It's October. The summer has said its au revoirs and the Alps are not yet frosted. For the people of Paris, this can mean only one thing. It is time to unleash the autumn wardrobe and head out of town to the world's chicest horse race. So pack your bow tie and binoculars – its time to board your Eurotunnel Le Shuttle to the
Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Living it up at Longchamp
Whether your passion begins and ends with the mere mention of John McCririck, this is one annual meeting that any self-respecting channel-hopper cannot miss.
The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, or the Arcto its friends, takes in the western suburbs of Paris, three hours drive (300km) south of the Eurotunnel Le Shuttle terminus in Calais.
Every October, up to 50,000 diamante-encrusted spectators descend on the banks of the Seine, to witness Europe's most extravagant horse race. As one understating slogan puts it: "Ce n'est pas une course, c'est un monument" – "Not so much a race as a monument".
To attend a run at Longchamp Hippodrome is to follow in the brass-buckled footsteps of Napoleon himself. Its heart-stopping scenes of heroic horseplay have been immortalised over the years in iconic masterpieces by painters such as
Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas. Even U2 have got in on the action, taking over the famous racecourse stands to film a leg of their Joshua Tree Tour.
The 57-hectare race ground is celebrated worldwide for its varied terrain, including a thrilling hill section that can test the mettle of even the world's greatest jockeys. It has been home to many a major meeting since its creation 200 years ago, but it is one particular race that dominates the Longchamp calendar.
Backing a winner
The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is a 1.5 mile flat horse race, currently ranked as the third richest in the world, after the Melbourne Cup and the Japan Cup. To win the Arc is to become a champion – the name given to the most elite class of thoroughbreds.
Established in 1920 with a prize of 150,000 francs, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe quickly established itself as France's foremost horserace. Nowadays, to any race aficionado, the names of previous winners such as Ribot, Dancing Brave and Danedream will set hearts racing with excitement.
When the present sponsor Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club (QREC) took over the contract a few years ago, it doubled the prize fund from €2 million to €4 million.
So it might surprise the British to find that in France, there are no bookmakers in sight. You can forget all that frantic paper-wafting that typifies the likes of Ascot. At the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, gambling is strictly over Pari Mutuel Counters – that is, tote betting, where the payout is not decided until all the bets are in.
One of the major attractions of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is undoubtedly its stunning setting. The Longchamp racecourse snakes along the picturesque banks of the River Seine, with the Eiffel Tower itself offering its trademark backdrop.
It is situated among the ancient oak forests of the Bois de Boulogne, a park more than twice the size of New York's Central Park and on a par with London's Richmond Park. Whether you have horserace neighsayers in your pack or are staying on in the area, this park offers plenty to do away from the track.
The beauty spot became a civic park in 1852 under the instruction of Napoleon III, who wanted to bring a bit of London's Hyde Park back with him after exile. It was here, in 1783, that the first successful manned hot air balloon flight took place, carrying Pilâtre de Rozier and the Marquis d'Arlandes high over the grounds of the grand Château de la Muette in a craft built by the Montgolfier brothers. As if that wasn't enough of a claim to fame, the Bois de Boulogne also boasts the site of the 1900 Summer Olympics tug-of-war events, not to mention the gold medal croquet match.
In the north end of the park, the Jardin d'Acclimatation is a traditional family amusement park offering everything from an archery range to a hall of mirrors. There is a science museum and an art gallery to peruse, with pony trekking also on offer for any youngsters who have succumbed to Arc fever. But it hasn't always been all fun and games down in the Bois: originally built as Paris Zoo, the entire stock of the Jardin's menagerie was once famously cooked and served at one of Paris' finest restaurants by top chef Alexandre Etienne Choron, during the 1870 siege of Paris.
Racing at Longchamp dates back to 1857, when it was ironically quicker for
Emperor Napoleon and his wife Eugénie to arrive under sail down the Seine than under horsepower. Now though it is a half-hour drive west from the centre of Paris.
If you'd prefer to avoid the capital's mass equine exodus, you can get to Longchamp Race Course in just over three hours from Eurotunnel Le Shuttle's Calais terminal. Approach the Route des Tribunes from east of the Paris outer ring road. Parking is available at the grounds for around €2.
Don't be fooled by the Champagne-quaffing fashionistas either – a trip to the Arc is surprisingly affordable. Entry fees are £7, and because this is France, even the converted bus selling hot dogs and wine by the entrance is an acclaimed eatery.
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Where to stay
Queens Hotel is located close to the action, in the 16th Arrondissement of Paris, in an area known as the Village d'Auteuil. It is a grand townhouse-style building housing 22 sophisticaed guest rooms with all mod cons.
Click here to visit the Queens Hotel
Hotel de la Tour Eiffel is a bargain two star bolthole located just a stones throw from the famous tower. All 24 rooms have television sets and free WiFi, with breakfast served in a neighbouring bakery.
Click here to visit the Hotel de la Tour Eiffel
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How to get there
Europe's most exciting horse race is just four hours drive away from
Eurotunnel Le Shuttle's Calais Terminal.