CA$H Flow; in a Society Where Mamon Rules, Is It Any Wonder That Cities Once Famous for Their Museums and Art Galleries Are Now Peddling Themselves as a Purchaser's Paradise? Chris Higham Suggests Four European City Break Destinations for Shopaholics Where the Bargains Come Thick and Fast

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Byline: Chris Higham

When short break holidaymakers were asked, just a decade ago, how they filled a two day breakaway in a European city, the consensus was sightseeing, sightseeing and more sightseeing.

Palaces and cathedrals still have their appeal but travel specialists like American Express Travel say that today's short break holidaymakers have their sights set on other things.

Things like eating out, nightclubbing, nights at the opera and, most of all, shopping.

Right now the strength of sterling is a big incentive to take a shopping break overseas. According to American Express, with the exchange rate currently standing at nearly 101/1 French francs to the pound, British holidaymakers are now getting much more currency for their money than five years ago and the same is true for much of Europe.

That means that serious shoppers can pick up bargains galore as the pound in their pocket stretches further than ever before. For real enthusiasts a shopping break extends far beyond the smart boulevards of Europe's most fashion-conscious cities. Those in the know speed down to the street markets to scour their stalls for all kinds of gifts.

So where should the ardent shopper plan to spend their pounds? American Express Travel recommends four contenders for the title of Shopping Capital. And with my purse bulging at the seams I checked them out.

PARIS

Why go? Long the Brits' short break favourite, there's always a 'new' Paris to discover. The Marais currently holds the title. Once a slushy bog near Notre Dame, the quaint 17th century streets of this area have become the Covent Garden of Paris.

Where to shop: In the Marais, trawl the Rue des Francs Bourgeois and at Boutique Paris-Musees find gifts inspired by Parisian museum exhibits. The wide boulevards of the Champs Elysees house some equally interesting booty. At Sephora, the ultimate designer perfumerie, every conceivable perfume, cosmetic and toiletry line the shelves. Part of the fun is being served by assistants, of both sexes, dressed from head to foot in black - including hat and gloves.

A few doors down at the designer specs shop all the most sought after names in fashion - Versace, Armani, Calvin Klein et al - are hanging on the wall at prices around 30 per cent less than in Britain. And don't miss the Art Nouveau splendour of Galeries Lafayette, Paris' famous department store, which boasts Europe's most extensive lingerie department.

What about the markets? The Marche aux Puces, or flea market, at St-Ouen is the Paris market for collectors. Get there early, before the dealers swallow up the best bargains, and trawl the various quarters. Set out as both stalls and permanent shops, these include old dolls, wristwatches, Lalique glass, books and every type of antique furniture (Friday-Sunday).

Best buy: Book lovers of all ages will find treasures, often in English. I found a hard back illustrated edition of Enid Blyton's Island of Adventure, a childhood favourite. If you don't find what you're looking for, try Shakespeare & Company, a chaotic three storey bookshop on the Left Bank at rue de la Boucherie.

LILLE

Why go? Just two hours away by Eurostar, Lille is one of the most accessible European cities with galleries, museums and opera houses to rival Paris. Its large student community, often to be found in its pedestrianised Grand Place, gives the city a lively atmosphere.

Where to shop: Towering high above the Eurostar station, the Euralille shopping mall houses nearly every design label including branches of Kookai and Naf Naf, at prices substantially cheaper than in the UK. In the winding cobbled streets of Vieux Lille, there are antique shops, galleries and boutiques selling luxurious linens. Nearby, the Place de Gaulle is the home of the Furet du Nord, the world's biggest bookshop.

What about the markets? …