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Paris - The City of Light

Paris, France - The Perfect Place for a Romantic Getaway

by Tom Wuckovich

For me, time in Paris is a stroll arm-in-arm with someone you love down the Champs-Elysées, a shared glass of wine at a cozy outdoor café, a leisurely cruise down the River Seine, or a lingering moment at a Van Gogh in the Musée d'Orsay.

However you choose to spend your time in Paris, the City of Light will illuminate a place in your heart like no other. Romance is as common here as a smile from a stranger. Is there a more beautiful way to say "I Love You" than in the French language? Je t'aime is at once lyrical and sensual. French is, without question, the language of love. Surely Parisians must think of their city in the same terms as visitors, n'est-ce pas? (don't you think?) While they may not acknowledge the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre or the Cathedral of Notre-Dame on a daily basis, they are most certainly a source of national pride. And there are few in the world that haven't heard of these symbols, and many more have been fortunate enough to have seen them in their lifetime.

Arc De Triomphe, Paris
The Arc de Triomphe, Paris

Paris should be on every traveler's wish list. This is a city of energy and it invariably energizes those who come here to feel its vitality. As you walk the streets, there is something of value at every corner, every turn, every neighborhood. Paris doesn't whisper about its fame, it proclaims it loudly-and rightly so. Avail yourself to all that the city has to offer. Upon arrival, open your heart and your mind and let Paris seduce you. Along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées, from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de la Concorde you will find a world of beautiful people, cafés, theaters, museums and fine restaurants-and the heart and soul of Paris. At the "rond-point," where the boulevard ends, resides a splendid garden with dancing fountains and imposing statues. It's virtually impossible not to pause every few steps along the famed boulevard to marvel at all the sights, but press on, for just ahead is the magnificent Louvre and its treasured art, adored by throngs of visitors who jam the turnstiles and wait for hours in line to see the haunting Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and the Seated Scribe. The Louvre, once the palace of the monarchs, is a mere 10 minutes from the Opera District, and if you cross the Pont du Carrousel (bridge), you'll be at the Musée d'Orsay and its incredible collection of works by Impressionists Monet, Cézanne and others.

Eiffel Tower, Paris
The Eiffel Tower, Paris

Not far from this converted railway station turned museum is the Eiffel Tower, the symbol of Paris for more than 113 years. The tower is an ideal vantage point for viewing the whole of the city below and the easily identifiable landmarks such as Les Invalides, the Ecole Militaire and the gardens of Trocadéro. While this perspective is inspiring, it lacks the intimacy and romance of a lunch or dinner cruise on the Bateaux Parisiens, which ply the Seine from moorings a mere stone's throw from the tower. These glass-topped cozy vessels glide ever so smoothly on this main Paris artery past the various sections of the city with commentary offered by insightful guides in several languages. Paris from the river seems to define the differences between the city's districts more clearly and the contrast is quite striking.

Upriver from the Eiffel Tower, you see the entire traditional and historic districts: the Palais de Tokyo, Grand and Petit Palais, Assemblée Nationale, Tuileries, the Louvre...but then, everything changes beyond pont Charles-de-Gaulle. The modern Paris comes into focus with less familiar architecture: the Ministry of Finance, Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy with its grassy slopes, and the huge towers of the National Library. But you'll also come to admire the bridges over the River Seine, especially the Pont-Neuf, the oldest, most famous and most popular...particularly with lovers. Easily recognizable by the small half-moon shaped overhangs that allow couples to linger over the Seine, the bridge has appeared in countless paintings and has been the backdrop for many films. It remains virtually unchanged since it was built in the 17th century. In summer, from mid-July to the end of August, the river's right bank is closed to all but foot traffic, and the area between quai des Tuileries and quai Henri IV-some three miles- is invaded by thousands of pedestrians seated in deck chairs, under colorful parasols or under palm trees, while still more take part in a number of "beach" activities. Others may wait for the evening to attend one of the many concerts before going on to clubs, guinguettes (open-air cafés) or to shows. All Paris bridges are now illuminated, making an evening walk along the river a joyous endeavor.

Paris nightlife is legendary, and still at the height of its popularity is the famed Moulin Rouge cabaret, entertaining locals and visitors since 1889. Many international performers have appeared there, but the French Cancan and the paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec were responsible for its popularity. The show's concept is the same as over 100 years ago: feathers, rhinestones and sequins, fabulous settings, original music and some of the most beautiful women in the world. The Moulin Rouge is in the Pigalle section of the city, an area synonymous with Parisian nightlife.

