Tag Archives: Paris

Bicycle Heaven

No matter how many times I’ve visited cities in Europe, I’m always impressed at the conventions in place for bicyclists. This is especially true in Bruges, Belgium. We took a short detour there between Paris and Aix-en-Provence. It’s out of necessity, to be sure. Driving is so expensive – parking, tolls and the cost of gasoline (some would say the true cost) add up quickly, as we found out on a 500-km trip from Aix-en-Provence to Cahors on Saturday. Highway tolls for the journey added up to roughly €35, and even in our fuel-efficient, manual transmission Corsa hatchback, we spent about €65 on gasoline – that’s more than $7.50 a gallon, even with the declining value of the euro. Only a weekend special at Hertz (one day for €25) made it more economical to rent a car instead of buying two train tickets.

But to get back to the question of bicycles, cycling is often the most practical way to get around. Cities like Paris and Bruges (which we visited after Paris) are mostly flat; Montmartre in Paris is of course a big exception. Tightly concentrated city centers often make it quicker to pedal than get behind a steering wheel for short trips. Undoubtedly, the role cycling plays in mobilizing all segments of the population makes it easier to justify concessions to cyclists. Paris is dotted with ingenious bike rental stations – just swipe your

credit card and you can ride to anywhere else in the city where there’s another station for a euro or two an hour. In the States, well-established bike lanes and “sharrows” indicating that bicyclists can “share” the road with cars are heralded as pinnacles of bike friendliness. But what often happens is that sharrows are ignored and drivers often see the white line as a restriction to keep cyclists from impeding vehicle progress, rather than as a protected space for the cyclists, which they’re allowed to leave if they need to turn or there’s something in their way. Drivers in the U.S. show little consideration for bikers, I think because they’re seen as more of a nuisance rather than travelers on the road with equal rights.

To be sure, cyclists as a group bring a lot of this frustration on themselves. When bikers don’t follow the rules of the road – for example, ignoring stop signs, weaving in and out of traffic, riding the wrong way – drivers have little choice but to expect the worst from every two-wheeler they see. I wrote an article several years ago about an experienced cyclist who made a fatal mistake in not leaving his bike lane when he should have.

To deal with the ambiguity in how bicyclists behave and drivers react to them, Paris has detailed markings on the road to indicate exactly where cyclists should go. In the picture at the left, the arrows continue, leading bicycles into a safe left-hand turn at a busy intersection.

I’ve heard the argument that it’s difficult to retrofit streets designed expressly for cars with bicycle lanes, but this doesn’t hold much water when you realize that much narrower streets in Europe built centuries before those in America now support many times more cyclists than those in the U.S. probably ever will. In Bruges, they’ve managed this by giving cyclists more rights than drivers. On narrow, one-way (for vehicles) streets, cyclists zip in both directions. When things get clogged up and there’s no room to pass, drivers just wait. Outside the walls of the city, cyclists have a dedicated section of the sidewalk and their own lights to allow them to cross busy streets.

Obviously, this is something I feel strongly about, perhaps for a couple of reasons. One – cycling is just plain fun and great exercise. It’s no coincidence that Europeans, who rely more one walking and biking for transporation, have lower rates of obesity than we Americans (though this is changing). Two – few forms of transport are as egalitarian as cycling. For a fraction of the cost of an automobile, most of us can buy a bike that we can ride to work and use for errands. That means, with the right support system in place including good public transporation, the bicycle can be a tool for upward mobility between classes.

I think there’s a tendency when traveling to want to believe that everything new and different is better than the way you know. I certainly fall into that trap from time to time. In fact, exposure to new ideas one of the reasons I love to travel. After some reflection, you decide what practices are worth keeping and which you can do without. But in their approach to bikes, I think Europeans have it right.

