Thirty-five degrees of difference

PAUL RESTALL
Last updated 11:00 11/03/2014

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The question is often asked, "When is the best time to go to Paris"?

Many people assume it must be the spring, but I've recently experienced 35 degrees of difference in Paris and I loved it at both extremes.

I spent a week in September with the afternoon temperatures regularly sitting on 35 degrees Celsius and Parisians swimming in the Seine below the Notre Dame Cathedral.

In December my week in Paris was the other extreme with temperatures well below 0C and ducks walking on ice across the frozen surface of the Bassin de L'Arsenal marina at Bastille.

On both occasions we stayed in an apartment on the Ile St Louis in the centre of Paris, just over the river from Notre Dame (booked through Paristay.com).

It really doesn't matter what the weather is doing in Paris, to me it still seems enchanted.

There are some serious advantages to the midwinter visit, the main one being the lack of tourists.

A prime example of this was our Boxing day visit to the Louvre.

There were no queues, we went straight up to the ticket stall, paid our €12 and walked straight into the famous art gallery.

Even in front of da Vinci's Mona Lisa, there were only about 20 people.

In some of the galleries we felt like we had the place to ourselves and the in-house cafe was almost deserted.

The hundreds of cafes and restaurants around the centre of Paris all had tables free and their cosy interiors looked even more welcoming and romantic with the warm light spilling out on to the snow-lined streets.

There is still plenty to do and see in a midwinter Paris, especially if you arrive in time for Christmas as the shops really put on an old fashioned European Christmas display.

Galerie Lafayette has a Christmas tree inside the store that must be about four stories high and the Christmas lights outside at night are spectacular.

The Christmas markets along the Champs Elysees are a foodie's delight with fresh salmon cooked over open wood fires, foie gras, crepes and hot roasted chestnuts just some of the temptations.

The absence of tourists makes a visit to the Musee de L'Orangerie impressionist gallery a very special occasion as you can stand undisturbed for as long as you like in front of Claude Monet's panoramic murals painted on the circular walls of the gallery, for the entry price of €10 each.

Winter food in Paris is comfort food and the restaurants compete with each other to offer the best coq au vin, duck confit or boeuf bourguignon as well as the local specialties like oven-roasted beef marrow, a really hearty dish on a cold night.

At the other end of the scale when the street thermometers read 35C by mid-afternoon, you can find Parisians sitting in groups under the shade of trees along the Seine enjoying a glass of cold Normandy cider, a roquefort cheese from the Pyrenees and a locally made baguette.

It's a great way to spend an afternoon, but there is certainly plenty more to see and do when the day heats up.

A boat trip down the Saint-Martin canal from Port de L'Arsenal to Parc de la Villette, is a lovely activity for a hot afternoon, as part of it is spent in the cool tunnels that run under the Bastille and the fine mist that comes from the lock gates as they open is a refreshing spritzer.

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Montmartre seems cool on a hot summer afternoon with its white domed Sacre Coeur Cathedral sitting like a pavlova on top of the hill overlooking Paris.

The narrow cobbled streets that twist their way back down to the city are shaded and there are plenty of trees to soften the glare.

If you really want to see how the locals chill out, a visit to the Luxembourg gardens around 5pm will show you passive recreation.

It is such a beautiful park with avenues of trees, gardens exploding with colour, fountains and of course the grand Palais de Luxembourg building and the locals turn up after work for a few hours of lying in the sun, chatting or wandering along the tree-lined avenues.

The park started in 1611 when Marie de Medici, the widow of Henry IV bought the original site. The fountain built in 1630 and named after her, still exists in the eastern front of the palace.

You can buy a sorbet or a glass of wine, pull up a chair in the shade of a tree and catch your breath while the sun sinks over the city and the shadows become long and dreamlike.

After dark, there are street performers, fire dancers and musicians that go well up to midnight, and a huge beach party along the banks of the Seine under the bridge, Pont Alexandre III.

There is not the drunkenness that you find on the streets of a New Zealand city and it feels completely safe to wander the city streets in the relative cool of the night.

A night river trip on a river boat such as Bateaux Parisiens is another perfect way to finish off a hot summer day, and the prices start around €40.

All of the galleries and museums have air conditioning and the historic buildings like the Chapel Sainte-Chapelle on the Ile de la Cite is naturally cool with its stone walls and floors and the vaulted halls of the adjacent Conciergerie.

Get in the queue early to see this remarkable medieval gothic-style church with its colourfully painted interior and one of the most extensive collections of 13th century stained glass windows in the world, because by early afternoon it stretches for hundreds of metres down the road.

The entry cost for both the cathedral and the Conciergerie is a reasonable €12.50 for adults and is worth every cent.

High on most people's bucket list is a trip up the Eiffel Tower.

We joined the approximately 100-person queue at 9am and when it opened half an hour later we were shooting skywards in the lift by about 9.45.

The French seem very efficient at managing queues, I guess they get a lot of practice, but it was worth the 45 minutes standing enjoying coffee and pain au chocolate from the nearby food stall when we were finally gazing out over Paris from 276m up.

This is a remarkable structure especially when you learn that every piece of steel girder was hot-riveted in place by 132 steelworkers in 1889, using charcoal braziers and riveting hammers driving home the 2,500,000 rivets that hold the tower together.

When the hot rivets cooled, they shrank, thereby pulling the girders tight into each other.

I originally gave the tower and its open viewing platform a miss when the snow flurries were swirling around in winter but it is a breathtaking place to be on a still summer morning.

To be fair to Paris, I need to go back in the autumn and again in the spring, but I'm sure that its magic will shine through regardless of the season.

- Stuff

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