Paris history tour: Teen-taming on the road

My young teen, smartphone in hand, is oblivious to his surroundings. In his hoodie, he looks pre-delinquent in the slick museum cafe. He's over it – cherubs in gilt frames and sculptured stone martyrs in eternal agony. So how do you keep teenagers from being overloaded or underwhelmed by history on holidays? In Asia, tropical beaches and resort pools do the trick. In big European cities, it's more difficult. We avoid queues, peak periods and don't try to "do it all". If he dives for my technology saying, "I'll play a game", we start "negotiating". 

This generation has grown up snacking on television and online history as entertainment. The wonderfully subversive Horrible Histories, Dr Who in Pompeii  and YouTube's Epic Rap Battles of History are all part of the diet. 

When planning a Euro cities holiday, it is technology that connects my teen to the history and culture of our destination. When he proposes a tour of revolutionary Paris, I am delighted. He's inspired by an incredibly cinematic CGI trailer of Assassin's Creed Unity, set during the French Revolution – the latest in the wildly popular historical video-game series produced by French company Ubisoft. 

The trailer is shot from an eagle's point of view as it flies through Parisian streets before soaring through the towers of Notre Dame and swooping over the Assassins lowering the drawbridge of the Bastille. 

And then there's the Parkour, a way of moving within the environment, used by these "assassins" to effortlessly climb walls and leap across rooftops. Developed by the military, Parkour is experiencing an urban revival making the game cool for teens who want to jump as well as click. 

When he proposes a tour of revolutionary Paris, I am delighted.

Assassin's Creed Unity features Arno Dorian with his band of assassins from the Brotherhood and their battle against the ancient order of the Templars. The orphaned Arno seeks revenge and redemption for the murder of his stepfather, the grandmaster of the French Templars. Arno's relationship with Elise, his adoptive sister, is naturally fraught. This narrative is integrated into events and locations during the revolution and Arno's interaction with historic figures such as the Marquis de Sade, Danton, Robespierre and Napoleon. 

CREED'S CALL

I book a walking tour of revolutionary Paris. Online I find a dedicated AC (as the game is called) tour of Renaissance Florence where another assassin, Ezio Auditore, battles the dark forces of the Templars across other AC titles. My son is excited he's had a role in planning our itinerary.

Plenty of books and films have inspired travel. But the AC game franchise, with sales in excess of a staggering 73 million, is probably one of the first video-game series to inspire predominantly male teenagers and young men to hit the cobbled streets to engage with history. There are titles set in Venice, Florence, Rome, the Caribbean, North America, Jerusalem, Constantinople and now Paris. 

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BLENDING IN 

Arriving in Paris on a Friday we head to the Louvre – open late that night. This way we manage jet lag; there are no queues, crushing crowds or a grumpy kid. Armed with a Nintendo 3DS museum guide, he's off.  The grandeur of the museum and the scale and drama of the art  are transporting. We all agree, Jacque-Louis David's billboard-sized The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame is, in every meaning of the word, awesome.  In the early days of the French Revolution, the Louvre was the Ancien Regime, the formal seat of government. It was violently overthrown and turned into a public museum with hundreds of paintings confiscated from royal and church property. We have dinner in Place de  la Bastille, now a happening precinct. The actual Bastille was destroyed during the revolution. 

On Saturday we get lost in heaven –  La Grande Epicerie de Paris – the food hall of the landmark Bon Marche department store. The French Revolution was, in part, fuelled by bread shortages for highly taxed, starving peasants, but this place is about abundance and fine French regional food. Fortified after a gourmet picnic in the nearby park, it is boots on the ground for our tour of Revolutionary Paris. 

Our guide, Octavia, a young history student at the Sorbonne, is familiar with Assassin's Creed titles and will weave Arno into her patter. Octavia developed her love of history playing the video game, Age of Empires, a decade ago. Historically themed, game-based learning is rapidly gaining acceptance in education. So is the awareness that historical  licence or inaccuracies are not a reason to dismiss the value of an immersive experience.

Octavia will crunch 10 years of the revolution into two hours. She sets up the conditions for protest including over-taxed peasants supporting an indifferent aristocracy and a teenage queen, a foreigner, who failed to curb her lavish spending when restraint would have been a much wiser option. It is a spoiler alert for my son. 

Octavia begins at Les Invalides, where on July 14, 1789, about 30,000 arms were taken by Parisian rioters who later that day stormed the Bastille for ammunition. She dispels the myth that hundreds of prisoners were liberated – there were only seven. Octavia says our AC hero could easily be written into these scenarios. As an assassin, Arno is always hooded and has learnt to blend in with the crowd. My kid's granite grey hoodie is a nod to Arno's skill and he often melts into the background.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD

At the National Assembly we cover Louis XVI's relationship with the Estate-General and the Third Estate, and the establishment of the Republic. We cross the Seine to the Place de  la Concorde, where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were guillotined, as were thousands during Robespierre's Reign of Terror. Soon after, he met his fate with Madam Guillotine. After so much blood it is time for an  ice-cream in the Jardin des Tuileries. AC Unity could not be as violent as this history. 