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Paris is for Amblers

Though we figured we’d beat the summer rush by coming to Paris in late May, we didn’t count on the French Open and the Cannes Film Festival and a religious holiday all converging to pack the streets and hotels of Paris. We realized what we were in for a few weeks ago when we struggled to find budget accommodations in Paris proper on the night we arrived. So, we found a decent place in nearby Versailles for a night before things loosened up a bit on Sunday night, when we were able to book two nights in a small place near the Eiffel Tower.

I had wanted to visit the Chateau at Versailles last year, but a strike by government workers limited me to seeing just the gardens, so we were planning to make the half-hour day trip out anyway. But going directly from the airport provided a few unforeseen benefits.

We breezed through security at Charles de Gaulle in Paris without so much as filling out a form, and we caught the RER B (suburban rail) to Saint Michel station in the city. The train was packed and it’s been a bit warm in Paris, so it was a bit of a slog for 45 minutes, but from there, it was easy (and free) to transfer to a much more comfortable RER C that took about 30 minutes to get to the Rive Gauche station in Versailles.

An aside here – the trip from the Paris city center to Versailles costs more than a regular ticket because you cross beyond the borders of the central zone. But our multi-zone ticket (to get from the airport) allowed us to transfer freely to the Versailles-bound train, saving us €8 or 9.

Also, because our plane arrived around noon, we arrived in Versailles in time to eat a late lunch, then visit the Chateau. Even on a Saturday, by late afternoon, the crowds had mostly moved onto the gardens, and I took about 2 hours (plenty of time for me) to wander through the castle with the provided, detailed audio guide. Anne-Claire has visited the palace in the past, so she opted for just a garden pass (complete with a student discount) and soaked up the sun tooling around the magnificent fountains. The chance to walk, especially in the sun, was a nice antidote to jet lag, allowing us to stay up until about 11 p.m. enjoying Versailles – in my opinion, an underrated and beautiful town. Though it’s not loaded with sights (except for the palace of course), you can imagine cottage industries springing up in the old buildings around the Chateau to support the thousands of courtiers and their entourages who came to live here during Louis the XIV’s reign and afterward. Without a specific place to see in a specific amount of time, we might have been tempted to let our heavy eyelids rest after arriving.

As it was, I waited for Anne-Claire outside the gates of the gardens around closing time. An Argentinian couple asked me to snap a photo of them in the courtyard. When told them I’d heard good things about their country, they told me first that they had the best “beefsteak” and only later that, yes, Argentina is a beautiful country.

The next morning, we decided to go back to the gardens and take in Les Grandes Eaux Musicales, during which the Chateau’s fountains dance to classical music throughout the day. Like many things in France, from a penchant for odd wardrobe combinations to the design of the Eiffel Tower, what might have been kitschy in American hands turned out to be a well executed sensory experience. I’ll let you be the judge:

In the afternoon, we met Anne-Claire’s friend Sophie at her apartment and had lunch with her parents. Quintessentially Parisian, her apartment is small but maximizes every inch of space and has a view we tourists pay hundreds of euros a night to have from our windows. It was a lovely afternoon, though I think the combination of wine, trying to keep pace with the French conversation, and a body clock that woke me up at 3:30 that morning caught up with me: my head snapped down a few times as I dozed mid-sentence on Sophie’s couch.

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What better for drowsiness than another walk, so we hit the streets from the residential 14th arrondisment and walked past the Eiffel Tower and along the Seine to the Latin Quarter. We spent much of the rest of our time in Paris just wandering winding alley ways and enjoying the world-class views around nearly every corner. As we were staying in a little place close to Paris’s most iconic landmark, we took the opportunity to head there at night. The Eiffel Tower turns the surrounding area – even the steps of the Esplanade du Trocodero across the Seine – into a nightly carnival, as people gather to watch the light show.

Not a bad town for a few city strolls.

