My few days at large before the tours begin
Paris - where to stay?
Choose a hotel with good transport links to the city centre attractions. You'll probably be going out at night, so don't leave yourself the prospect of a long walk home in the dark. Check the location closely. Don't rely on the hotel's description of its environs. There are a number of hotel review websites which will give you a steer on the local situation. Read between the lines as not everyone is as straightforward as they might be. Lively can mean noisy, interesting can mean peculiar, mixed can mean scary, quiet can mean downright dull. I chose the Hotel Sport www.hotel-paris-sport.com a 2* establishment just half a block from Michel Bizot metro station. It's not luxury but at Ä59 per night single (Ä63 double) for an en-suite room with TV (no air conditioning, though) and a simple breakfast it has all you need. The couple who run the place are particularly helpful and Monsieur speaks excellent English, though he has the courtesy and sensitivity to allow you to speak French if you prefer. He is also happy for you to leave your luggage in a store room if you want to spend the last day sightseeing after you've checked out.

How to travel?
The Paris Metro and buses are frequent and reliable. Clever visitors buy a ticket for the day or longer. I chose the five day version for five zones (includes the airports and Versailles) of the Paris Visite ticket in advance via the internet for just £32. www.allofrance.co.uk will give you all the info you need. Some people question the value of this ticket and suggest buying a carnet of 10 single tickets for the price of 9 but I appreciated the total flexibility and all-embracing versatility of the Paris Visite. Valid all day, once you've got it you just keep using it. Don't worry if you get on the wrong route or go the wrong way. Jump off and try again at no extra cost! And if you're travelling with a friend or with family, there are a number of special offers and reductions you might find of interest. Be sure to validate the ticket properly, though, and keep it safe with all the bumf that comes with it. Spot checks by ticket inspectors are frequent on the metro and undertaken with an attitude that says, 'We're going to catch you out if we possibly can'. The inspectors are not rude, exactly (in fact, throughout my stay in Paris I never met rudeness once!), but they are visibly crestfallen when they find your ticket is entirely in order.
If you've any mobility problems, the Metro is not overly friendly. Escalators lead you down to the station concourse (a few of the deeper stations have lifts) but if you have to change lines you're likely to encounter steep flights of steps. Even for the able-bodied, carting suitcases up and down can be wearisome. Plan your journey carefully and try to avoid too many transfers below ground.

Safety-wise, the Metro seems fine. If you're at all bothered, travel in the centre of the train so when you get off at your station you won't be the last off. That way you can follow the rest of the passengers to the nearest exit.
The newer trains are fine with buttons to press to operate the doors but some older trains still have a curious metal handle which has to be flicked upwards. Watch how the locals do it. Just before the train comes to a complete halt, there's something of a united 'whoosh' of compressed air as a dozen handles are flicked in unison. After a go or two you'll look like you've been doing it all your life.
One final warning. The Metro stations are washed down with a strong urine solution overnight. At least, that what it smells like first thing.

Where to go?
Accept one thing: Paris is one of the great cities of Europe. There's far too much to see in just one trip, so pick and choose carefully if it's your first visit. I had four nights but tried to fit in a week's sites. I ended up exhausted. Everything I saw was marvellous but if I were to visit a second time I'd pace myself better and try to allow enough spare time to allow Paris to come to me a little more.