The tour is great; someone else is in charge of the map, we are eager listeners, getting a break from each other. My son asks questions and keeps up. For someone whose walking regime usually consists of going to a bus stop, this is a marathon effort.

We finish in the Latin Quarter on Rue Bonaparte with the ascendancy of Napoleon. The teen's final question is "What is happy hour?" as the group disperses for a drink. Octavia suggests the nearby Cafe Procope for dinner. During the revolution, Danton Robespierre and Marat met here and a young Lieutenant Napoleon Bonaparte, who could not pay his bill, left his hat as a pledge. That hat is still there. 

The restaurant's website claims the cafe, founded in 1686, is the oldest in Paris. Regulars included La Fontaine, Voltaire, Rousseau, Beaumarchais, Balzac, Hugo, Verlaine, Diderot, d'Alembert and Benjamin Franklin. We manage to get a table. Cafe Procope retains a historical ambience and is full of memorabilia.  If our hero Arno dined here he might have ordered the calf's head casserole. We've had enough of the guillotine and my son orders beef cheeks instead. 

On Sunday we visit Notre Dame as featured in the AC trailer. During the revolution, Notre Dame was desecrated. Priests fled or were executed. The teen takes a pew, absorbed by the space. One can imagine Arno's silhouette against the stained-glass windows or him perched near a gargoyle planning his moves. For a weekend in Paris, we've put blood in the veins of real and fictional characters and covered a fair bit of historical turf.

STEPPING UP

To fudge it on the AC tour in Florence, I download Assassin's Creed: Renaissance, the novel of the game AC II and finish reading it on the overnight train from Paris to Venice.

The action follows Ezio Auditore in Florence but there are encounters in Venice and Rome.   

In Florence we stay near the Duomo, a key site of action in ACII. We see Lilliputian-sized tourists ringing the top of the giant dome. We take our place in the queue and climb more than 400 steps for an aerial view of the city. Strategically, it is the perfect place for our hero but the big difference is Ezio does not take the stairs – he climbs over the dome. 

We meet our guide, Alessia, outside the Duomo. Alessia was inspired to develop an AC tour by a 12-year-old on her regular tour who knew about the Pazzi conspiracy.  She wondered how a child could know about the political machinations, papal conspiracies of the time and the attempted murder of Lorenzo Medici and fatal stabbing of his brother. ACII and AC Brotherhood motivated the child to learn more. The tour is popular with families with teenagers. When a group of 40 grown-up gamers, who knew nothing about Renaissance history booked her dedicated tour, it confirmed Ezio had inspired a different generation to re-engage with the past. 

The Pazzi incident happened inside the Duomo when the Medicis were kneeling and unguarded, but the game puts it outside because of technical restrictions. In the game, Ezio saves Lorenzo's life after overhearing conspirators plotting his death.

ART AND LIFE

Alessia covers the power of the Medici dynasty – wool merchants, bankers to popes and European royalty as well as patrons of the arts. She points out the Palazzo Medici where Ezio meets Lorenzo Medici in the game. In reality, it is also where Michelangelo  lives as a young teen under Lorenzo's patronage. 

She tells us how Brunelleschi's self-supporting, double dome was built without scaffolding. Ezio would have viewed what she calls "medieval Manhattan" including tower houses and watchtowers around the now-demolished city walls. She says the architecture of the game pretty much replicates both medieval and renaissance Florence. Alessia points out large rings on the walls to tie up horses and higher torch holders – all footholds Ezio uses to climb the walls in the game. The wealthy lived in towers up to 60 metres tall for security. You could throw boiling oil on the enemy. In the 1400s canons made the towers easy targets and were reduced in height. She details the living arrangements on each floor. There were no bathrooms and chamber pots were emptied out the window. Perfume was created to cover the stench of unwashed bodies. We are in Horrible Histories territory!  

Ezio interacts with some of the big guns of Florentine history such as Machiavelli and Dominican priest Savonarola, who instigated the "Bonfire of the Vanities" in response to the excesses of the Renaissance. He ordered the burning of books, artworks, cosmetics, mirrors, playing cards – all sinful.  In ACII, Ezio mercifully kills Savonarola when he is tied to the stake and burnt. 

Alessia likes the authenticity of the game. People did wear hoods and high boots like Ezio. They did not eat pizza as tomatoes were not around during the Renaissance. Wild boar was a common staple for the wealthy and the pappardelle  ragu is still a Tuscan classic. The weapons are authentic but the only ones we see are armies of tourists with selfie sticks raised against the Duomo. We just need Ezio to photo bomb with a few Parkour moves. 

Our tour ends on the medieval Ponte Vecchio, the bridge where Ezio and his mates fight the Pazzi gang early in the game. At this time it was lined with butchers' shops. In the 1500s, the smell of rotting meat was too much for Cosimo Medici walking through his private corridor over the bridge. He instructed jewellers and gold merchants to take over – they are still there as are generations of tourists getting a sunset shot of the Arno River.