Last Night in Paris

I’ve been putting off writing this last blog about our trip, partly because it seems a little unfair to reflect on what was a lovely end to our summer travels given the recent news about Ramatou, and partly because I’m hesitant to give up this last tangible link with being on the road. But here goes…

We left Cahors early the morning of the August 17th, taking “forced luxury” (as Rick Steves calls it) in the form of first-class seats to Paris. Because of some strange promotion SNCF had going on for the summer, these tickets were considerably cheaper than 2nd class tickets on this particular day and route. Otherwise, I’d never advise springing for the upgrade. It’s kind of like flying first class domestic in the States – the seats are only marginally wider, the bump in service from paltry to disingenuously attentive doesn’t justify the premium, and the people you’re surrounded with are bound to be road-weary frequent fliers and stuffy bluebloods rather than the more interesting rucksackers you’re apt to find in coach.

Hopping on the Paris Metro after getting in early at Gare d’Austerlitz, we unwittingly took the scenic route to our hotel by getting off at the Invalides stop. We’d stayed at the Hotel du Champ de Mars when we had passed through in June and so were quite confident we knew the way. Finding the hotel on foot didn’t give us any trouble, but hoofing it for more than a kilometer under the weight of our port- and cured-meat-laden packs turned out to be unnecessary.

Anne-Claire’s friend Julie from Marseilles met us that afternoon for dinner. “You’re joking, right?” she said, when I told her, yeah, the hotel was nice, but wasn’t well located for catching the Metro. “It’s just right around the corner.”

A lot of times people will say something’s right around the corner, when in fact something’s considerably farther away. Even with Julie’s excellent colloquial English, I didn’t believe her…until we walked right around the corner to the École Militaire station.

We have few excuses for this flub up. It wasn’t a language barrier or a lack of travel experience. It was just the arrogance to think that we didn’t need to check the map of a Metro system we both thought we knew well, or to not ask the hotel clerk the best way to get around, or to not just simply be a bit more aware as we were walking around. Oh well, I suppose there are worse places to take a long stroll through than the 7th arrondissement around the Eiffel Tower.

We met Sophie at her office to pick up a few of our things she’d been kind enough to hold for us while we’d traveled through Spain, Morocco and West Africa. Strangely enough, the very next morning Sophie and her boyfriend flew to California for vacation, and they’d end up staying with us in Pacific Grove not a week later.

After a quick “see you soon” to Sophie, we set out in search of a drink. Paris has automated kiosks all over the city crammed full of bicycles for rent. It’s not a terribly new system, but it’s light years ahead of similar programs that have taken off at places like Washington, D.C., and New York in the past year or so. As long as you’re a member (which Julie is), you swipe your credit card, pop the bike of the rack and start pedaling the big city. There are rules about how much you’re charged for the duration of the rental. The system’s optimized for short trips, like the one we were taking to get from the business-y 8th arrondissement back to our hotel, which ended up costing us about a euro each.

Biking through some of the busiest parts of the city was a whirlwind adventure. Yes, there are bike lanes (which you often have to share with buses), and in my two very short pedal-powered trips in Europe, I do think drivers are generally more aware of cyclists. However, I haven’t quite figured out how that dovetails with Europeans’ hell-bent need to get to where they’re going as fast as possible. Relaxed – bordering on lackadaisical in certain situations – Europeans, and the French in particular, never seem in a hurry when not confined in the cabin of a vehicle. But stick them behind the wheel of an automobile, and no amount of swerving, hedging traffic lights and breaking the occasional traffic code is too much if it shortens the journey. Maybe they’re just jonesing to get back to all that good living. Perhaps that’s another vestige of their culture they’ve left behind in West Africa.

Regardless, just because I had the impression that I’d been noticed (often not the case here in the States) didn’t mean I felt safe. We barreled through oceanic intersections with starfish-like (the sunflower type, not the classic 5-legged variety) patterns of streets coming in from all directions, only to come up on Place de la Concorde. The mammoth, oval-shaped roundabout swallows streams of cars, all eager to reach another of the oval’s access points (again, as quickly as possible) and get on their way. Unfortunately, none of the drivers seemed to have seen this oh-so-helpful video from my hometown on how to properly and safely navigate this traffic feature. The half-hearted attempts at lane lines appeared to be mere suggestions, and the traffic lights, presumably protecting gawking tourists brave enough to cross a dozen lanes of traffic, seemed to be more starting gates than safety devices.

