x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

A Parisian playground

Travel The French capital is full of entertainment for youngsters.

The Champ de Mars boasts a free playground, carousel, swings and room to kick a ball around - all in view of the Eiffel Tower.
The Champ de Mars boasts a free playground, carousel, swings and room to kick a ball around - all in view of the Eiffel Tower.

Think Paris and romance springs to mind: candlelit dinners on the Champs Elysees; moonlight strolls along the River Seine; recreating the photographer Robert Doisneau's famous kiss. But what do you do in the City of Light when baby - or toddler - comes too? The French capital is a surprisingly rich mine of entertainment for youngsters from its gaudy merry-go-rounds, traditional puppet shows, parks with pony rides and in summer an artificial beach - Paris Plage - with swimming pool and children's activities along the Right Bank of the Seine.

A good place to start is the Jardin des Tuileries, which stretches from Place de la Concorde to the Louvre, the oldest and largest of Paris's public parks and originally planted by Catherine de Médicis in 1564. Here you will find an adventure playground and trampolines as well as ponies to be ridden and ducks to be fed on the ornamental pond. Dash across the Rue de Rivoli to the arcades, where at number 226 is Paris's most famous cafe-teashop, Angelina's, with its celebrated Belle Epoque decor. Coco Chanel and Marcel Proust were regulars here, though I doubt they had to queue for a table. It is expensive and the staff can be sniffy, but the chocolat chaud and pastries are out of this world.

Back into the Tuileries and up the dusty garden path east to the Louvre and the inevitable do-we-don't-we moment. The Louvre is massive and labyrinthine. If you decide to pay the ?8.50 (Dh49) to go in (the ticket is valid all day for repeat entries) head for 13-15th century Italian paintings on the first floor to find the Mona Lisa. Da Vinci's muse is smaller than most people imagine and inevitably surrounded by crowds, so sharpen those elbows. If the Louvre's cultural challenge is too daunting, the three glass pyramids, pools and fountains outside are a source of endless awe and amusement for youngsters while parents can sit and people-watch.

From the Louvre, head north into the Palais Royal, next to the Comédie Française, one of the loveliest but quietest corners of central Paris. First stop has to be the Buren columns - 260 black and white striped marble pillars of different heights in a 3,000 sq metre courtyard. Controversy has raged over this contemporary work of art since the columns were installed in 1985, but children adore them.

In the Palais Royal, take a break in one of the miniature gardens or sit by the fountain and let the children chase the pigeons. Stroll down the side galleries housing antique shops and art galleries to the north end and find the sandpit just in front of the Vilac toyshop, which specialises in beautiful wooden toys. Then again, if you are looking for toys you need the Nain Bleu, on Boulevard Malesherbes near Madeleine, three storeys of beautifully crafted objects from a store that has been in the same family for five generations.

Most places in central Paris can be reached on foot but public transport is cheap and reliable. Buses are easier than the Metro with a pushchair. From the Palais Royal, or Louvre, take a number 27 bus to the Jardin du Luxembourg. This picture-postcard garden next to the Sénat is in the chic and exclusive VIth arrondissement. The playground is wonderfully equipped but both adults and children pay entry. In the garden are pony rides, a merry-go-round, a whirly chair-swing and a mini lake where you can hire miniature wooden sailboats. Close your eyes and you can see Mary Poppins.

Personally, I prefer the Jardin des Plantes to the east in the Vth arrondissement, which is less twee and crowded. It also boasts an old-fashioned menagerie that is on the sad side of interesting but still a winner with youngsters who love the orang-utans and "fink plamingos". Leave the jardin by the main exit and pop into the tea room attached to the Grande Mosquée opposite for a glass of sugary mint tea amid the fig trees of the peaceful inner garden terrace. Relax and marvel at the exquisite mosaic tiled decor.

Eating out with youngsters in Paris is child's play given the number of cafes, bistros and family-run restaurants, but service is on the slow side so anticipate the cries of "I'm hungry" well in advance. If bored with the standard - and unimaginative - children's menu of steak haché et frites, pick a small dish from the entrees. In the Palais Royal the Muscade restaurant welcomes children, as does A Priori Thé in nearby Galérie Vivienne towards the French stock exchange, the Bourse. In both, children can run around safe from traffic.

Take you children to see the "Guignols" - old-fashioned puppet shows - and they will be talking about it for weeks. There are puppet theatres in the Jardin du Luxembourg, the Rond-Point jardins of the Champs Elysées, on the Champ de Mars and at Buttes Chaumont park. Finally if you must visit the Eiffel Tower, just to say you've been there, but cannot face the queues to go up it, stroll towards the Ecole Militaire down the Champ-de-Mars, which boasts a lovely free playground, carousel, swings and enough room to kick a ball around while you look up and marvel at the City of Light's celebrated landmark.