A beach next to a cathedral

BRIAN JOHNSTON
Last updated 11:56 14/06/2013

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I'm flat on my back on the sand, grit between my toes and sun cream smeared across my forehead.

Palm trees rustle overhead and the sun beats down on my back as I lazily turn the pages of my book.

For a moment, I almost forget that I'm not in Phuket but in Paris, until I glance up and see Notre Dame squatting in Gothic splendour along the river.

I doubt there's any other beach in the world overlooked by a cathedral and, for a moment, it seems like a crazy mistake.

But the sun hasn't addled by brain, I really am on the banks of the Seine, lying on a three-kilometre stretch of golden sand sprinkled with deckchairs, potted palms and parasols.

I feel a little guilty that I'm not sightseeing. Then I remind myself of the hour-long queues to get into Notre Dame, glad I'm flopping here on the sand.

Instead of mediaeval gargoyles, there are bikini-clad passers-by to admire. Instead of gloomy interiors, there's sun and views of the historic heart of Paris.

This isn't such a bad way to spend the morning in one of the world's most seductive cities.

Paris Plage - or simply Paris Beach - started in 2002 as what the socialist mayor called a "gesture of solidarity" to those who couldn't afford a holiday in Thailand or Bali. It proved so popular that it became an annual event, and now attracts 4 million people each summer. The expressway along the Seine is closed to traffic from mid-July to mid-August and 3000 tonnes of sand are spread out along the right bank between the Pont de Sully and the Pont des Arts bridges.

There's now a second Paris Plage further out in the 19th arrondissement by the Bassin de la Villette.

I come in the mornings to bag a deckchair, because after lunch Le Tout Paris is here in designer sunnies and beachwear.

There's only one difference between Paris Plage and St Tropez - the ladies keep their tops on. The ceilings of the Palace of Versailles may be decorated with bare-breasted strumpets bursting from clouds, but a dress code applies in downtown Paree, thank you very much.

I see a woman get a €38-fine from a police officer who doesn't quite know where to look but, with French flair, makes the fine seem like an act of chivalry.

Notre Dame apart, there are some clear signs that this is no normal beach, but a particularly urban, French one. Old geezers in sunhats with Gauloise-induced wrinkles are playing petanque and eyeing the passing girls. There's also a library of 500 books just in case the need to be intellectual hits as beachgoers soak up the sun.

As the morning moves towards midday and the temperature climbs, I find only one drawback to Paris Plage - there's no water for a dip. You aren't allowed to swim in the Seine for fear of being run over by a sightseeing cruise boat.

Instead, I loiter at the misting station, where water prickles my skin. Kids run about under water spouts and build sandcastles.

Not long after, I'm wandering through the Tuileries Gardens towards the Louvre. Lazing on the beach in the morning, a bit of art in the afternoon: could Paris be any better?

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- Sydney Morning Herald

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