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Destination: France

Geared Up for Paris

A resident's guide to the art and practice of cycling in the city

August 02, 1998|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Dahlburg is chief of The Times' Paris bureau

PARIS — 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.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 9, 1998 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 2 Travel Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Paris biking--Due to a reporting error, the story "Geared Up for Paris" (Aug. 2) incorrectly placed the Musee d'Orsay on the Right Bank of the Seine. It is on the Left Bank.

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.)

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