Both themed tours are  a highlight of the trip. The historical sites have dramatic stories wrapped around them – albeit some with a parallel alternative history. Parkour was limited to queue jumping with tour privileges and efficiently moving about the city. 

Back home we get the Assassin's Creed Unity game. It includes beautiful "old" maps of Paris, a quest in the Louvre, in the Marais and the women's march to Versailles. The interior of the Palace de Versailles has been lavishly realised. You can meet at Arno's Cafe Theatre. The wikia of the game refers to Cafe Procope. Spookily, Arno speaks with Napoleon, whom we saw in the magnificent David painting in the Louvre. Who cares that Napoleon does not speak with a French accent! I expect Arno to say: "By the way, you left your hat at Cafe Procope."

It is, indeed, an encounter with history and when planning any future travel we will click and flick through catalogues of historical games. Assassin's Creed Syndicate set in Victorian London, launched later this year, is already on my son's list. 

Like all video games, you need to check the ratings. But remember there is a lot of carnage in culture. So-called high art in galleries, museums and churches can be full of blood and guts, war, assault, murder, starvation, cruelty to animals, torture, mutilation, executions, infanticide, not to mention a pantheon of vindictive gods and endless vistas of a terrifying and eternal hell. If this is too much for your teen, let them reach for the technology and meet you in the slick museum cafe.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION 

en.parisinfo.com; aboutflorence.com; parisbytrain.com/paris-metro-maps

GETTING THERE

Singapore Airlines offers four daily flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Singapore with a daily connection to Paris, and three flights a week to Rome. See singaporeair.com.   

TOURING THERE 

Travel by train in Europe is fast, comfortable, convenient and reduces your carbon footprint. The Man in Seat 61,  an award-winning site set up by Mark Smith, a former  British railway man, is a brilliant free site for worldwide, inter-country and regional train information. In Italy, inter-city train tickets can be bought at touch-screen kiosks at the station.  See seat61.com

STAYING THERE

Kudeta offers stylish studios and apartments across Paris in the best arrondissements.  

Prices vary according to location, style and size. You can get a smart studio in the Marais from  $945  a week. 

They can pick you up from the airport and take you   to your apartment.

See kudeta-home.com.   

EATING THERE 

PARIS 

La Grande Epicerie de Paris: the food hall at Bon Marche department store. Give yourself at least an hour to explore. It also stocks fine food from all over the world and has extensive takeaway options. See lagrandeepicerie.com

Restaurant Le Procope: book the day before and, for families, go early as it gets very busy and service can be stretched. Atmospheric and classic French menu. See procope.com  

FLORENCE

Mercato Centrale: The historical market area is depicted in Assassin's Creed II. Make this fabulous market and restaurant precinct your lunch destination for a few hours. Fantastic produce downstairs for homemade pasta, cheese, tripe, vegetables, regional food specialties. Upstairs is a busy food hall with fantastic inexpensive pizzas and main meals.  

Trattoria  L'Grullo: Atmospheric, very reasonably priced restaurant, and not many tourists.  

SEE + DO 

PARIS

The Classic Walks revolution tour costs $30 for a two-hour walk. See paris.classicwalks.com

ITALY 

Assassin's Creed Tour: Alessia and business partner Tatiana have foreign-language and literature degrees and are accredited tour guides. A two-hour tour for three people cost $190. See guidedtoursofflorence.com

The writer travelled independently and was not sponsored by Ubisoft. 

Five other teen-friendly activities in Paris 

Musee d'Orsay: This is the high school excursion on steroids – amazing collection including Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gauguin,  Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Seurat, Sisley.  Teens will love the contemporary eye-popping Cafe Campana. No need to reach for the phone except to instagram the giant art deco railway clock. See musee-orsay.fr/en/home.html

Hire a bicycle from one of the 1800 Velib bike-sharing stations run by the Paris Town Hall. Just subscribe online to see Paris from the street as well as the metro.

en.velib.paris.fr

Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie: This futuristic space is the biggest science and technology museum in Europe. Hands-on displays and creative experiential sessions to suit all kids and teenagers. Parc de la Villette. cite-sciences.fr

Tour of the Catacombs of Paris: Chilly underground tour of the bones of more than 6 million Parisians. Robespierre's remains are among the neatly stacked displays of skulls and bones. Not recommended for the over-sensitive teen or young kids (under 14s must be accompanied by an adult). Perfect for the young Goth or teens into Vampire Lit.  catacombes.paris.fr

The Saint Ouen Flea Market: The oldest vintage market in Europe and largest antiques and second-hand market in the world. It is so easy to get distracted by the fabulous array of antiques, industrial design and collectibles from eras ranging from the baroque, Napoleonic to mid-20th century and the 1970s. A phone to text your teen is vital when you want to stop and haggle and your kid wants to find old comics. Easy to get separated. Allocate half a day, including lunch.  marcheauxpuces-saintouen.com

Writer and  producer Lesley Holden has spent far too much time worrying about her child's digital diet and she never thought a teen's video game would help create the main attraction. But her trip to Europe has been a game changer in the way she looks at history as well as family travel.   

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