Paris is divided into 20 districts (arrondissements), and within those districts there are further distinctions to define the locale. For example, the Moulin Rouge is in "Village Paris," a place of small neighborhoods reminiscent of provincial French villages. Montmartre is here, and it is certainly one of the most diverse quarters in the city. Crowds of visitors around Sacré-Coeur mingle with locals on café terraces in Place des Abbesses, while shoppers on the boulevard visit the bazaars and specialty stores.

Other enclaves include, among others, Hip Paris, Timeless Paris, Mythical Paris and Undiscovered Paris. The latter, in the 12th arrondissement, has really come into its own as the place to see and be seen. In this eastern sector is Bercy Village, a paved courtyard lined with former wine warehouses that have been converted into quaint structures housing restaurants with flowered terraces, boutiques, art galleries, markets and cinemas. In the evening, this wood and stone complex draws Parisians in droves because of its homey atmosphere. There is only foot traffic in Bercy Village and strolling the brick street offers tourists an opportunity to immerse themselves in French culture.

The village is a perfect place for an initial introduction to Paris and one can stay at the trendy Sofitel Paris Bercy just minutes from the village center. Nearby is the metro terminal at Cour St-Emilion, where you can board the train and be whisked to every other part of the city in a matter of minutes. Bercy can be the door to your Paris experience. Open it enthusiastically.

The City of Versailles
A Crowning Achievement

It's good to be king. If just for a day.
That line from a Tom Petty song is most apropos after you see the splendor of the Palace at Versailles and its magnificent gardens. Though Louis XIII had a hunting lodge and garden built there, it was Louis XIV who was the driving force behind the creation of a sumptuous estate and caused it to become the symbol of absolute monarchy. From 1682-1789, everything at Versailles was crafted especially for the service of the king.

Not too close to Paris, but not too far away, the estate was built at great expense-all for the magnificence of the king. The town, the annexes, including the stables, the Grand Commun for the lodgings of the officers of the royal house, the wings for the ministers, the château with its public and private apartments, the gardens, the park, the hunting grounds-everything was oriented around a main axis passing through the very center of the royal dwelling, where the king's bedchamber was located. He commanded that no house in the city could be built to a height that he couldn't see over their roofs from his bed.

Today, Versailles is still a beautiful area and the château holdings are vast, despite losing its hunting grounds. Its interior is breathtaking, with 700 rooms, 2,153 windows and 67 staircases. Most notable are the Hall of Mirrors, the War Drawing Room and the Peace Drawing Room, and the king and queen's bedchambers. The Hall of Mirrors functions as a passageway to the king's apartment. The monarch gave audience there, received dignitaries and held grand celebrations. The Peace Drawing Room, as its name suggests, is dedicated to peace and its decorations reflect that, as does the décor in the War Drawing Room.

Outside in the gardens, the openness and scope characterize the work of Le Nôtre, the landscape architect. He gives great importance to the central point - the terrace of the château-around which all of the other parts of the gardens have been arranged. From the terrace, Le Nôtre draws your eye to the horizon while guiding your view through the landscape patterns, pathways, canals and fountains which you cannot avoid taking in. It's a masterful approach and breathtaking. You can walk the gardens, but a leisurely ride in a horse-drawn carriage with commentary is far more engaging.

Do not miss an opportunity to also stroll through the town, where you will find cobbled streets and historic alleyways, antique shops, food and flower markets, and cozy cafés such as Le Boeuf à la Mode, an authentic bistro of the 1930s, where you can dine upstairs overlooking the Marshal Foch square.

If you stay overnight in Versailles, get the feel of royalty by staying at the storied Trianon Palace Hotel situated on seven acres at the edge of the Royal Domain of Louis XIV and opened in 1910. The architect, René Sergent, used the same cut stone as the palace and constructed the hotel in the same classical style. There are two buildings, one historic, called the Palace, and the second, more modern, called the Pavillon. They are linked by an underground passageway and its 99 rooms are decorated in the Louis XV style of the Palace. Both buildings have views overlooking the gardens of the hotel and the city of Versailles.

Sofitel Paris Bercy is a four-star hotel just a seven-minute subway ride
from the Place de la Madeleine. The 376-room and suite hotel includes a convention centre, and an underground car park able to accommodate up to 16 coaches, a facility unique in Paris. Tel: 011/33/1/44-67-34-00 or visit www.sofitel.com to make reservations.

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