A Movable Seat
Paris drivers aren't nearly as aggressive as people imagine," Michel Nok assures me. "Just be clear with your signals in traffic and you'll be fine."
Prepared as I am, to embark on one of Michel's award-winning bicycle tours of Paris, I can only take him for his word. Especially since I've opted for one which tests the limits of driver/biker interaction: Paris by night. I try to bear in mind that Michel has been running these tours for five years, and hasn't lost a client yet. On the other hand, he was once a race-car driver, and the Place de la Concorde at rush hour probably seems pretty tame to him.
Michel designs the tours, but leaves the leadership to multilingual guides like Christiane Ober. Included in our group are a middle-aged German couple and a Parisian man in his fifties who admits he doesn't know the city as well as he should. Christiane chats with us in English, German and French respectively, saving her Spanish, Italian and Dutch for shouts at errant cab driverswhen necessary.
After being fitted with bikes and getting comfy on them, we set off behind our guide like a line of wobbling ducklings, weaving through cobbled back streets. "There is not too much traffic in the evenings," says Christiane. "Everyone in Paris is eating or drinking."
At the Places des Vosges, our first stop, people are in the park enjoying the lingering heat of the early evening. Children play around the fountains and under the trees. Parents watch them nonchalantly. Old folk sit in benches, chatting quietly.
"This square is typical from the French Renaissance," says Christiane. "A lot of famous people lived here, like Cardinal Richlieu and Madame de Sevigny. Later in the 19th century there was Victor Hugo. His house is on the corner over there."
Our next stop was the Pompidou Centre, reached circuitously through more back streets. En route I am astonished by how polite the car drivers are, although Christiane's short skirt and long legs might have had something to do with it. Even behind the wheel of a cab, a Frenchman is a Frenchman. We pause at the Place Igor Stravinsky, in front of Pompidou, which features the Firebird Fountain, a spectacularly Gothic water display, with fountains sculpted as swirling snakes, skeletons and Stravinsky's Firebird.
"The fountains are a good foretaste of what you see inside," says Christiane. "The Pompidou Centre is one of the most visited contemporary museums in the world. It's not only for sculpture and painting, but music, theatre and cinema. There is a famous library which stays open until ten o'clock, allowing people who work to continue their studies."
Our evening bike ride concentrates on popular tourist destinations in Paris, though most of the day tours offer more unusual tours of the city: In fact one is called that, Unusual Paris, and it visits the 13th and 14th districts, which abound with artists workshops and beautiful houses.
What was unusual for me on our ride was being able to whizz through Paris at night on a bike, and not fear for my life. Down narrow back alleys cars would patiently wait, driving slowly behind us rather than pushing to overtake. On the few main roads we needed to cross, drivers would often wave us through.
Christiane was a dedicated bikeophile. "I think it is very important to get out on the bikes in Paris, because here we have too many cars," she says. "Cars are not friendly, you are shut away inside them and you don't see drivers as other people, only as other cars. On the bikes it is not like that. You can stop to see things, you can wave to people, they can see you smile. It is much better, I think."
There is plenty of smiling and waving, and plenty of learning too—about Paris past and present. From the Pompidou Centre to Les Halles, the hidden Royal Gardens, then on to the Louvre and Notre Dame.
Of course Paris wouldn't be Paris without a love story, and before the end of our trip I learn the romantic history of Paris bike tours. Michel Nok was originally guiding cycle tours in Mallorca, where he lived for six years, but one fateful day he met beautiful a Parisian woman, who he followed to Paris and then married. Falling for her, he also fell in love with the city, and realized that the best way to get to know it was on his bicycle. No doubt people thought he was mad, dreaming of Paris by bike, but a prize from the National Tourism Federation in 1994 seemed to justify his efforts.
I was certainly impressed. Three hours and one ice cream later, I felt much more comfortable with the city and its nightlife. And next time? Why, Paris by Dawn, of course.
If You Go. . .
Paris `Vilo c'est Sympa! is at 41 Boulevard Henri IV, 75004 Paris, France. Tel: (00 33 1) 48 87 60 01, fax: (00 33 1) 48 87 61 01. Nearest Metro: Bastille. Take the Blvd Henri IV exit. Trips must be booked in advance and cost 170FF for a half day trip (150FF if under 25) and 190FF for Paris by Night (170FF if under 25). Trips last about three hours and are designed for gentle cycling with stops every ten minutes or so. Half-day options include Heart of Paris, Paris Contrast (19th and 20th districts), Unusual Paris (13th and 14th districts), Paris Modern Style (16th district), Paris Village (Montmartre) and Paris at Dawn. All trips include multilingual guide, bike and insurance. Bike hire is also available.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication