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Day trips extend Paris visit
Paris, unlike most European cities, is small and easy to get around in.
Attractions such as the Louvre, the Left Bank, Notre Dame and the Champs- Elysees are connected by Metro (subway) or within walking distance of one another, and even out-of-town attractions such as Versailles and Chartres are less than a couple of hours away.
Day trips from Paris are offered by any number of tour operations, but it is cheaper and just as simple to go it alone. The Metro, with its system of jetons (tokens), is simple to master; armed with a map you can get yourself to Montparnasse Station, the departure point for both Versailles and Chartres. There is at least one train per hour. The fare is less than 20 euro return, and if you have a Eurailpass all you have to do is jump on.
The train trip to Versailles takes only 20 minutes, but if you travel during the week you will have a more comfortable ride. Versailles at weekends is mayhem - tourists and Parisians alike converge on the place for family outings. Make sure you arrive early in the morning because Versailles is huge (the gardens alone cover 100 hectares).
The palace epitomizes the extravagant architectural style favored by Louis XIV, but when the Sun King was a child this place was merely a hunting lodge. Louis came to the throne in 1661, when he was only 23. He was so jealous of finance minister Nicolas Fouquet's magnificent chateau, Vaux-le-Vicomte, that he hired architect Louis le Vau and the great decorator Charles le Brun to build this ornate monument.
The work at Versailles went on for 50 years, and by the time it was finished Louis XIV had installed a retinue of retainers - 20,000 courtiers, 9,000 soldiers and 5,000 servants. Versailles became the seat of government and the capital until 1789, when Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were beheaded in Paris during the French Revolution.
The inside is an endlesss maze of corridors and rooms, lavishly decorated with plaster angels, painted ceilings and gilt furniture: marble and velvet are everywhere. Room after room is filled with statues, busts, cabinets and crystal chandeliers - but even these are a fraction of the original contents. Angry revolutionaries auctioned off everything they could find, and the palace itself was almost sold to raise money for the new regime.
Other attractions include the Royal Opera and, of course, the famous gardens. The Royal Opera, a magnificent oval theatre, is an architectural gem. It was built to celebrate the marriage of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and playwrights such as Moliere held premieres there.
The gardens echo the glory of the palace; the wide avenues are lined with Greek statues, fountains and sculpted shrubs, and there is a large man-made canal, 1,650 metres long and 62 metres wide, on which courtiers used to sail about on gondolas.
Chartres is best left to another day; although it is on the same railway line (Versailles is one of the stops), it is 96 kilometres from Paris. And there is a lot to see. The trip to Chartres takes less than an hour, and as you come out of the station the first thing that catches your eye is the magnificent cathedral, Notre Dame de Chartres.
To take the most picturesque route, head first for the cobbled streets beside the River Eure. The town was badly damaged during the Second World War, but many buildings have been restored, especially along the rue du Bourg, rue St. Pierre and rue des Ecuyers.
It is impossible to get lost, because the cathedral dominates the scene. It is high on a hill in the Ville Haute (as the old town is called) and, as in most European cathedral towns, all roads lead to the church.
There is plenty to see on the way - tiny antique shops, art galleries and restaurants - but if your feet get tired you can shorten your climb by going up the Escaliers de la Reine Berthe (Queen Bertha's Stairs). At the top, the hills flatten into a square lined with cafes, and in the centre is the magnificent Notre Dame de Chartres.
The present cathedral is the sixth building to have been raised on what was an ancient place of worship by the Druids, who maintained a major stronghold there during the days of the tribal Carnutes, who gave Chartres its name. The cathedral visitors see today was erected between 1194 and 1225, the single most important event in the history of Gothic architecture.
The soaring buttresses are a delight to the eye. Huge, elongated figures of kings and queens flank the doorway, the most stunning features of the opulent, 176 stained-glass windows. The cathedral was an enormous source of pride to the local people, and in the religious upsurge following the Second Crusade they poured their time and energy into creating this ecclesiastical masterpiece.