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Savouring the joys of Paris
Bill McCulloch Ice cream stop: Île St Louis.

Not everyone is plucked from modern tourist reality in a dark Montmartre street by a gleaming, chauffeured antique Peugeot, nor plunged straight into the artistic world of Picasso and Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald and Dali in 1920s Paris.

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That's the delightfully surreal fate of Gil Pender, the Owen Wilson character in Woody Allen's Midnight In Paris.

For the rest of us, 21st century Paris has to suffice: not a bad consolation prize. Drink in the lovingly filmed opening frames.

It's easy to see why the French capital is the world's most visited. Yet its magic is hard to find deep in the Metro or in queues for the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. Stress and magic don't mix. Relaxing is the go.

That's Gil's approach. He takes time out while others rush about. He strolls with no plan in mind. He lingers and reflects in atmospheric streets, embracing the impromptu. He savours the city.

Channelling Gil can be Paris-changing. A day or two of it and you might not have met Dali but your memories may well be magic.

One good place to wander is the Latin Quarter. A fine starting point is the morning markets outside the Metro at Place Monge, a short walk from the southern end of the narrow Rue Mouffetard, where fishmongers still compete for your attention with leather-makers, delis and Octave, an ice-cream institution at number 138.

Look up at Mouffetard's typically Parisian mansard rooftops named after 17th century architect Francois Mansart and at the 18th century shop signs and facades.

Further up the street, Place de la Contrescarpe, with its central fountain in a tiny park ringed by cafes and bistros, is the spot for caffeine replenishment. Rabelais drank here. Rene Descartes, largely responsible for modern philosophy and geometry, lived here. Hemingway was just down the hill and Joyce finished Ulysses a block away. All of this is as much Paris' history as any stone obelisk or emperor's tomb and is devoid of entry fees.

The massive Pantheon nearby does accept euros but it is both a cool escape for the living and tranquil resting place of giants such as Hugo, Zola, Braille, the Curies, Voltaire and Descartes. Just beyond, for a nostalgic and affordable lunch, is Au Port Salut, formerly a lively cabaret.

Across Boulevard St Michel is the tranquil oasis of the Luxembourg Gardens - Gertrude Stein lived nearby. Dowagers chat with students on tree-shaded benches. Children guide miniature sailboats around a lake. Sun worshippers drape themselves on deckchairs around its shore. It's a world apart, with more ice-cream at the gate.

In a cool grove, hundreds sit listening to a free orchestral concert or a Trinidad steel band, while outside the beautiful Luxembourg Palace they're setting up for the night's outdoor opera.

The cafe precinct outside the Sorbonne is ideal for more people watching - students deep in thought over laptops or volubly righting the world's wrongs, a professor marking papers over a latte, pretty girls laughing flirtatiously.

This is the Latin Quarter, after all, where speaking that now-dead language was once the badge of the university's elite. Hemingway and Picasso hung out at the cafe Les Deux Magots where you can now sip an expensive coffee, down on Boulevard Saint-Germain. The narrow, bistro-lined Rue de la Huchette, twists down to the left bank of the Seine and the fascinating, book-crammed interior of Shakespeare & Company, near Paris' two central islands.

Relaxing on the larger isle, with Notre Dame besieged by busloads, is simple. Arrive late afternoon when the buses leave. There'll still be busking musicians, maybe a skilful inline skater showing off or an exotic tango-dancing couple ornamenting the cathedral's glowing facade. The cathedral will still be open for a quiet visit.

It's an easy amble to serene Ile St Louis, Paris' most sought-after and most romantic neighbourhood with its river views and unbeatable location.

Its hotels particuliers (or private houses) have sheltered the likes of Cezanne and Camille Claudel (Rodin's mistress) and more recently, millionaires such as Helena Rubenstein. Dinner at some of exclusive St Louis' many restaurants and creperies can be less expensive but more pleasant than in the tourist parts of the Latin Quarter.

The ultimate in day's end relaxation and romance is an after-dinner bateau-mouche cruise along the Seine and, unlike your fellow passengers who've been doing their chase-the-monuments thing, you won't be too tired and stressed to enjoy it.

As the cruise commentary will tell you, now comes your bonus: ". . . and 'zhere on your right, messieurs, mesdames, are the floodlit galleries of the Louvre, while illuminated ahead on your left is ze Eiffel Tower."

Next day, why not peruse the Marais- Bastille area, the chic centre of 17th century aristocracy. Watch the trendsetters Sunday shopping for designer clothes in the Rue des Francs Bourgeois. Try coffee with a bagel or apple strudel in the fascinating Jewish quarter around Rue des Rosiers or stroll the lovely grounds of the Hotel de Sully.

Then throw yourself on the grass with the other contented bodies in the central park of Paris' oldest square, the tree-lined Place des Vosges. Gil would.