I am in Paris. This visit is completely different to all of the other times that I have been. Why? My first visit was in 1996. A young man followed me to dinner. When he asked me if he could join me I lied and said that I was meeting friends when I was dining alone. Later, when I lived in London, I went for many weekends. I took the Metro and taxis. Consequently, my knowledge above ground was limited. I saw beautiful architecture whizz past while getting into political discussions with taxi drivers (Mademoiselle etes Americaine?) and walking past men trying to catch my attention while on the way to dinner.
Also notable on this visit? I have left my children in my husband’s capable hands. The last time I was in Paris, fifteen years ago, I was on the verge of moving to Sydney to join my now-husband. My friend M had also just met her soon-to-be husband. We went wedding dress shopping and dined with my friend Yves and a group of M’s friends. In the end, I couldn’t find a dress because I was too fat to fit into anything in Paris. Yes, really.
Consequently, bicycling here is a new experience. What is it like you might be asking? It depends upon a number of factors. They are the following:
How jet-lagged are you?
Do you have a GPS?
Are your confidence levels high enough to deal with the organised chaos of Paris traffic and roundabouts?
After traveling for 24 hours from Sydney to Dubai, I landed in Paris’ CDG airport having slept very little. I had wanted to attend the Friday night bicycle ride that starts at 8pm from the Hotel de Ville. But after unpacking, showering, going to buy groceries for breakfast and finding a SIM card for my phone with my Airbnb host, the idea of going bed early was incredibly attractive.
I decided to pick up my Gazelle bicycle for the week at Holland Bikes on Avenue Foch the next morning. I woke up early, spoke with my family in Sydney, had breakfast and organised for a busy week. Still, I felt like I was moving in slow-motion with the jet lag.
I decided to use a Velib, Paris’ bicycle share programme to get me there. It was slow going. The kiosk wouldn’t accept my credit card to make the booking. I returned to the apartment to use the WiFi to make the deposit on the system because my phone had lost the 3G connection. Velib finally in hand, I adjusted the seat, put my bag in the basket and headed towards the Arc de Triomphe. I discovered that the heavy Velib and Paris’ flat terrain were a good combination.
However, what was meant to be an 18 minute ride according to Google Maps turned into a 90 minute struggle. The good thing was that there were cyclists everywhere on Velib this Saturday morning. I observed that they placed themselves anywhere on the road. The traffic was light this Saturday morning but the roundabouts were a puzzle I couldn’t solve. The first one I had to contend with was Place de Clichy. I couldn’t find Boulevard de Clichy, didn’t quite know how to deal with the drivers and lost my nerve. I got off and walked several times when I became confused, usually at large roundabouts. Interestingly, not one driver acted aggressively towards me. There was none of that Australian/American/British revving behind you or speeding up to pass while leaving very little space. I suspected that this would be one of a few practice runs before most of Paris returned from their long weekend as Monday was a public holiday.
I saw the Arc de Triomphe from a distance and knew that I did not wish to enter the enormous roundabout. After finding the underground parking structure where my bicycle was waiting, I walked and bicycled to find the docking station for the Velib. Locating the Gazelle bicycle was easy. Holland Bikes had sent me the code for the lock and the number of the bicycle.
Escaping from the parking structure was another story as multiple exits were closed because of an exhibition and a heavy security presence above ground. Annoyingly, GoogleMaps started sending me in circles because my phone had lost its connection to the 3G network again.
After inquiring at a florist, I found the street that would take me in the correct direction. I made it back to my apartment in 45 minutes. I asked my host about the roundabouts and he agreed that it was often difficult to see which street was the correct one to exit. I had a restorative lunch of brochettes, haricots verts, strawberries, wine and cheese.
Sunday, I planned to attend a group ride organised by Mieux se Deplacer a Bicyclette called La Convergence Francilienne. I found out about it via the Facebook site, La Culture Bicyclette where I sometimes post this blog. Making my way to Bastille, the meeting point, was much easier after another night of sleep and accumulated knowledge from the day before about driver behaviour. Plus I had my own Gazelle! I discovered les pistes cyclable (separated cycleways) on Boulevard de Clichy, Rochechouart, Magenta. I struggled with the roundabout again but took the wrong exit and doubled back instead of getting off and walking.
The cycleways were helpful for the most part except that at Rochechouart a street market had taken over which meant riding on the road. Again, I found bus and car drivers to be courteous. I didn’t find that I needed to take the lane to be treated with respect as a human being. I also found that cyclists have a very laissez-faire attitude to red lights. If it’s clear, they will proceed. And there was no judgement in city of 10.5 million versus in Sydney where people comment at the merest infraction (lights on at night, stopping at a red, (not)wearing a helmet, wearing heels).
I made my way to Bastille and had some time to explore the cycleways above the Seine which were breathtaking. Then the convergence of 2,000 bicyclists was amazing to witness. We rode as a group to Invalides via Rue de Rivoli. The cortege was well organised with a police escort in places. People came with pets, entire families came with children and many cargo bikes were in attendance.
M said hello and guessed that I wasn’t French. He was British and we had a great chat on the way. He was on holiday and knew Paris well. He pointed out the various landmarks of Hotel de Ville and the Louvre. I had forgotten their location entirely.
I hadn’t known that I had been missing such beauty. Going past Le Louvre on a bicycle was enthralling. Why? Being in open air and passing the structure at a slow speed made it possible to interact with the architecture in a way that I hadn’t experienced previously. A car creates it’s own environment and separates its occupants from the outside. On a bicycle, the enormity of the scale of the building, its contents and what it represents as a repository of history during the times of Napoleon, the French Revolution and as a palace during Medieval, Renaisaance and Bourbon times was evident. I believe that going past on horse or carriage would have been the same, n’est-ce pas?
After the ride, I went with a group to the Seine where M pointed out the Paris Plages sites and we had a drink together along the river on les berges (barges) which were now closed to traffic. Imagine the possibilities in Sydney!
I cycled home via the Rue de Rivoli and Avenue de l’Opera where I felt quite small relative to the size of the streets. Fortunately, traffic was light, bus drivers respectful and I made my way back to Montmartre easily. I plan to investigate off the main roads soon to get away from the traffic as I do in Sydney.
I slept so well last night and am nearly over the jet lag as a result. Is it possible to cycle in Paris? Yes. In some ways, it’s easier here than it is in Sydney. Tomorrow I will witness the full scope of traffic in Paris as everyone will have returned from their weekends away. Three good days of practice on the bicycle will be put to good use.