The storybook adventures of French schoolgirl Madeline are a favourite with little girls. They are the perfect inspiration for a visit to Paris with your children. Let Madeline be your guide.
WORDS Hilary Doling
Once upon a time there was a little red-headed girl who lived in an ivy-covered school in Paris… Ludwig Bemelmans’ stories of Madeline and her friends have been delighting children in books, TV and movies since 1939. Bemelmans illustrated his own books and he drew the 12 little girls and their governess in many well-known Parisian settings, from the Bois de Boulogne to the Jardin des Tuileries. So, why not follow in her fictional footsteps? There is no better way to help your family appreciate the city than to let Madeline be your guide.
The Eiffel Tower
Meet Madeline: The Eiffel Tower appears on the cover of the very first book and appears in many other later illustrations, too.
In Bemelmans’ illustrations, the old house in Paris looks as if it is right next door to the tower. Although parents looking to find a suitably ivy-covered house might do better to head to the chic suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. However, there is plenty of fun to be had at the tower, designed by Gustave Eiffel for the 1889 Exposition Universelle world’s fair, held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution. If you really want to tire them out there are 704 steps to climb, and that’s only to the second floor; after that you have to take the lift to the top. For a luxury treat at the tower take the children to lunch at 58 Tour Eiffel on the first floor. A hostess will guide you to your table and your order is brought to you in a chic picnic-style basket which makes lunch fun. The white-clothed, Michelin-starred Le Jules Verne restaurant on the second floor is only for exceptionally well-behaved children (do any of us really have one of those?). A fun fact for the children is that the puddled iron structure has to be repainted every seven years. It takes a team of 25, armed with paint brushes, 18 months to finish. You can take a river boat from the Batobus stop to the Île de la Cité, also on the Madeline itinerary.
“In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”
Jardin Des Tuileries
Little Madeline, her classmates and Miss Clavel are frequently shown walking in the Tuileries Garden. Bemelmans’ illustrations from Madeline show some things that are still in the park to this day, such as the pond and fountain, as well as the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, with its marble columns and bronze horses.
Those luxury travellers lucky enough to be staying at Dorchester Collection’s nearby Le Meurice five star hotel can borrow wooden boats from reception to float in the pond, as Parisian children have for generations. Wooden boats can also be hired from a stall in the park. As well as a traditional carousel, there is also a more modern fun fair that children might enjoy.
On the Rue de Rivoli, near Le Meurice, you’ll find the beautiful Angelina salon de thé. With its gilt-framed entrance, frescoes and archways, this is every little girl’s fantasy café with iced buns, gâteaux, pastries and fairy cakes piled high. Parents will love it too, especially when they know that Marcel Proust used to visit, as did Coco Chanel, who loved the hot chocolate à l’Africain.
The Pont Neuf is the bridge that Madeline falls off in Madeline’s Rescue. She falls into the Seine River and policemen (gendarmes) have to pull her out with hooks.
You’ll find Pont Neuf at the western end of Île de la Cité. Despite the word neuf meaning ‘new’, the Pont Neuf is actually Paris’ oldest surviving bridge. Completed in 1607, it was the first stone bridge built in the city that did not have buildings crowding either side, a fabulously modern concept at the time. Nevertheless, it was a busy place with stalls set up along its span. These days you find fresh produce at the market in the narrow Rue de Buci, off Rue Dauphine.
If your little ones love boat trips, it’s a good idea to take a roundtrip on the Batobus along the Seine for a chance to float under some other impressive bridges, such as the extravagant Pont Alexandre III, and to spot the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries as you travel by.
Île De La Cité
There is an illustration of Notre Dame in the first book, Madeline, where we see Miss Clavel and the 12 little girls walking past the cathedral in the rain on their daily walk, each holding a black umbrella.
The square in front of the cathedral that you see the petites Parisians walking through in the illustration is called the Parvis Notre-Dame – Place Jean-Paul-II; your children can try and spot Point Zéro, a compass point made of brass that is used as the centre point for measuring distances throughout France. Children will also enjoy picking the ugliest gargoyle and remembering that Disney’s film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (based on Victor Hugo’s novel) is set in this cathedral. This incredible medieval church took almost 200 years to complete, and employed thousands of quarry workers, stonemasons, ironsmiths and carpenters. Jobs working on the cathedral were passed down in families from one generation to the next. Once you’ve had your fill of Notre Dame, the marché aux fleurs (flower market) is also close by and worth a family visit. Or perhaps just wander down to the river, which also features heavily in the Madeline books.
Jardin Du Luxembourg
“They left the house at half-past nine, in rain, or shine – the smallest one was Madeline.” In the first Madeline book there is an illustration of the girls in the gardens. It is a sunny day and each little girl has a balloon tied to her wrist.
You can buy balloons inside the gardens, near the puppet theatre, so children can act out their very own Madeline moment. There is also a carousel here and a modern children’s playground. The Luxembourg Palace (which appears in the illustration) was once the home of Marie de’ Medici, and the park was her garden. It is fun to watch the old men playing boules (pétanque) on the gravel courts, and there are also small tables for chess. You’ll find the ice-cream stall near the fountain, but if you are looking for a different kind of snack, in the park there is a school for apiarists with 20 beehives. In September, the honey from the hives is harvested and sold in the park (near the intersection of Rue de Guynemer and Rue de Vaugirard), a healthy family souvenir of your day out.
This article appeared in volume 9 of Five Star Kids magazine. To subscribe to the latest issue, click here.