Picture perfect Paris
Paris Through The Lens is a popular tour.

It was a day and a half that raced by. Nice to Paris in the morning, then 18 hours in the French capital on the way back to Australia.

The exorbitant taxi drive from Orly Airport to my hotel near the Champs Elysses emptied my pocket and seemed to take an eternity. But determined to make the most of a Sunday afternoon in the French capital, I strolled Paris' most famous boulevard, battling time and crowds at the Arc de Triomphe and the Place de la Concorde.

It was a perfect entree to Paris but I filled up on my return visit with a selection of Tempo Holidays' tours. A division of the world's oldest tour company Cox and Kings, Tempo specialises in fully independent travel and tailor-made packages.

Travellers choose what they'd like to see and when and Tempo makes it happen. Supremely organised yet highly flexible, the advantages for travellers are numerous with an upfront price in Australian dollars for great tours hosted by charming locals. And there are no nasty surprises on the menu.

Tempo's range is seemingly endless and, in a city like Paris, so are the attractions. Here is just a taste (and a sniff) of what waits to be discovered in the world's most popular tourist destination.


The city that strikes a pose

Even under a winter sky as thick as wet socks, Paris is a dream to photograph. Whether it is the imposing monoliths of the Arc de Triomphe and the Obelisk of Luxor or the shoppers in their cold weather woollies and full-length jackets on the nearby Champs-Elysees, the French capital performs to demand.

North of the city centre, the hill of Montmartre rises 131m, making it the highest point in Paris and a labyrinth of cobbled streets lined with restaurants, galleries and bars.

The neighbourhood reaches an apex at the gigantic Sacre Coeur or Basilica of the Sacred Heart. Although the area is now known for its nightclubs, it has a rich history and a legacy deep in the Parisian soul.

It became a popular entertainment district in the early 20th century. The Moulin Rouge was built and the area became a hotbed attracting young artists such as Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Galleries still celebrate their works and in a square in the centre of the neighbourhood at the Place du Tertre, artists paint cheap knock-offs and caricatures for tourists munching on crepes filled with ham and cheese or, strangely, Nutella.

The narrow, terrace-lined streets are a great backdrop for the photographer according to professional Kevin Hayden who's been shooting in the neighbourhood for years but never tires of finding new vantage points and thinking differently about the subject matter.

He's one of five photographers who host Paris Through the Lens tours. It's the brainchild of Englishman Larry Davies who offers similar Adventures Through The Lens programs in 37 European cities, having recently added Reykjavik to the list.

"We make the tours as interesting as possible and give people a bit of information and history to take away from the landmarks they've photographed," Larry says. "The trick is not to bombard them with too many facts - people can switch off very quickly."

For Irish-born Kevin, the onus is on keeping photography simple and letting the customer decide how adventurous they want to be with the camera.

"If they want to keep it on auto that's fine," he says. "The trick is to find out the camera's limitations."

Tours in Montmartre's winding streets last 3½ hours. It sounds a long time but the historic area buzzes with life.

"Photographs are attractive," Kevin says. "But sometimes you need to work out why and cut out the distractions, move around, use zoom if you need to. Above all, don't take the shot of the Eiffel Tower that everyone else has. Think differently - use an angle."


Paris perfume is heaven scent

There's many a morning that the kitchen table in Marina Jung's second floor Passy apartment is covered in bottles of alcohol.

But they aren't the legacy of a big night in, rather these little eye-drop topped bottles carry alluring labels such as vanilla sandalwood, marine base and peony, and when mixed in the right combination and proportion, they create subtle scents.

Chemist Marina studied at the school of perfume in Versailles and now conducts workshops in the art of creating eau de cologne. The two-hour classes at her Le Studio du Parfum housed in a 100-year old terrace building near the Eiffel Tower are proving popular beyond her expectation, with tourists looking to make their own signature scent or to re-create a favourite perfume that's been discontinued.

"Sometimes people will come in with a scent they love and cannot buy any more and they say, 'please help me'. We can then tell by the smell what it is composed of," Marina says.

She creates her own range of essential oils, the main building blocks of cologne. These can be incredibly complex and involve a mix of more than 20 components.

Each guest takes a place at the kitchen table behind the rows of tiny bottles and follows a formula book Marina has made up of scents similar to some popular brands.

The recipes are simple, combining between two and 10 drops of various oils in a small bottle before adding alcohol. The more daring may get straight on to trying to mimic a favourite scent and it's great fun finding out there are certain smells such as peony, lavender and caramel that don't mix well. Marina says even for the trained perfumer, this is an occupational hazard.

"The work of a perfumer requires a very good memory of how different scents work as well as a lot of patience," she says.

"Creating perfume is like art - you can't be inspired by God every morning. There's a lot of hard work and sweat involved."

