Francine Wolfisz visits the French capital with her family for a weekend break – and finds there’s something to keep them all amused
As the summer months rolled around once more, we decided to set ourselves something of a challenge – could we really enjoy a weekend-long city break, take in all the sights, indulge in relaxing spa treatments, enjoy fine dining – and keep our toddler entertained at the same time?
Until now, we had been more than content to stick to the shores of the UK for our holidays (if only for the ease of being able to pile the car up with changing mats, teddy bears, favourite foods and other child-related paraphernalia), but I felt the time had finally come to brave it and venture somewhere abroad.
What we really needed was somewhere that was super-convenient to get to and could offer all of the above – and we certainly found our answer with the beautiful city of Paris.
Getting there really couldn’t be simpler. We decided to avoid the hassle of getting to and from airports and waiting around for hours on end (something you want to avoid at all costs with a small child!) and instead opted for the Eurostar from Kings Cross St Pancras, which gets you to the French capital in just under three hours.
There are up to 18 daily Eurostar services from London to Paris Gare du Nord every day and there are also direct services available to Disneyland Paris.
I found the fares were pretty competitive and best of all, whereas with flights you have to start paying for your child once they reach the age of 2, on Eurostar all under 4s travel for free!
As we also discovered, the kid-friendly staff in Standard Premier, which is definitely worth paying a little extra for more space – were invaluable in quelling any potential tantrums from our little darling. Colouring pens and small packets of ginger biscuits arrived in our carriage with no problem at all. It certainly helped put a smile back on our daughter’s face.
The staff were equally helpful when on our return, the train was unfortunately delayed by an hour just outside the tunnel on the French side. Such delays can happen even when travelling by plane, but Eurostar was quick to offer everyone a complimentary one-way ticket for future travel and even laid on taxis at King’s Cross to get us home again quickly! In terms of customer service, Eurostar certainly got Dix Points from me.
Arriving at Gare du Nord, it was just a short 20-minute ride on the Metro to our hotel. It’s certainly worth investing in a Paris Visite travel card, which you can use on any of the public transport services, including the Metro, RER, bus, trams and SNCF trains.
You can buy one for within the main Paris centre (zones 1-3) or further out (zones 1-6), which covers travel to the city’s airports, Versailles and Disneyland Paris. The travel card is available for 1, 2, 3 or 5 days and there are special offers with a Paris Visite, including 20% off entrance to the Arc de Triomphe, 20% off a standard ticket at Disneyland and for those who love to shop, 10% off purchases at Galeries Lafayette in Boulevard Haussmann.
Children can get a special half-fare discount on public transport, while under 4s go free.
I should mention one caveat however – as we discovered, some Metros are not very pram-friendly and there may be quite a bit of schlepping up and down stairs with your little one, which after a few days can prove exhausting. Some of the more modernised stations do however have lifts and escalators to lighten the load!
Finally we arrived at Bastille – where the infamous prison once stood until the French Revolution of 1790 – and made our way to the Hotel Pavillon de la Reine, a cosy 4-star hotel located on the Place des Vosges, which is the oldest square in Paris and right at the heart of the historic Jewish quarter of Le Marais.
As we approached the hotel, which is a member of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, we were taken aback by this charming little hideaway draped in stunning greenery and hanging baskets.
Traditional and modern are interwoven in this family-run, boutique hotel, which dates back to the 17th Century. With 54 individually-decorated guestrooms, the Hotel Pavillon de la Reine certainly has a far more intimate and unique feel to it than a larger, chain establishment.
Within the foyer, large comfy chairs, antique furniture and original oil paintings suggest this is more than just a reception area – it’s a place where you can literally “lounge” if you so wish. A nice touch also is the “honesty bar”, where you simply take the drinks you like and fill in a slip for payment later, making it feel far more like your home rather than a hotel.
This area doubles up in the morning as the breakfast room, where a sumptuous continental buffet is available and includes all the favourites of classic croissants, pain au chocolat, pastries and a nice selection of French cheeses.
It was pleasing to see that even our “fussy eater” became a little more adventurous during our stay.
Our room, which was a Junior Suite, was equally sophisticated and sleek, while retaining some of the ancient wooden beams.
Designed as a duplex, the room featured a master bedroom upstairs and a lounge/junior bedroom on the lower level and a large, luxurious bathroom and shower, as well as the usual mod-cons including plasma TVs, WiFi and air-conditioning.
