Unforgettable bicycle trips around Paris: Notre Dame, Château de Vincennes, Arc de Triomphe
Ever since George Gershwin penned his symphonic rhapsody to Paris, “An American in Paris”, the city’s romance has included the sound of car horns. It’s also that very street chaos—vividly set to music—that’s led us to believe that Paris would not be the place for a non-Parisian to drive, much less cycle. I now know otherwise.
The first bit of magic in checking out your first Velib bicycle is the immediate heady sense of having elevated your status in Paris from generic gawking tourist to intrepid explorer. This elevated status is how I felt as I wheeled splendidly past the long tourist queues outside Notre Dame or the Palais de Chaillot (the best viewing area for the Eiffel Tower). Here are my three favourite journeys.
Rive Gauche night ride
As generations of painters have discovered, there really is something about the light in Paris: how the sun strikes it, the balance of humidity to dryness, its latitude—something—I never saw a dull sunset while I was there. But after the sun goes down, there’s the other light—the one that’s inspired song writers and poets—how the city is lit at night. Each great monument is lit in a manner befitting its purpose. From Notre Dame to the Eiffel Tower, Paris by night is a stunning ride on a bicycle.
I caught the last glow of sunset silhouetting Notre Dame and reflecting into the Seine, as I peddled across Pont Louis-Philippe to Ile Saint-Louis—the lesser of the two islands in the Seine at Paris. It is home to (among many, many things) the Bertillon ice cream shop. It was described to me by a French expat living in Vancouver as the best in Paris with just the right inflection in his voice to imply, “and therefore the world”. I monkeyed about this ancient island of narrow streets and finally crossed over to the Rive Gauche proper in search of the Pantheon.
During daylight I’d seen the Pantheon from afar, but I wasn’t prepared for its forcefulness as it suddenly loomed out of the November night at me. Why the solemnity? The Pantheon serves as a mausoleum for France’s most esteemed citizens, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and more recently French citizens (Righteous among Nations) who defied the Nazi overlords to save many of France’s Jewish citizens. Such is the gravitas surrounding the Pantheon that it catacorners its own lighting into a greenish mist. Hushed, I rode on.
Flying along Boulevard Saint-Germain, I looked back to Notre Dame; its lights by contrast are regal. The cathedral rests solidly, but its lights draw your eyes heavenwards. Across the Seine the Grand and Petit Palais are dazzling seen from across Pont Alexandre III, a bridge so self-indulgently adorned with belle epoch street lamps, it risks plowing into the river just from sheer neo-rococo fabulous-ness.
Finally, after several detours and equipped on my third Velib bicycle of the evening, I rounded the corner onto Champ de Mars and come upon the most famous landmark of all: the Eiffel Tower. I think it’s been through many lighting adaptations over the years, but currently it glitters like the night sky itself. Thousands of white lights flank its sides and some twinkle like stars or light on lamé. Even at night, tourist queues abound, but I ride under the right under the tower and back to my Marais apartment through the safe and thrilling night streets of Paris. Not bad for a Tuesday night bicycle ride.
Get outta town – Château de Vincennes
It was a brilliantly sunny day; the pale blue sky seemed appropriately medieval. Even with Google maps and a detailed map of Greater Paris, I was quickly getting lost in time.
The better-known Chateau de Versailles (1682) is an upstart palace compared with the Chateau de Vincennes (1137), although the latter’s fared poorly over the years. It's famous oak tree where King Louis XI is reputed to have dispensed “justice for all” is long gone and, after royalty moved on to more upscale palaces, it became a military prison even suffering heavy bombardment during World War II. Still as the largest and best preserved medieval castle in Europe, much of its medieval magic persists.
Velib stands abound in Vincennes, so I dropped off my bicycle and opted for the English-language audio tour of the castle, the Keep, and the Sainte-Chapelle based on the Sainte-Chapelle on Ile de la Cite (downtown).
Arc de Triomphe - Etoile
One of my favourite places to get lost in history is at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, a relatively small monument that stands between the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre. Built to commemorate the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz in which Napoleon smacked down the combined Russian and Austrian armies and declared a stunning victory for France, this little arch bridges many epochs.
It was based on the Arco di Settimo Severo (Triumphal Arch for Emperor Septimius Severus) erected in 203 AD in Rome, and in turn, the little Carrousel Arch was the inspiration for both the big Arch de Triomphe (up the road) and our now scrapped Terry Fox Memorial (set in panegyric pink marble back in the 80’s when Vancouver ached to be as beige as Southern California—Kelowna actually succeeded). The Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel had a fine set of bronze horses up top, which Napoleon nicked from Venice’s St. Mark's Basilica in 1797 and then returned 18 years later (it now has copies). That’s ironic, because the Venetians plucked these same fabled horses from the Hippodrome in Constantinople when they sacked that city in 1204, but of course you knew that...
Enough history. It’s time for dinner. I find a Velib stand near St.-Germain-des-Près and, passing Les Deux Maggots and Café de Flore choose another equally tony restaurant. I’ve been in Paris for a while now, so I feel I’ve earned the respect of locals (my first mistake), and I’m not prepared for one of Paris’ famously rude waiters. Slightly fuming, I instead play my freedom card and walk out without ordering. Screw you—I’m going for a cycle. I wasn’t hungry anyway.
I’m cycling in the rain. It’s beautiful. I’m wet and I don’t care. It’s my last night in Paris and I’m a cycling devil. I fly up the Champs D’Elysée through car-chocked streets of insane traffic all the way to Avenue de l’Opéra and Tivoli. Nothing moves, but me. I continue all the way up the Champs D’Elysée to the Arc de Triomphe—that most terrifying of intersections where twelve grand avenues converge to create a star (étoile) image when seen from above. But I’m not above; I’m in the streets and tonight I’m cycling L’Etoile. Once. Twice. Three times around, I spin it like a roulette wheel and career off wildly down any whatnot street, I know not. I’ll be lost for sure, but I don’t care. I let my internal GPS guide me and pass monument after monument. A thousand years of history passes me as I pedal. This is my rhapsody to Paris. It’s my city now. I turn the corner and, voila, there’s Eglise St.-Augustin, which I know is two blocks from my hotel. I can’t get lost in Paris any more. I’m home.
This almost concludes my ode to Paris’ Velib bicycle share program. I described Vancouver’s challenges setting its own program, how to use Velib, and what freedom on two wheels feels like in a great city like Paris. Next week, I’ll share some of Vancouver’s hidden treasures that visitors to Vancouver could explore on a bicycle when we have our shared bicycle program. Like Paris, Vancouver has many secret treasures far off the tourist radar. Please send me your Vancouver cycling favourites and I’ll include them. Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org