FranceSunday, February 23, 2014
Paris, and its freewheeling ways
Special to The Washington Post (*)
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 Web site Bike About Tours. An e-mail exchange later, and voila, I have a spot on the 10am tour the next morning, which begins in an underground garage below the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’ city hall.
A pleasure of any tour is handing over the planning, but before we begin, I must make a big decision: to wear a helmet, or not to wear a helmet?
“It’s not required by law,” says Fox McInerney, our Australian guide, noting that helmets are “not considered very fashionable here.” All the other adults in the group ride sans helmets, but I strap mine on, feeling like The Anxious US guy 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 says, and even I know that he means, “Let’s go!”
We rise from the subterranean garage into a crisp summer morning, and over the next four hours, we’ll cover 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.
This is no strolling tour; it’s a rolling tour.
I had worried that biking through downtown Paris would be a death-defying pleasure, but it’s quickly apparent that this is one of the friendliest bicycling cities I’ve ever pedaled. First, no hills. And instead of feeling like an intruder on car-dominated streets, I feel 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 remove my helmet. I feel like a kid again.
There are bike paths everywhere — 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 cement. They’re even painted on sidewalks, and once we’re riding along the Seine, I’m startled when a bicyclist comes 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 says. He’s referring to Velib, a public bike rental system, and a word created by combining velo, or bike, and liberté, which together means “bike freedom.” Introduced in Paris in 2007, Velib now includes 20,000 rental bikes available at 1,800 stations. The city plans to have 430 miles of bike lanes to accommodate bicyclists ready this year.
On a bridge to the Latin Quarter, we stop to spot 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 see the Pantheon, built by Louis XV, honoring St. Genevieve, and the resting place of such French VIPs as Voltaire, Rousseau and Marie Curie.
Yes, it’s all interesting, but after five days in France, I’m already up to my globes oculaires in French history, and I’m hallelujah happy that we don’t enter any historic buildings, graveyards or churches.
Absent, too, are stops inside art museums or galleries. Instead, we’re 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 he’s plastered on Paris buildings over the past 20 years.
“It’s illegal, but nobody takes them down because they add value,” Fox notes. “He said he’s created a new form of cubism.” We locate a handful of them, but I’m far more impressed by all the anonymous craftsmen — metalworkers, stonecarvers and architects — who have made so many Parisian buildings such artistic treats.
At noon, we get 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 like 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 stop for lunch on Rue de Buci. Without my wife, who speaks French, and my daughter, who is learning it, I must attempt a few words from my phrasebook.
“Je voudrais le sandwich,” I say, as I’ve learned that whatever the French stuff into a baguette is good. I dutifully eat my sandwich, and then I utter what must be the most beautiful rhyme in the French language: “Creme brulée, s’il vous plait.” It’s the first time that I crack a crust of this culinary gold on a sunny Parisian street leaning against a bicycle, and I hope that it won’t be the last. To paraphrase another Frenchman, I eat French dessert, therefore I am . . . happy.
Soon, we’re at the Louvre, and instead of yapping about art or architecture, Fox suggests that we take a few loop-de-loops around I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in the courtyard. I so lose myself in this aimless diversion that I also lose the group.
Fox fetches me, and next we ride through the elegant Marais neighborhood, past the Pompidou Center and Victor Hugo’s house. By now, I’m convinced that bikes are 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 stop and park.
We stop 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-storey home recently sold for 32 million euros.
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 use these fountains to fill their water bottles.
“It’s a great place to get your drinking water,” deadpans Fox. “It comes directly from the Seine.”
One of our last tour stops is 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 estimates that a full dinner for two can cost US$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 have the same view — from a bike, my Parisian version of liberté.