The Eiffel Tower from Arc de Triomphe

The Eiffel Tower is perhaps the signature building of Paris and it writes its name large on the skyline. Stand right underneath it between the four 'feet' and you'll get a real sense of its mass. You can either use the steps to the first level or book the lift to the first, second or third stages. Choose your kiosk carefully. Some cater for groups and if you get caught behind a coach party it will take forever to get your ticket. Also, don't be surprised if the kiosk shuts while you're still queuing. Sometimes it will be just for a minute while a new shift takes over - but if you see the locals fleeing the line and joining another you can be sure they've realised the staff have gone on extended leave! I booked for the third level. It took 20 minutes from paying to getting in the lift and it was a further 10 minutes for the lift from stage two to stage three. At least it gives you a chance to practise your Franch (or not) with other visitors. The last leg of the lift is quite thrilling and gives a real sense of height, even danger. It wouldn't suit anyone with vertigo (but why would anyone who was afraid of heights go up the tower, anyway?). The view from the top is impressive, I have to admit, but you're so high up it's difficult to get a really decent view of any of the sights. But have a good look round anyway (binoculars will help) and then take the lift down to the second level from where a much clearer scene can be had. If you then take the lift down to level one you can complete your visit by walking down the several flights of steps back to ground level. I was very glad to have done the visit but I think once is enough. I don't intend to make a return trip.



Arc de Triomphe
Set in the middle of a huge roundabout, the Arc de Triomphe gives a view every bit as good (and I thought rather more interesting) as the Eiffel Tower. Under the arch itself is a memorial to French war dead around which groups of schoolchildren seem to congregate. At the top of a narrow staircase is the world's darkest museum. It claims to recount the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte but as it's too gloomy to make out most of the exhibits without a torch you'll have to take it on trust. Mind your step as it takes a while to get used to the sudden darkness. A first aid kit might come in useful to treat the likely sprain or staunch the blood if you bump into some angular artefact which jumps out at you from the blackness. Persevere, though, and make it out onto the roof. Below, the traffic dances a little ballet and the Champs Elysees and La Defense show themselves off at their best.

Ste Chapelle gets a good write-up in all the books. Certainly, the stained glass windows in both upper and lower chapels is exquisite but the attraction is small and is easily swamped by visitors. I was there in the mid afternoon and it was hard really to appreciate the beauty of the building even though most people were behaving with reasonable decorum. The Concierge next door is an impressive enough space but apart from its historical connections has little to see. It does however have decent free toilets, so if you've bought a ticket you might as well make use of the facilities. By chance, there was an exhibition of great interest to me in progress. The Daniells (an uncle and brother combination) had travelled to India towards the end of the 18th century and painted scenes of the countryside and its buildings. These images were displayed against contemporary photographs taken from the same vantage points. The comparisons were intruiging. You can see some views at www.victoriamemorial-cal.org/tripure_gal.html .



Notre Dame
No sign of Quasimodo here, though he might have been hiding among the thousands of tourists roaming aimlessly through the cathedral. Don't even think of a quiet moment here unless you arrive first thing. Fancy 30 minutes to yourself? Then turn up at 8.30am. With hardly a soul about the place is yours. In its quietness the church delivers up its majesty and beauty. By 9am the tourist groups are shattering the peace, so take yourself outside and join (or even start) the queue for a tour of the cathedral towers. Note: there's no priority queue here for those with the Museum Pass, you have to queue with the rest. The steps to the top are steep and unrelenting. I was behind a determined and charming but very overweight American who gave every impression that this climb would be his last. I got the feeling that he would have liked to have been talkative at the top but given he could squeak only a couple of gasped words at a time I was able to make a polite escape. Take a look at the famous great bell but try to resist the temptation to strike it (you're asked not to but it seems the Italians have trouble understanding instructions in French) and be sure to snap the curious gargoyles. Enjoy the view from here. If you fancy a further climb there is a higher level but I'm not sure there's much to be gained (though some calories will be lost) by heading up. Either way you'll encounter a long spiral staircase right down to ground level - a testing time for tired calves.

The Louvre
Expect the Louvre to be busy, especially around the Ďhoney potí exhibits. Like any large museum, thereís far too much to see in a single visit so itís vital to pick up a guide (the museum shop has a good selection at various prices) and plan the day. If youíve a Museum Pass, thereís a separate and much quicker entrance, though itís a bit tricky to locate even with the printed instructions on the pass leaflet. Security is strict, so avoid taking rucksacks into any museum in Paris. Why would you want to load yourself down, anyway?

