TOWERING SIGHT: Notre Dame Cathedal dominates the centre of the French capital's skyline
With the first exhibition of Claude Monet's paintings in more than 30 years now on show in Paris, KATHY ARNOLD heads to the city to explore the Seine's wonderfully picturesque islands
"NEARLY there, only a few more stairs." Then stepping through the doorway I am out in the open standing atop the south tower of Notre Dame.
Up here, the demonic gargoyles are close enough to touch while 226ft below tourists mill about in front of the cathedral like wind-up toys. Click here now for amazing offers to Paris!
I survey the panorama of landmarks, from the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe to the Grand Palais, home to the current exhibition of Claude Monet. Suddenly, waves of sound crash over me as the bells break into Ave Maria to announce the hour. I think of poor old Quasimodo, the hunchback of Victor Hugo's compelling story.
Notre Dame stands on the Île de la Cité, one of two islands lying nose to tail in the River Seine. Each is connected to the Left and Right Banks by half-a-dozen bridges.
Busy with visitors, the former is about a mile long and boasts important buildings such as the cathedral and chapels, the law courts and the Hôtel-Dieu de Paris, a hospital with roots in the 7th century.
Joined to its neighbour by a short bridge is the Île Saint Louis. Barely half-a-mile in length, this narrow island is a total contrast. It feels like a village with homes, shops, restaurants and the Hotel de Lutèce, where we are staying.
On past visits, my husband and I have criss-crossed these islands as we walked from one side of the Seine to another.
This time we are basing ourselves right here.
Autumn is the perfect season to be in Paris. The hordes of summer tourists have departed and Parisians are back from their holidays. Staying here, in the city centre, nothing is more than a 10-minute stroll away.
Behind the pale stone façade of this elegant 17th-century building are stone-flagged floors, dark wooden staircases and furniture that is old rather than antique. Want incredible deals to Paris? Click here now...
Although the prettily decorated, oak-beamed bedrooms are small, at night they are as quiet as the country.
A few steps away from Notre Dame is La Sainte-Chapelle, a 13th-century royal chapel. The pious line up to see the crown of thorns, said to come from the Crucifixion. For us, the draw is the 50ft-high stained-glass windows. Rather than joining the daytime crowd, we attend one of the regular evening concerts. As Vivaldi's Four Seasons fills the upper chapel we lose ourselves in the glorious red and blue glass.
Over on the Île Saint Louis, the narrow streets are buzzing.
The longest queues are for ice cream. "Welcome to Berthillon Island, " quips a local, referring to the numerous branches of this family firm which started here 55 years ago. Their flavours range from caramel-ginger to cinnamon and cappuccino.
Split by one long, narrow cobblestone street, the Île Saint-Louis has a butcher and baker, cheesemonger and even a shop, La Petite Scierie, that sells nothing but duck foie gras.
Unique boutiques sell antique posters and prints, jewellery and clothes. For something quirky, it has to be Pylones. Who can resist a handbag that looks like a watering can or a cheesegrater shaped like the Eiffel Tower?
However, the Île Saint-Louis is best-known for its small restaurants. We ask residents, shopkeepers and regulars, everyone has a favourite. Mine is Mon Vieil Ami, where couples and groups of friends relax under ancient beams.
Chef Antoine Westermann's menus give Alsace recipes a modern twist. This is what good 21st-century French cooking is all about; pretty to look at and full of flavour, from my garden-fresh salad and pork fillet with dried figs to a rich chocolate tart.
To learn more about Les Deux Îles we link up with Chris Spence, an enthusiastic guide for Paris Walks. "The Île de la Cité is the cradle of Paris, " he explains. "The Parisii tribe gave the city its name, long before the Romans." By contrast, the Île Saint Louis "was a cow pasture until the 17th century".
For two hours, we follow him up alleyways and into hidden corners, learning who did what, when, where and why, from washerwomen to artists such as Paul Cézanne. He was a good friend of Monet, so the Father of Impressionism would have walked these streets.
From Île Saint Louis, we are just a stroll from the Latin Quarter, Le Marais district, the shops of Les Halles and all the main museums. When we cross back we are in the Paris of old black-and-white films.
We are woken by birdsong and church bells. Romantic?
Absolument! As a fellow guest murmurs to her husband at breakfast: "Can we live here forever?" THE KNOWLEDGE: Eurotunnel (0844 335 3535/ www.eurotunnel.com) offers a two-day return crossing from Folkestone to Calais from £44 per car (up to nine passengers). Hôtel de Lutèce (dialling from the UK: 0033 1 4326 2352/www.paris-hotel-lutece.com) offers doubles from €195 per night (two sharing), room only. Claude Monet (1840 -1926) exhibition (www.monet2010.com) at The Grand Palais until January 24, 2011. Admission €12. Paris Walks (4809 2140/ www.paris-walks.com) offers a range of daily two-hour walks from €12. Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau: www.parisinfo.com French Government Tourist Office: 0906 824 4123/ www.franceguide.com