Francine Wolfisz enjoys a day in the French capital and reflects why tourists should still visit one of Europe’s most beautiful cities in the wake of last month’s terror attacks
Just days before this travel piece was due to be published, Paris was again plunged into mourning following a series of terror attacks across the French capital that left 130 people dead, including a mass shooting at the Bataclan concert hall.
The news left many feeling numb at the thought that Paris, for the second time in 2015, had been targeted by terrorism.
Paris is one of my favourite cities and, just weeks before, like thousands of other tourists, I had jumped at the chance of spending a day there to catch up with a good friend from the States. The horrific events of 13 November have not changed my view.
While the threat of terrorism remains high (not unlike here in the UK) and travellers are warned to remain vigilant, there are still plenty of reasons to visit one of Europe’s most beautiful cities – not least of which is that France is our closest neighbour and Paris a mere 300 miles away, making a day trip possible.
If you take the Eurostar, you can whizz all the way from London St Pancras International to Gare du Nord in just two hours and 15 minutes.
Operating up to 21 services a day, Eurostar offers return fares from £72, although special deals are often available online for advanced tickets. Travellers can also take advantage of Eurostar 2-for-1 entry into paying exhibitions simply by presenting their tickets. Venues taking part include the Musée d’Orsay and the Grand Palais.
On the day I travelled to Paris, I arrived just before noon and had only one destination in mind: Saint-Paul, which is at the heart of the Le Marais district.
After a joyful reunion with my friend Julie and her husband Seth, we decided to take a short tour of the area, which was once considered one of the most exclusive areas in Paris to live.
Popular among French nobility, many of their former mansions have today been restored and turned into museums, including the Picasso Museum in Rue de Thorigny and the Carnavalet Museum in Rue de Sévigné.
Part museum and part art gallery, this unusual venue tells the story of the capital from its prehistoric origins to the present day. The Signs Galleries holds a unique collection of shop signs spanning from the 16th to the 20th centuries. Ornate and beautifully decorated with images, these signs were used to attract the attention of passing trade from customers who were often illiterate.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Le Marais became home to a growing Jewish community, with the district around the Rue des Rosiers referred to as the “Pletzl”, which means “little place” in Yiddish.
Life in Le Marais flourished, but was cruelly curtailed during the Second World War, when the Vichy government collaborated with the Nazis and sent the majority of Jewish residents to their deaths.
A number of plaques and memorials honour those who died, although travellers might want to visit the more comprehensive Mémorial de la Shoah, which is also a museum and located a short walk away at Rue Geoffory l’Asnier. Tall plinths honour the 76,000 French-Jewish deportees, of whom only 2,500 survived. Some 11,000 of the victims were children.
Today the scars of the Holocaust might remain, but the Jewish community of Le Marais is again flourishing. The Museum of Jewish Art and History in Rue de Temple, which boasts a vast collection of fascinating paintings, religious objects and photographs, is surrounded by trendy bookshops, jewellers, boutiques, synagogues and a host of kosher bakeries and delis.
On the day we visited, the winding, cobbled streets buzzed with visitors. Still on a mission to “do lunch”, or as the French say, “déjeuner”, we made our way to the much-recommended L’As Du Fallafel in Rue des Rosiers.
According to The New York Times, “this is the falafel destination in Paris, indeed in Europe”. Judging by the never-ending line snaking its way from outside this little eatery and across the pavement, we weren’t the only ones hoping to taste their world-famous falafel and it was a good 45 minutes before we were finally shown to a table.
But the wait was definitely worth it.
When our bulging pitas arrived, I marvelled at the crispy and succulent golden chickpea domes dressed with creamy hummus, crunchy pickled red cabbage, Israeli salad and Baba ghanoush, topped with a drizzling of tahini.
Overall it was a very satisfying lunch and came at a very satisfying price – around €8 (just under £6). Fuelled by falafel, we took a brisk walk past the nearby Place des Vosges, the oldest square in Paris, where visitors can relax in the open green space and enjoy the passing trade of busking acrobats and opera singers or enjoy the clutch of quaint art galleries and cafes.
Our next destination took us away from Le Marais and onto Pont Neuf, from where we could catch a one-hour cruise along the River Seine.
I was interested to see a mass scattering of padlocks fixed to the grillwork etched with the initials of amorous couples. The padlocks are relatively new arrivals here, having migrated from their traditional home at the next bridge along the Seine, the Pont des Arts.
In June, authorities were forced to remove 45 tons of padlocks from the Pont des Arts after the added weight placed too much strain on the celebrated bridge, which was originally constructed in the early 1800s.
We hopped on board our river cruise boat, Europa, operated by Verdettes du Pont Neuf, which offers similar cruises for around €14 (£10). Seeing Paris by river is perhaps the best way to get around all the major landmarks when time is short – as well as being fairly relaxing – and undoubtedly beats the hubbub of the Métro.
As we set off, we took in all the sights – the Louvre, the Tuileries, Concorde Bridge (built with the stones of the Bastille following the 1789 French Revolution), Notre Dame and of course, the Eiffel Tower – as well as all the major and ornately-decorated bridges dotted along the Seine.
There was just time for a quick croissant and hot chocolate back at Gare du Nord before it was a time to say au revoir to my friend.
As I sat back into my Eurostar seat for the swift two-hour journey home, I recalled that well-known song proclaiming the joys of Paris in the springtime – but if you ask me, it’s best we all remember that Paris anytime is pretty awesome, too.
• For the latest Eurostar ticket deals, visit www.eurostar.com or call 03448 224 777.