Three exhibits stand out. The Winged Victory of Samothrace is displayed dramatically atop a flight of stairs. Even with so much missing, it stops you in your tracks. Its attitude is striking and it has a real sense of movement. Given its obvious weight it could never fly but somehow you could imagine it taking off and floating without the slightest effort. The Mona Lisa has one end of a gallery all to itself. Itís the painting with the crowds gathered round in reverence. I had thought it was simply famous for being famous but having seen it in the flesh I believe itís worth its reputation, every bit of it. Iím a convert. It has an intriguing, indefinable quality and yes, there is something of a smile there, though I could only see it by standing to the paintingís right, not its left. Odd that. The Venus de Milo completes the famous trio and is the epitome of grace. You can view sketches of how it might have looked when complete but these only serve to highlight the beauty of what has survived. In fact, the reconstructions subtract rather than add anything, so long may she continue armless. If only you could be alone with her for a moment Ö. Thereís so much else to see, though youíll need some French to get the most out of the exhibit descriptions. In some of the less-visited galleries thereís a great deal else of interest to see. With a Museum Pass you can come back the next day if thereís a need.

Cluny Medieval Museum
A medium sized museum with some exceptional pieces. Chief among these is the Lady of the Unicorn which has deservedly a gallery all to itself.

Picasso Museum
This should have been excellent but when I visited most exhibits were on loan elsewhere. The galleries looked very sad with their many gaps. No attempt had been made to mitigate effect of the gaps: no copies, no facsimiles. A disappointing visit.

Pompidou Centre
Some good quality modern art here (including Picasso Ė see above) and imaginatively displayed. The Tate Modern hardly compares. The building itself, of course, is a work of art with its insides on the outside. You could easily spending longer than intended here.

Musee DíOrsay
Cleverly incorporated in a redundant railway terminus, there are some good impressionist paintings to be seen. I especially liked the early Monet. Like Picasso, he could do Ďproperí painting. The layout is a little odd but the stairs and escalators at the far end get you most places you want to go.



Sacre Coeur
Over the top it might be (and on the top of Parisís highest hill) but you musnít miss it off your itinerary. Take a ride up the funicular railway (covered on your travel ticket if you bought one) and enjoy the view. The church itself is impressive in and out. Mass was celebrated by the bishop the Sunday I was there. If you want to go to the mass on Sunday, make sure you push your way to the front of the crowd and tell the attendant standing guard at the door that youíre there to worship, not to gawp, and heíll let you in. Even though the tourists did the round of the church non-stop throughout the mass they werenít in the least bit distracting and behaved very properly. They didnít seem to notice us (though the congregation was large) and we hardly noticed them. Some of the prayers were in English. Just above the basilica is the artistsí colony with (I thought overpriced) oils and watercolours. You can have your portrait painted, if you like. The little shops and bistros are quaint and worth a visit. Itís a little bit of old Paris, if a little prettified. If you approach Sacre Coeur via Abesses metro station and Montmartre you can get a real sense of past times. Thereís a good deal to see and many authentic small local food shops. You can visit the Montmartre Cemetery and look up the likes of Hector Berlioz. Wander further and youíll be in the Pigalle district. Itís not exactly salubrious, for sure, but you can see the Moulin Rouge (better at night, though, when itís lit up). If youíre rich, you can go to a show there.

Jardin de Luxembourg
This delightful and extensive park has small ornamental gardens at one end and an impressive palace with gardens and a lake at the other. There are plenty of seats, many of which you can simply pick up and move where you want. Itís clearly a popular place at lunchtime, particularly among the young.

Chateau de Vincennes
I'd been looking forward to visiting this chateau as the write up in the guide book was quite promising. There was talk of an attractive hunting park with ornamental gardens and a zoo surrounding a moated royal residence. (Henry V of England died here in 1422 and his body was boiled to preserve it for the journey back to England). The chateau itself stands right on the main road. The entrance appeared unmanned and the courtyard was filled with building rubble. Only the shop seemed to be operating and there was little of interest to be found anywhere. Perhaps I had come at the wrong time but I didn't hang around very long.