You might figure that Paris, the world's most famous walking city and home base of the most prestigious bicycling contest of all, the Tour de France, would be a natural for the biking vacationer. I certainly did.
In the first months of our family's move to Paris, as I was settling into my job as chief of the Times' Paris bureau, scenes ran through my mind of lazily pedaling alongside the Seine, pausing like a character in a Robert Doisneau photograph to leaf through yellowing copies of 19th century novels on sale at the riverside bookstalls. Of a slow father-daughter journey with my 14-year-old, Charlotte, from the outdoor terrace of a cafe to the cast-iron feet of the Eiffel Tower.
Finally, this spring, a perfect weekend presented itself, and Charlotte and I decided to rent bikes and explore this city on wheels.
Verification des faits (reality check): Within five minutes of picking up my rented Dutch-made three-speeder on the Boulevard St.-Michel on a Saturday morning, I almost mowed down a mother and her son as they stepped into the narrow Rue Vavin on the Left Bank without looking in my direction.
I jammed on the brakes, and the cable to my right hand brake popped off, leaving me with only one brake for the duration of my first weekend experiment on two wheels.
But it wasn't until I saw Charlotte pedaling furiously along the Boulevard du Montparnasse, with aqua-trimmed city buses and other vehicular traffic zipping by within a yard or two of her left elbow, that I asked myself if this really had been such a good idea.
We were on a stretch of the city's web of officially designated cycling paths at the time, crossing the Place du 18 Juin 1940, the broad expanse where Edward Fox tries to assassinate Gen. Charles de Gaulle in the original "Day of the Jackal" movie. A veteran taxi driver didn't think much of our chances.
"Those bike lanes?" he told me. "We've got a name for them: les couloirs de la mort (alleys of death). I wouldn't go near them on a bike."
Intrepid, Charlotte and I kept at it, and found--providing a few basic precautions are learned and observed--that a bicycle is a wonderful, relaxing and very safe way to get around Paris. And did I mention convenient and fast? A local cyclists group, the Mouvement de Defense de la Bicyclette, has calculated that if Parisians commute by Metro, and the trip includes a transfer, they'd almost certainly get to work and home quicker by bike.
That's presumably not your primary concern as a visitor, so think of basking in Parisian ambience and partaking of that favorite of French pastimes, faire du velo--bicycling.
"There's something about cycling in France," says American enthusiast Monica Lichtner, 30, a Web-page author and former Paris resident. "If you're passionate about it, it stays with you for the rest of your life." It's also, she found, a fine way to meet people.
Want to feel the heartbeat of this old but always evolving and astonishing city? Set off on your bicycle through the cafe- and shopping-rich neighborhood around the Centre Pompidou, the modern art museum famous (or notorious) for its inside-out architecture. Don't miss the Rites of Spring Fountain, a ballet of moving lips, writhing serpents and other shapes. Then point your handlebars west to Les Halles, the former market district (Emile Zola called it "the belly of Paris") that's now home to a subterranean mega-mall overrun by young Gallic mall rats. The architectural grab bag of St.-Eustache Church dominates the scene; if you've got a camera, don't pass up one of the city's best photo opportunities--the giant human head, looking pensive and dreamy-eyed, that lies on the cobblestones by St.-Eustache. (For this bike route in detail, see ROUTE 1 on L7.)
Keen on experiencing the latest trendy Paris neighborhood? Start at the Place de la Bastille, the very spot where the French Revolution began, just east of the Marais, the old Jewish quarter and one of the most interesting districts of old Paris. Head north on the bike path paralleling the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir. Turn right on Rue Oberkampf, and you've arrived. Check out Cafe Charbon (109, Rue Oberkampf) with its retro decor and bohemian atmosphere; Les Couleurs (117, Rue St.-Maur), a cafe-bar with Saturday-afternoon tango dancing; and Le Bistrot du Parisien (25, Rue Moret), with hearty food and black-and-white films and musical comedies after 8 p.m. (See ROUTE 2, L7.)
Or perhaps you're weary of old stones, and longing for greenery? Continue north along the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, and you'll come to the Bassin de la Villette, a surprisingly wide canal plied by barges and pleasure boats. Keep bearing northeast to the old slaughterhouse district on the fringes of Paris, now home to the ultramodern, middlebrow theme parks of the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie and the Cite de la Musique. Take a break on the grass and enjoy an impromptu concert from the African exchange students who come here to play their drums. (See ROUTE 3, L7.)
While pedaling by myself one recent Saturday through the working-class 19th arrondissement, I heard, faintly, the shrill, unmistakable sound of bagpipes. A few streets away, at a small church in the Rue de la Crimee, an Austrian scientist was getting married to a woman from Guadeloupe. The bridegroom had studied in Scotland, and a friend made the trip over to salute him and his wife by tootling "Scotland the Brave" in a kilt. Curious, residents of the quarter were starting to cluster at the steps of the church.
It was a moment of serendipity not unlike those that Doisneau, the greatest of Paris' candid photographers, captured on film. And one a bicycle helped me find.
If the idea of venturing out into a foreign city alone on two wheels seems a bit daunting to you, some rental shops offer guided group tours (some in English). For the past four years, one such establishment, Paris a Velo C'est Sympa!, has been organizing theme visits by bicycle to the Art Nouveau neighborhoods of the 16th arrondissement, Montmartre's hilly back streets, and other destinations. Prices, including bicycle, insurance and guide's fee, are about $30 for a half-day ($26 for riders under 26), about $37 at night ($30 for the under-26s).
I'd urge tourists, though, not to hesitate having a solo go. Abel Guggenheim, vice president of the Mouvement de Defense de la Bicyclette, agrees wholeheartedly. "A bike is the best means of transport in Paris," he assured me. "Visitors, though, should be prudent."
If you keep close to the curb or the clearly marked bus lanes, I quickly found, Parisian motorists (many of whom are sometime cyclists themselves) will almost without exception respect you.
In fact, the only real problem I foresee for American newcomers is figuring out some of the more intimidating intersections, such as the Place de la Concorde, which sprawls in all directions from the 3,330-year-old Egyptian obelisk that is the city's oldest monument. Faced with speeding traffic that is moving to traffic lights that you can't always detect, you must keep looking in all directions. When in doubt, dismount and become a pedestrian. (Riding on the sidewalk is not allowed "in principle," as the French would say. That doesn't mean some people don't do it.)
Though there are bicycle racks near the Louvre and some other major tourist attractions, that's not the case everywhere. "You can always just lock the bicycle to a pole," observes Loic Lejay, whose shop near the Jardin des Plantes, Paris Velo, provides a lock along with each rental. Also, you should check in advance, but many hotels are happy to arrange for a place to store your bike overnight (some use their parking garage).
If you get tired, thirsty or need to make a pit stop, take a break at a sidewalk cafe (one personal favorite: the Ca Ira! on the west side of the Place de la Bastille, offering "revolutionary prices"). Or use the public benches, coin-operated public toilets and green fontaines Wallace, the 100-odd outdoor water fountains that dot Paris thanks to a bequest from an English philanthropist, Sir Richard Wallace.
A special note for visitors also interested in seeing the countryside: Bikes are allowed on trains and RER rapid transit in the Paris region (though not on Paris city buses or the Metro). This means you can take your bike to and from Fontainebleau or Versailles on the train or RER for a day excursion or picnic.
Over the past two years, to better please the cycling public, the officials at Paris City Hall have opened 62 miles of biking paths. They now stretch in unbroken bands from Porte de Vincennes in the far east to Porte Dauphine in the west, from Quai de la Marne in the north to Porte de Brancion in the south.
Some of these lanes are protected by curbs or traffic islands from the streets they parallel and possess their own stoplights. They are marked with circular blue signs and the white symbol of a bike stenciled on the pavement.
Some, that is, but not all. Other bike lanes, such as the one Charlotte and I discovered near Montparnasse train station, are separated by nothing more than a painted white line from cars and buses going the same way. Still others share the lane reserved for city buses, which means you can get stuck behind the No. 95 as it lumbers toward the Porte de Montmartre.
In addition to these cycling lanes (or pistes as the French call them), Mayor Jean Tiberi has ordered some embankments of the Seine closed to cars from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. That gives cyclists, skateboarders, roller-bladers and pedestrians sole access during those hours.
On another cycling weekend this year, as the Seine gleamed like a river of molten silver in the hot summer sun, Charlotte and I descended onto the Quai des Tuileries, downstream from the Louvre. On the Right Bank across the river from us rose the bulk of the Musee d'Orsay, the once bustling railway station that has become the home of France's greatest collection of Impressionist art.
My daughter and I bought ice-cold sodas from a vendor on the quay and watched as a score of Parisian youngsters on roller-blades took turns slaloming backward at breakneck speed along a long row of paper cups. Later, we pedaled down the quay to the Alma bridge, watching the passing barges and the bateaux-mouches (sightseeing boats) laden with tourists.
It was an ideal afternoon--except for the bare-chested, clowning skater who almost careened into me as he and his friends zipped happily down a ramp to the embankment from the street above.
A word about safety: It's true that French drivers have a reckless reputation, one Princess Diana's tragic death in a car crash here did nothing to dispel. But statistically, biking in Paris is no more dangerous than walking.
The French, who passionately follow the progress of the Tour de France each July and August (it ends today), call the bicycle "the little queen" as an emblem of their affection and respect. From our very first weekend, my daughter pronounced it a "cool" way to get around the City of Light, one much preferable in nice weather to bus and Metro. "When are we renting bikes again?" Charlotte has been asking lately.
Some final words of advice, from veteran Paris cyclists and novices like myself:
* Check your equipment. The Paris Prefecture of Police "highly recommends" a helmet. French law requires you to have a bell that works, reflectors, both brakes in good order, a white or yellow light in front and a red light behind, and reflectors on the sides, in back and on the pedals.
* A French adage has it that "fear of the gendarme is the beginning of wisdom." Visiting cyclists should know that if they commit a moving violation, police theoretically can levy the same hefty fine as against an offending motorist. For example: 900 francs ($150) for running a red light. Cycling side by side is not permitted.
* Check the map before you head out. And don't try to navigate across Paris in a straight line. One-way and short streets make that too much trouble. Steer like most Parisians do: from one landmark or square to another.
* Stick to the right and pedal with the traffic. And watch out for drivers turning right across bike lanes and parking spaces from which someone suddenly might exit.
* If you've had your fill of well-known landmarks and postcard vistas, taste the flavor of working-class Paris by circumnavigating the outer ring of boulevards named after Napoleon's marshals. (Note: There are plans to create bike paths here, but they are still just plans.) Likewise, if you want to escape cars and the city, head for the bike paths that meander through the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, vast parks on the city's east and west that are the green "lungs" of Paris
* Grin and bear the cobblestones. Tell yourself they are part of the charm.
* And, always lock your bike. If it's a rental, loss or theft means you'll forfeit your deposit of up to 2,500 francs ($416).
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Spin Cycle in Paris
Where to rent bikes: Of the many bicycle rental and repair outlets in Paris, below are four where English is spoken. Prices average about $20 for 24 hours, or $66-$92 a week, including lock. When renting, be ready to put down as much as a $416 deposit. Most stores carry multispeed touring and mountain (in French: VTT) bikes.
Maison du Velo, 11 Rue Fenelon, Paris 10th; telephone 011-33-1-4281-2472.
Paris a Velo, C'est Sympa!, 37 Boulevard Bourdon, Paris 4th; tel. 011-33-1-4887-6001.
Paris Velo, 2 Rue du Fer-a-Moulin, Paris 5th; tel. 011-33-1-4337-5922.
Point Velos, 83 Boulevard St.-Michel, Paris 5th; tel. 011-33-1-4354-8536.
Paris a Velo, C'est Sympa! and Paris Velo offer guided tours of the city by bicycle.
For more information: French Government Tourist Office, 9454 vWilshire Blvd., Suite 715, Beverly Hills, CA 90212-2967; tel. (202) 659-7779 (France On Call hotline), fax (310) 276-2835, Internet http://www.francetourism.com.
Three Favorite Rides
1. HEART OF PARIS (The Marais, Centre Pompidou, Les Halles, Palais Royal, Louvre, Ile de la Cite, Ile St.-Louis)
Start on the Rue de Rivoli in the Marais (Metro St.-Paul). Head west past Hotel de Ville. Turn right on Rue St.-Martin until the Centre Pompidou. Go left (west) on Rue Rambuteau, and you'll reach Les Halles and St.-Eustache. Cross the Place Rene Cassin and down the Allee Jules Supervielle. Turn right on Rue Berger, right again on the Rue du Louvre, left on the Rue du Colonel Driant. Turn left at the Rue de Valois, dismount at the entrance to the Palais Royal courtyard on the right side of the street. Walk through the courtyard, exit and mount again at the corner of the Rue de Richelieu. Turn left onto the Rue de Richelieu and keep going straight (the street's name changes to Rue de Rohan). Cross the Rue de Rivoli and enter the arcades that pass through the Louvre. Keep going until you reach the Seine, turn left on the Quai du Louvre. Continue until Pont-Neuf, where you turn right. Once on Ile de la Cite, turn left on the Rue Henri Robert, cross the Place Dauphine to the Rue de Harlay, and turn right. At the Quai des Orfevres, turn left. The quai's name changes to Quai du Marche Neuf. Pass Notre Dame cathedral on your right, continue along Cloitre Notre Dame and Pont St.-Louis onto Ile St.-Louis. Make a circle of the island (Quai d'Orleans, Quai de Bethune, Boulevard Henri IV, Quai d'Anjou, Quai de Bourbon). Right on Pont Louis-Philippe. Continue on Rue du Pont Louis Philippe. Turn right on Rue Francois Miron, continue until St.-Paul Metro.
2. A HIP PARIS NEIGHBORHOOD (Rue Oberkampf)
Start at Place de la Bastille, head north on Boulevard Richard Lenoir. East on Rue Oberkampf. Suggested stops: Cafe Charbon at 109; Le Cithea, an eclectic bar-club at 112; artist-run gallery Glassbox at 113 bis (behind post office); Favela Chic, Brazilian restaurant, at 131. Proceed to intersection with Rue St.-Maur. Suggested stops: La Bague de Kenza, Algerian bakery/pastry stop, at 106; Les Couleurs at 117. On another cross-street with Rue Oberkampf further to the east, Rue Moret, Le Bistrot du Parisien is at 25. At 17, the clothing shop Casablanca features retro fashions from the '30s, '40s and '50s.
3. PARIS OF CONTRASTS (Canals, La Villette)
Start again from Place de la Bastille. Head north on Boulevard Richard Lenoir, which changes names to Boulevard Jules Ferry. Continue north on right bank of the Canal St.-Martin. At Boulevard de la Villette, cross under elevated train tracks. Pass the Rotonde on your left and follow the Bassin de la Villette, which narrows into the Canal de l'Ourcq. Continue to the Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie and the Cite de la Musique at the Parc de la Villette. To return to Bastille, follow the canals and boulevards south.