I've always fancied myself as a bit of a chemist but a difficulty adding chemical valances and the homebrew explosion of 1998 forced me to mothball the test tubes.

But in the controlled environment of Le Studio du Parfum, with so many ingredients, a recipe book and the promise of a 50ml bottle of my best creation, I was eager to try my hand.

My first concoction was from a recipe for "men Cyprus" and involved mandarin, lavender, woody vanilla, violet and an oak moss base. Ironically it was to be my worst effort and smelt like something to clean your toilet.

I asked Marina to help me recreate one of my favourite scents - L'Eau D'Issey. She suggested two drops of red pepper, green tea, mandarin, marine base and lavender, and four drops of vanilla. To this, I added two drops of citrus base, mixed it with alcohol and, voila - I had something close to what I wanted.

Delighted, and the envy of my fellow perfume-makers who were still playing with caramel and a curious oil that smelt like ear wax, I gave my recipe to Marina. She gave it a few sniffs, voiced her approval and, before toning down the citrus slightly, made my very own 50ml spray bottle of a cologne I've called Heaven Scent.


The red windmill

In the midst of a neon-lit district in the north of Paris, the Moulin Rouge stands as a beacon of the bawdy and downright bombastic. The birthplace of the can-can has shed its image as a high-class brothel but its revue shows retain a magnificent sense of bravado, delivering an overdose of glitz and glamour.

The evening begins with a top-class meal. An army of well-drilled waiters perform a flawless manoeuvre among more than 100 tables. Champagne is poured with four fingers, plated entrees such as foie gras with figs and lobster bouquet slide down the forearm, landing featherlike on the table. No drink or special request is forgotten.

A glamorous night in Paris is served up with ease to honeymooners, older couples and Korean tourists alike. There's a choice of a la carte (mains 30 euro, $42) or three-course packages including the show starting from 150 euro ($213).

After the meal, the performance explodes on to the stage. Human disco balls open a serenade in French, tight turns and pirouettes leave the audience gasping. A force to be reckoned with, the performers move fluidly between acts but seem to perform to each individual. A captive audience plays its part with fast handclaps as the cast burn up the stage, less risque than at the turn of last century but still in titillating fashion with plenty of breast showing.

A strong man lifts his beau with mind-blowing ease between acts that turn from Colonial India to American Indian, Spanish conquistadors and the Egypt of the Pharaohs. The Moulin Rouge is still a mind-blowing and somewhat nonsensical assault on the senses. It may seem over the top, it's thoroughly self-indulgent but it's also a great deal of fun and a vestige of a Paris long past.


The lap of luxury

Although there are exceptions, accommodation in Paris sets a very high benchmark in both comfort and service.

Tempo Holidays uses a range including the Hotel Napoleon road-tested for you by the likes of Errol Flynn who called it The Place, John Steinbeck and Salvador Dali (I checked for graffiti in my room but alas found none).

Built in the 1920s by a Russian businessman for his young French love, the hotel has decor inspired by the Napoleonic era of the early 19th century. Statues and paintings of royals with dog's heads adorn the public rooms.

The rooms are warm and inviting with polished fittings, rich red sofas and drapes which provide a real contrast to the anonymous modernity of so many of today's hotels.

There's a closet/dressing room, marble bathroom, shower and the piece de resistance, a big balcony with wicker tables and chairs. My room had a great view of Avenue de Friedland and of the majestic Arc de Triomphe.

The breakfast buffet may be the best I've had at any hotel with a great selection of hot foods, pastries, yoghurts, fruit, muesli, cold meat and cheese. The coffee is good and the staff attentive.

Of the 102 guest rooms, 47 are suites. The classic room sleeps two with rates from 175 euro ($248), suites which sleep three (one in the living area) start from 275 euro ($390) while the six-person imperial suite may just break the bank at 1550 euro ($2203) per night.

The icing on the cake is the hotel's proximity to the Champs Elysees. Turn right from reception to find the imposing Arc de Triomphe.

See www.hotelnapoleon paris.com.

Tempo's best-selling accommodation in Paris is Hotel La Demeure, a cosy three star at the bottom of the Latin Quarter where attention to detail and personal care are utmost in the minds of director Francois Xavier Cauet and his staff.

"This is a hotel with a personal aspect where I know the name of the guest and what room they are in," Mr Cauet says. "It's a three star but with extremely personal service and a homely atmosphere. The core is the local knowledge we can give.

"If guests have to work out where the good restaurants are and how often the trains run, then their holiday is nearly over before they have it worked out. But it costs us nothing to help them in this way."

Rooms have an apartment feel and are small but clean and well-appointed with great views of Boulevard Saint-Marcel. Rates start from about 100 euro ($142) per night.

See www.hotel-paris-lademeure.com.

Niall McIlroy visited France as a guest of Air Asia and Tempo Holidays.

The West Australian

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