Vive la liberté - of seeing Paris by bicycle
PARIS - Some tourists walk Paris, some sit at cafes, others zip around the metro to Eiffel-esque destinations. But I dreamed of seeing Paris from a bicycle.
Besides, my wife, our teenage daughter, and I had spent five full days together, and there comes a time in every family vacation when one needs - how do I say this? - an intermission.
The ladies went shopping. I investigated the website Bike About Tours (www.bikeabouttours.com). An e-mail exchange later, and voilà, I had a spot on the 10 o'clock tour the next morning, which began in a garage beneath the Hotel de Ville, Paris' city hall.
A pleasure of any tour is handing over the planning, but before we began, I had to make a big decision: to wear a helmet, or not to wear a helmet?
"It's not required by law," said Fox McInerney, our Australian guide, noting that helmets are "not considered very fashionable here." All the other adults in the group rode sans helmets, but I strapped mine on, feeling like the Anxious American in a flock of soon-to-be-flying liberated tourists, including two American families, an Australian couple, and an Argentine woman.
"Allons-y!" Fox finally said, and even I knew that he meant, "Let's go!"
We rose from the garage into a crisp summer morning, and over the next four hours covered more terrain than most walkers can manage in a long day, wheeling through the Marais and Left Bank neighborhoods and past such famous sites as the Louvre, the Palais de Justice, and Notre Dame.
I had worried that biking through downtown Paris would be a death-defying pleasure, but it was quickly apparent that this is one of the friendliest bicycling cities I'd ever pedaled. First, no hills. And instead of feeling like an intruder on car-dominated streets, I felt like an equal to pedestrians, cars, taxis, buses, mopeds, and motorcycles, all respectfully negotiating the slowed-down etiquette of the shared road. Fifteen minutes into the tour, I removed my helmet. I felt like a kid again.
There are bike paths everywhere in Paris - on bridges, on grand boulevards, and on one-way streets, laid down on a variety of bikable surfaces built over the last half-millennium: crushed stone, macadam, cobblestone, and concrete. They were even painted on sidewalks, and once we were riding along the Seine, I was startled when a bicyclist came rolling right at me; two bike lanes, heading in opposite directions, run side by side.
"Since they introduced the city bikes, they've added a lot of bike lanes," Fox said. He was referring to Vélib', a public bike-rental system, and a word created by combining vélo ("bike") and liberté ("freedom") into "bike freedom." Introduced in Paris in 2007, Vélib' has 20,000 rental bikes available at 1,800 stations. The city plans to have ready this year 430 miles of bike lanes.
On a bridge to the Latin Quarter, we stopped to take in some famous buildings, including the Montparnasse Tower, Paris' second-tallest building (after the renovated Tour First). Parisians found the massive, gravestone-like skyscraper built in the early 1970s so ugly that they quickly passed a ban on buildings more than seven stories high in much of the city, and I'm glad that they have. I'm convinced that Paris' "City of Light" sobriquet doesn't refer to the role Paris played in the Enlightenment, but to all the sunlight that can reach almost any Parisian street.
In the same direction, we could see the Pantheon, built by Louis XV, honoring St. Genevieve, and the resting place of such French VIPs as Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, and Marie Curie.
Yes, it was all interesting, but after five days in France, I was already up to my globes oculaires in French history, and I was hallelujah-happy that we didn't enter any historic buildings, graveyards, or churches.
Absent, too, were stops inside art museums or galleries. Instead, we were asked to spot the small mosaic works by the anonymous street artist Space Invader, who took his name from the video game that inspired about a thousand pieces that, over the last 20 years, he has plastered on Paris buildings.
"It's illegal, but nobody takes them down because they add value," Fox said. "He said he's created a new form of cubism." We located a handful of the mosaics, but I was far more impressed by all the anonymous craftsmen - metalworkers, stonecarvers, and architects - who had made so many Parisian buildings such artistic treats.
At noon, we got off our bikes for the first time, walking down the alleyway that is Cour du Commerce Saint Andre to see the restaurant Le Procope, which opened in 1686, making it one of the first to introduce coffee from the Muslim world to Europe. Robespierre, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin drank their java here, and I'd have liked to raise a cup of coffee to these revolutionaries. But this tour doesn't stop for coffee, even if it's to go. Instead, we stopped for lunch on Rue de Buci. Without my wife, who speaks French, and my daughter, who is learning it, I had to attempt a few words from my phrasebook.
"Je voudrais le sandwich," I said, as I've learned that whatever the French stuff into a baguette is good. I dutifully ate my sandwich, and then I uttered what must be the most beautiful rhyme in the French language: "Crème brûlée, s'il vous plait." It was the first time that I had cracked a crust of this culinary gold on a sunny Parisian street leaning against a bicycle, and I hoped that it wouldn't be the last.
Soon, we were at the Louvre, and instead of yapping about art or architecture, Fox suggested that we take a few loops around I.M. Pei's glass pyramid in the courtyard. I so lost myself in this aimless diversion that I also lost the group.
But Fox fetched me, and next we rode through the elegant Marais neighborhood, past the Pompidou Center and Victor Hugo's house. By now, I was persuaded that bikes were the perfect sightseeing transport: They move fast enough to go far, slow enough to allow you to see the scenery, and they're always easy to park.
We stopped next at the Place des Vosges, a square surrounded by expensive homes built for the nobility, and apparently their descendants still reside here: Fox told us that one five-story home recently sold for 32 million euros, nearly $45 million.
Less expensive is the water that bubbles for free nearby at a beautiful cast-iron fountain financed by Richard Wallace, a 19th-century English philanthropist, who wanted to provide water to Paris' poor after aqueducts were destroyed during the Paris Commune in 1875. Tin cups were once chained to the statues; now bicyclists fill water bottles at the fountains.
"It's a great place to get your drinking water," deadpanned Fox. "It comes directly from the Seine."
One of our last tour stops was on the banks of that river, at La Tour d'Argent, one of the most prestigious eateries in Europe, which Pixar used as inspiration for its animated film Ratatouille. Fox estimated that a full dinner for two could cost $1,000, although ordering its signature canard à la presse (pressed boneless duck) gets your name on a list of others who have eaten it, including Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. The restaurant also has floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a gorgeous view of Notre Dame.
For next to nothing, I had the same view - from a bike, my Parisian version of liberté.