Taking the second turn onto the Champs Elysées, we somehow ended up in the middle riding along the center divider. After a hair-raising left turn on a just-turned-red light toward the Seine – and a brief *chat* with a few police officers who mistook Anne-Claire and Julie for monolingual tourists but were quickly assuaged with a little eyelash batting – we crossed the Pont Alexandre III and were soon clicking our bikes back into the rack just off Rue Cler before having (at least for me) a much-needed drink.

The end of any journey is always a bit sad.

Staying true to form, Julie, Anne-Claire and I headed for a known entity, reprising the meals we’d had in June at Vins et Terroir in the Latin Quarter. Some of Julie’s friends met us for the evening, and mercifully, one couple had traveled and worked quite a bit in Australia (where they met Julie), so they spoke excellent English. Apart from not having the steak tartare we’d enjoyed so much in June and that Anne-Claire had been dreaming of on our long hikes and bush taxi rides through Africa, dinner was superb and the conversation excellent.

We held down the table for more than three hours, unfortunately outlasting the gelato shop down the street that locks its doors at 11 pm. Julie and her friends were bent on making a night of it, inviting us to have a drink somewhere else, but we opted to stroll Paris’s streets one more time before leaving the continent the next morning.

Like so many visitors, the pull of Notre Dame is a force too strong to shake when we’re the grand cathedral’s neighborhood, so for perhaps the fourth time in as many days in Paris (including June), we crossed the Seine and set off toward the twin Gothic towers. Of course, the square out front was packed, on this evening gathered around a fire dancer. Transfixed by the light show, it occurred to me that, five hundred years ago, a crowd might have enjoyed a strikingly similar show in Renaissance-tinged Paris, or that in another five hundred years, a similar scene would perhaps unfold right where we stood.

The Paris Opera House

We wandered back up the Seine toward those icons of Paris, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. Through the Tuileries Garden, across Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Elysées we walked, until finally, exhausted, we caught a quick Metro ride back to our hotel. And this time we didn’t take the scenic route.

Thanks so much for joining us on our summer trip. It’s been great to hear from everyone who’s been reading. Keep an eye out for weekly updates, as I’ve got a few stories I hope to go into more depth on. I have a few ideas beyond just a summer jaunt to keep this blog going, so I hope you’ll continue to read and let me know what you think.

Sounds from Paris

At immigration in Frankfurt, when we told the officer we were going to Paris, he asked, ‘You are going to the town auf lof?’

He had to repeat it a few times for us to understand that he was saying ‘town of love,’ but once we got it, it became a recurring joke throughout our visit to Paris.

A lot of writers have captured the visual beauty of Paris, so I won’t spend much time ham-handedly trying to put my own stamp on a city that defies hyperbole. We spent four days walking the city – stopped at the Louvre, climbed l’Arc de Triomphe, trekked the gardens at Versailles, and found a perfect restaurant called Vins et Terroirs in the Latin Quarter (I didn’t think the taste and appearance of French cooking could be that fantastic – I was dead wrong.)

In the presence of so much grandiosity to the point of being overwhelmed, I started looking for more subtle ways to experience the city. I made a few recordings to share what we’ve been listening to (sorry for the quality).

On the way to the Louvre, we got caught in a rainstorm, so we ducked under the bridge to the Tuileries Garden and had an impromptu concert from a street musician.

Later that day, a puppeteer hopped into our metro car and gave us a little show.

One of my favorite sites in Paris is Notre Dame, so I recorded the bells at around 7 one evening.

In a metro station, this string group was playing as we waited for the train.

Finally, as we were heading to the train station on Tuesday to leave Paris, it was the ‘Fete de la Musique,’ a nationwide celebration of music, and this band was playing.

Again, I’m sorry for the quality and let me know via email or comments if you can’t listen to them for some reason.