and I was in the mood to celebrate my new found freedom. It was around this time in late May that my boyfriend, an avid tennis fan, started bleating about the French Open. So when we were lucky enough to receive an email alerting us of flights to Paris for under £50 each (return) it seemed like fate - we were booked and packed within the week. Finally, a romantic mini-break we could both get excited about!
After an easy train connection from Charles de Gaulle airport (about half an hour to the Gare du Nord), we began to notice that we were walking out of what appeared to be a slightly dodgy area into beautiful tree-lined cobbled streets. Cyclists popped freshly-baked baguettes from local patisseries into their baskets as higgledy-piggledy tables spilled out onto the streets from pavement cafés.
The compact Hotel Audran was perfect for what we needed. During the French Open, and for the area it was in, it offered spectacularly good value for money at under £50 per night. It was undergoing renovation work, but noise wasn’t a problem as we were only in the room at night. Our room was on the fourth floor (there is a tiny lift) and was lovely, featuring a sparkling en suite with an amazing power-shower, and light streamed in from huge windows overlooking the busy little lanes of the bohemian 18th arrondissement. The hotel did not provide breakfast while we were there, but for a couple of euros the abundant bakeries of the area lined our stomachs with the most delicious freshly-baked almond croissants (an indulgence our waistlines did not thank us for but so worth it). We also grabbed a couple of crusty baguettes, and coupled with a wheel of brie, some grapes and a bottle of vin rouge from the cheap supermarket located on the nearby Rue d’Orsei, we had a mouth-watering picnic lunch for under a fiver.
Situated just off the Rue des Abesses (ten minutes by Metro to the centre of tourist Paris), it was a lovely evening stroll from the hotel, up lamplit cobbled steps, to the glittering Sacré-Coeur Basilica, where people gather (guitars, beer and camera in hand) to watch the sun set over Paris. The dazzling white Sacré-Coeur is made of a mineral that secretes light-reflecting pigment when it rains, so it shimmers against the darkened sky. Below the grass terraces where students and pigeons congregate is the carousel featured in the quirky 2001 film, Amélie, and a few minutes' walk away is her Café des Deux Moulins (15 Rue Lepic, telephone 01-42-54-90-50), where alongside framed stills from the film are blackboards offering fantastically cheap happy-hour cocktails. The beer mixed with orange liquor is also a winner. It is worth bearing in mind that if you fancy a drink in one of Montmartre's pavement cafés, you do pay a premium for sitting outside. Also, if you choose to take your drink at the bar instead of at a table, it is close to half the price! We found this out the painful way one evening when we were slapped with a €7.50 price-tag per pint. Further down the Rue Lepic, and on your right, is the spectacular (and spectacularly expensive) Moulin Rouge (www.moulinrouge.fr/home-flash-gb.html, 82, Blvd de Clichy, telephone +33 153.098.282) and the fabled nightlife of Pigalle.
A stay in Montmartre is not complete without a walk around the Old Town where artists and poets once flocked to philosophise, mesmerised by the charms of the Green Fairy. On your way you will pass the Moulin de la Galette (now a restaurant, so named as the windmill used to grind flour to make the area’s delectable biscuits: www.lemoulindelagalette.eu 83, Rue Lepic, telephone 33 1 46 06 84 77), the famous Maison Rose bistro (2, Rue de l'Abreuvoir) the Museum of Old Montmartre, and Montmartre’s very own vineyard (the Clos Montmartre,12 Rue Cortot), ending up at the Place du Tertre for a light evening meal. Travel guides often launch bitter tirades against this ‘awful’ place that is ‘packed with tourists’, ‘overpriced’…blah, blah, blah. We loved it! It is a bustling leafy square lined with fantastically talented street artists and canopied cafés, and is a great place to people-watch and soak up the atmosphere beneath the gleaming spires of the Sacré-Coeur. The cafés can be expensive, but if you spend some time and choose wisely, you can enjoy an early evening Prix Fixe meal of French onion soup topped with bubbling melted cheese, steak-frites or confit of duck, and a chocolate dessert with an impressively large glass of red wine for around €15 a head. Try La Mere Catherine (6, Place du Tertre, telephone +33 1 4606 3269).
Save on your sightseeing
A 'mobilis' (day-pass) on the Metro is well worth the €6/7 euros for zipping between the famous sites of Paris. If you are between 18 and 25 years of age, the world-renowned Musée du Louvre (www.louvre.fr/llv/commun/home.jsp?bmLocale=en) is free (saving you at least €10) on the last Sunday of the month so remember to take your passport. For an informative, leisurely, English-speaking guide to multiple sights, spend your afternoon drifting along the Seine in the sunshine. Bateaux Parisiens (www.bateauxparisiens.com) run hour-long cruises for around €10 (board from the banks below the Notre Dame cathedral). If you are in need of refreshment after your sightseeing, we would heartily recommend Angelina (www.groupe-bertrand.com/gb/angelina.php, 226, Rue de Rivoli, 01.42.60.82.00). Here, under golden chandeliers in what looks like a grand old-fashioned tearoom, you will taste heaven in the form of their melted hot chocolate.
Anyone for tennis?
During the month of May, the French Open is held annually at the Stade Roland Garros (www.rolandgarros.com/en_FR/index.html), which can be reached speedily via a combination of RER train and Metro. You should alight at the Porte d’Auteuil Metro stop, and the courts are a few minutes' walk away. Baguettes and beer are more the order of the day than Pimms and strawberries, but I think that just improved the experience for my steak-and-sport man! If you want to see some high-level tennis on a low-level budget, the sneaky way is to arrive at around 3-3.30pm to be at the head of the queue for returned tickets. These are around €30 for the best courts (we managed to see Davydenko vs Verdasco), but you can pay half that to see the outside courts. If you go in the first week you can see some really big-named tennis stars for €15. Make sure to bring plenty of water and suncream for the queue, where you will be entertained by stilt-walkers, jugglers, jazz bands and magicians!