Paris

The capital city of France is the centrepiece of the Ile-de-France region, and on this page we shall also look at the northern regions of Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardie.

Let us begin with the sights and sounds of Parisian life though. The Eiffel Tower stands proud as France's tallest structure, despite only originally being supposed to stay until 1909. The Pantheon (whose façade is based on that in Rome ) in the city's Latin quarter, shows Neoclassicism at work. It has a crypt which is the resting place of many famous historical figures. The Louvre Museum offers so much more than just a few world-famous paintings. It is one of the largest, the oldest and the most visited museums in the world, and it contains old Eastern, Egyptian, Roman, Etruscan and Greek pieces, right through to paintings and sculptures from the 21st century. The Louvre Pyramid, built in 1989, is a bit of a sight to behold too. The Arc de Triomphe is triumphant (50 metres high), and one part of the ‘Axe Historique' (a line of monuments and iconic locations running through the city centre. Others include the Champs-Elysées and the Grande Arche. The Champs-Elysées is a widely-renowned shopping area, with a large number of mainstream shops as well as more designer ones. Notre Dame de Paris Cathedral (‘Our Lady of Paris') took nearly two centuries to construct, and as well as being a fine example of Gothic architecture, was one of the earliest buildings to make use of flying buttresses. In the 19th century, there was the possibility of the building being demolished. Victor Hugo's book on the Hunchback of Notre Dame helped generate some interest and publicity so there is not much chance of it going now. Paris has long attracted attention due to its romantic image, although you would think that romance could occur anywhere, and that single, lonely people in Paris might not concur with this notion. Notwithstanding that, the Basilica de Sacre Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) is the inevitable ‘must-see' romantic spot for many. The vista of the city below is really rather outstanding. It is built on the Montmartre hill, and is quite a simple design, which belies the attention to detail, such as its huge mosaic. The Saint-Germain-des-Près abbey is another emblematic Parisian location.

Moving away from some of the more obvious places to visit, there are a few underground highlights. The Catacombs are just next to the Denfert-Rocherea station of the Metro. In the late 18th century, with space in cemeteries at a premium, many old remains were re-stationed underground. Visitors can tour the catacombs and see the at-times artistic placing of bones. Graffiti artists from that era bedecked the walls. A sign at the entrance states that ‘Here is the Empire of the Dead'; a delightful piece of information. Later, a new cemetery was finally built, and this is the ‘Père Lachaise' one, which houses the bodies of such luminaries as Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. Victor Hugo wrote the following in Les Misérables: ‘… Paris has another Paris under herself; a Paris of sewers, which has its streets, its crossings, its squares, its blind alleys, and its circulation, which is slime, minus the human form'. Along these lines, visitors to the capital can also indulge in a visit underground to the sewers. A somewhat novel attraction (if that's the correct term), you used to be able to travel along in a boat. That can't be done now, but a tour is possible, and there is a sewer museum below the Quai d'Orsay, providing information on the engineering feats entailed.

Moving onto Picardie, one of the highlights here is Beauvais, the capital of the Oise department. This has an incomplete gothic-style cathedral that is worth a look round. The 19th century astronomical clock is particularly special.

Nord-Pas-de-Calais includes Lille, a city close to the border with Belgium, which has undegone something of a regeneration, and was in 2004 the EU's ‘European Capital of Culture'. The Lille Museum of Fine Arts (‘Palais des Beaux-Arts') is the second most popular French museum (after the Louvre). There is a diverse range of paintings spanning four centuries. A large market called the Wazemmes Market is one of the country's largest and has a range of products, particularly food. This is based in the Place de la Nouvelle Aventure on Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday mornings. The Vieille Bourse is a sequence of 17th century buildings with an expansive courtyard, and houses decorated with numerous carvings and statues. The Opera House and the Palais Rihour, which houses the local tourist office, were both damaged by fire around a century or so ago, and were given a new lease of life with the city's regeneration. The town of Arras was well-rebuilt after the damage it received in World War I. On the subject of war, the famous battles of Agincourt and Crecy were fought near Hesdin, in this region. Some popular seaside localities both for the French and the English are Le Touquet and Boulogne-sur-Mer, with the latter having the French National Marine Centre, which has a focus on the environment and sustainable tourism.