Away from our room, I was keen to take advantage of the jacuzzi in the Spa de la Reine by Carita, which is situated in the hotel’s basement. There are also two rooms offering facials and beauty treatments, as well as a gym and hammam.
As we left our hotel now feeling rather refreshed, we realised just how superb its location really is.
A green area just outside the Place des Vosges boasts a small play area and sandpit – perfect for young children, and there are also an array of quaint art galleries and superb cafes and restaurants.
The family-friendly Café Hugo, so-called after the French novelist Victor Hugo who lived nearby on the square while he wrote Les Miserables, became one of our favourite eateries. Another, Le Petit Italien in rue Saint-Gilles, had a great atmosphere, wonderful choice of dishes and the staff were more than happy to rustle up something for our daughter which wasn’t even on the menu!
Our hotel was also a great location for exploring the Jewish history of the Le Marais district.
Once considered one of the most exclusive areas to live, the area was popular among the French nobility and many of these hôtels or grand townhouses have been restored and turned into museums, including the Picasso Museum in rue de Thorigny and the Carnavalet Museum, in rue de Sévigné.
Another is now home to the city’s Jewish museum in rue de Temple, which boasts a vast collection of fascinating exhibits, paintings, religious objects and photographs that tell the story of the French-Jewish community from the Middle Ages to modern times.
An interesting exhibition currently running until 6 October, shows the work of the Brazilian-born photographer Alécio de Andrade, who captured Jewish life in Rue des Rosiers during the 1970s, well before the traditional bakeries, butcher shops and boutiques made way for a rather more modernised district.
That said, this famous street in the Jewish quarter, which lies in “the Pletzl” (Yiddish for “little place”), still has plenty of charm, as well as Kosher shops, delis and some of the best falafel places in town!
Away from Le Marais, there are plenty of sight-seeing opportunities which are family-friendly, including strolling along the Champs Elysees towards the Arc de Triomphe, watching the river boats cruising along the Seine and enjoying a picnic lunch of baguettes and pastries close to the Eiffel Tower.
Our visit to the charming French capital was of course incomplete without first taking our daughter to Disneyland Paris (and I have to confess, I was probably just as excited as she was!)
Getting there was relatively simple. From our hotel, it was a short 10-minute ride to Nation before transferring to a 35-minute RER train journey to Marne-le-Vallée.
Once there, the popularity of this place, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, was more than evident to see as throngs of excited children and their parents made their way towards the entrance (but then again, this was August and considered one of the park’s peak times!).
There are in fact two theme parks on the complex – Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Park, which celebrates cinematic behind-the-scenes and show business – that are spread over a massive 19km.
We were just visiting for the day and truthfully, this really is the kind of place that you need at least two days – if not longer – to really explore.
That said, we decided to focus our visit on the Disneyland Park and there were more than enough attractions to keep us entertained. My two-year-old daughter’s favourites included Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, which you could climb and enjoy views of the park from the top, Dumbo the Flying Elephant ride, the Pirates’ Beach play area and the Phantom Manor ghost train ride.
She also loved waving at the vibrant parade of Disney characters which appeared on a special 20th anniversary train.
Wherever we looked in fact, there was always something to catch our eye and the beauty of Disneyland is that you could technically avoid all the rides and still have a great time just walking through the five differently-themed zones and enjoying the abundant array of eateries.
Which was just as well, given that some of the queues for attractions were up to an hour or longer – and that’s a major consideration if like us, you are only visiting for a short time.
Overall we had a fun-filled family day out at Disneyland and given the opportunity we will certainly return – albeit during the off-peak season when the crowds are fewer.
As for Paris itself, it certainly got the thumbs up from us as a family destination and as the French might say, was just parfait.
- Francine travelled with her husband and daughter return from Kings Cross St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord. Fares are from £69 standard class return for adults and £49 return for children (aged 4-11). Standard Premier is from £159 return for adults and £111 return for children. Details: www.eurostar.com or 08432 186 186.
- Hotel Pavillon de la Reine, 28 Place des Vosges, Paris: www.pavillon-de-la-reine.com or call 0033 40 29 1919. Rooms are from €350 per night including breakfast and free valet parking, based on two people sharing a double room.
- Paris Tourist Office: www.parisinfo.com
- Disneyland Paris: www.disneylandparis.co.uk or 0844 8 008 898