Bonjour Paris! by Rosario Albar
The Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris
Hello Paris!  After President Bush extended his hand in reconciliation to French President Jacques Chirac, Americans are traveling again to the City of Light.  But while Paris may have laid out the welcome mat, the weak dollar is a major snag for budget conscious travelers.  The good news is, the best sights of Paris are free and there are many fun things to do without draining your bank account.

In 52 BC, the Romans built a city they called Lutetia (Lutece) on an island in the Seine river.  And Paris was born.  How apropos that the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was constructed on this site where it has stood since the Middle Ages.  Notre Dame is a gothic symphony of flying buttresses, gargoyles, pointed arches, rib vaulting and stained glass windows.  The best time to visit is in late afternoon when the crowds have dwindled and the line entering the church is shorter.  Stand on the north side of the transept facing the rose window on the south side and watch the play of light transform it into a kaleidoscope of colors.

The Ile de la Cite is shaped like a ship.  At the bow is the Pont Neuf.  Linger a moment and view the Eiffel Tower from a distance.  Its detractors once called this tower of steel "monstrous".  Built for the Universal Exposition of 1889, it was to be torn down afterwards.  What would Paris be today without its most famous symbol?

To the rear of Notre Dame is Ile Saint Louis, the other island on the Seine.  Narrow streets are flanked by aristocratic, 17th century townhouses.  Although Ile Saint Louis is in the center of Paris, it is a tranquil residential neighborhood.  My favorite spot here is a creperie that is just a hole in the wall.  But it serves a delicious array of crepes to satisfy the biggest appetites.  Other visitors to Ile Saint Louis come for the ice cream at Berthillon.

Re-energized, walk to Place de la Bastille where a prison once stood.  On July 14, 1789, Parisians stormed the prison and freed the remaining prisoners.  This act precipitated the French revolution.

It is a short leisurely stroll from Bastille to Place des Vosges, Paris' oldest square.  Covered arcades shelter boutiques and restaurants with crisp, table linens and waiters with long, white aprons.  Victor Hugo lived in this square.  His
appartement is now a museum where memorabilia of his life and works are on display.  The cozy square is a good place to unwind and watch the neighborhood play, especially on weekends.  It's one of those travel opportunities that will let you in on the local scene.

The Louvre is one of the best known icons of Paris.  It's impossible to see its vast collection in a day or even a month.  A short list of "must see artworks" looks like this:  Leonardo da Vinci's
Mona Lisa, Eugene Delacroix's Victory Leading the People, Greek sculptures like the Winged Victory and the beautiful Venus de Milo as well as Michaelangelo's Slaves.  Admission is free on the first Sunday of every month.  Youth 17 years of age and below may enter free-of-charge anytime.

Paris is synonymous with haute couture.  Window shopping along Faubourg Saint Honore and Avenue Montaigne is a feast for the eyes.  For more affordable fashions, head to the
grands magasins on Boulevard Haussman, behind the Opera Garnier.  Enjoy a full day of shopping at Galeries Lafayette, Printemps or the less pricey stores of Monoprix, C&A, and Prisunic.  If you decide to buy that one-of-a-kind leather handbag or a pair of trendy shoes or that stunning outfit, remember that you can reclaim most of the Value Added Tax (VAT) after you spend the minimum requirement (around $207) at any participating retailer.

A promenade along the Champs Elysees is a romantic way to cap off your day.  The tree-lined boulevard is all lit up lending a festive ambience to your night out on the town.  At the western end of the avenue is the Arc de Triomphe.  It was a project started by Napoleon Bonaparte to commemorate the victories of his Grand Armee.  But the arch has also seen some of France's most humiliating and painful moments such as on June 14,1940 when Paris fell and Hitler's armies marched down the Champs Elysees.  Today, the Arc de Triomphe stands proud once more in the heart of Paris, the city that exudes
joie de vivre.

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Getting there:    Delta Airlines and its codeshare partner, Air France offer a nonstop flight from San Francisco to Charles de Gaulle airport.

Where to stay:  The Hotel Mercure in Montparnasse has comfortable accommodations and is located in a neighborhood with a choice of restaurants and shops.  It is a short walk from Gare Montparnasse where there is a convenient shuttle service to and from Charles de Gaulle airport.  Their website is
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