Paris – On a Bike (multiple times since 1981)

Paris – On a Bike (multiple times since 1981)

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Napoleon, perched nonchalantly on top of the 135-foot column at Place Vendome, appears to be mocking me as I try to balance precariously on a three-foot high bicycle right under his nose. After all, I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in over a quarter of a century — wait, make that half — and am truly nervous at the prospect of trundling through the streets of Paris in this daunting contraption. But that is what we’re about to do, a motley group of visitors eager to experience Paris as a Parisienne would do nowadays! So, instead of hopping on to those roofless, double-decker buses choc-a-bloc with tourists, I choose to take in a worms-eye view from close to the cobbled ground. Olivier, our young guide, gently encourages the timid amongst us and we set off clumsily scattering helter-skelter, indulgent pedestrians and indignant motorists alike.

Paris these days is at pains to reinvent itself as an environmentally responsible tourist destination. The cycle tour, called “Charms and Secrets”, is part of that effort. For €45, you get to see not only the usual tourist spots which are legion in this glamorous city growing even more gorgeous with age, but also those off-beat sites that not even your Lonely Planet knows about. Charms and Secrets is a half-day tour of all the major districts of Paris on a battery-operated bicycle that is as gentle on your knees and calves as it is on the environment.

So off we go, rolling along the busy boulevards, weaving in and out of traffic and into quiet leafy lanes laden with charm and redolent with reminiscences and rich history. Your ride takes you along the Arago Medallions marking the Paris Meridian to hidden away monasteries sporting grand staircases, lovely patios and expansive gardens. As we pedal along well-trodden landmarks like Place de la Concorde, Tuileries, Le Louvre, the Pantheon, Bastille, The Paris Opera and the seductive Quartier Latin, Olivier regales you with interesting history spiced up with anecdotes and little-known scandals of a bygone era. Cafe Procope, discreetly located on Rue de Commerce off Boulevard St. Germain, was founded in 1686. It was here that Benjamin Franklin wrote his famous Declaration of Independence. But the interesting titbit is that this was the first cafe into which women were admitted! Next, we stop at St. Sulpice, yes, the selfsame church made famous by Dan Brown, park our bikes and trace our path along the Rose Line, lingering to admire the stunning Delacroix depictions of biblical scenes. And then Olivier takes us to the grand vaults of bank BNP, which, surprise, surprise, are open to the public although shutterbugs beware. We gawp and drool at all that wealth sitting in lockers behind the exquisitely chiselled, massive circular door, itself a priceless work of art. We loop around the post-modern glass pyramid that offsets the classical grandeur of the Louvre, disperse a crowd in front of the Pantheon by driving our bicycles right through it and roll along without a care!

Plenty of options

For those of us who want to take Paris in shorter spells and in greater comfort, there are options aplenty. You can opt for Cyclobulle which is a sleeker version of our own auto-rickshaw or ride in a “verture”, a hybrid taxi or glide in a batobus down the Seine. The fitter among us can also grab a Velib for shorter rides. The Velib is also a bicycle, but not a battery-operated one. It was introduced last year to offer a clean and cheap alternative mode of transport to distraught Parisians coping with exasperating traffic jams. There are now 1451 Velib Stations all over Paris where you can pick up a bike after swiping your credit card or your metro pass, ride it to your destination and leave it in another Velib station nearby. If you’re a tourist, you have to put in a deposit of €150 to avail this facility, but it is entirely refundable as long as you return the bike to a station. Rides up to half an hour are absolutely free and longer rides cost just one euro for every additional half-hour. If you’re a regular commuter, you can take a Velib to work and on your way back, if the weather turns wet, take the metro back home! I practise my pidgin French on an unsuspecting passerby and find out that the Velibs are hugely popular with local commuters and that there are even 371 km of bike lanes in central Paris! If you’re still diffident about riding a bicycle, battery-operated or not, you could try the walking tour on Thursday evenings and amble along the river and through parks, entertained all the time by knowledgeable locals.

Paris is nothing if it is not avant-garde. Parisians seem to have turned environmentalists now and “bio” is “a la mode”. So you have countless bio eateries serving not just vegetarian, but organic vegan fare which is absolutely delicious. Hotel chains like Novotel, Best Western etc also sport eco labels and claim to have ISO certification for being energy and water efficient. If you’re still unimpressed, there are organic herbal cosmetic stores and haute couture stores that boast “fair trade”, whatever that means.

To see whether the passion for green is just a passing Parisian fad or it has actually made a difference to the environment, you can float up in a balloon over the city. That itself may be no big deal, but what is, is that the balloon changes colour according to the level of pollution in the ambient air! So, if you’re a Parisian, all you need to do is to peep out of your window to see the colour of the balloon and if it is red, retract your head, shut your window and switch on your ioniser!

Growing skywards

Finding the balloon light-coloured, I venture out to enjoy the Paris air. I wander around aimlessly window-gaping at exorbitantly priced clothing in the fashionable Marais district and browse around in the delightful bookstores on the Left Bank near Sorbonne. Eventually I stray into a restaurant for an espresso only to marvel at its luxuriant vertical garden climbing 75 feet skyward. Paris, like most cities in the world, can grow only vertically. But then, if you’re a gardening enthusiast, what do you do? Plenty, as innovative Parisians have shown. You can have a vertical garden for instance, climbing up a wall. I poke around a bit and find that the garden sprouts from a thin layer of moss that covers the entire wall. I wrap up my trip to Paris with a champagne cruise on the Seine which, for now, is still a bunker-fuelled boat, but will soon run on lithium batteries.

Scientists and researchers may argue endlessly about whether climate change is for real and what is causing it, but not Parisians. They have moved on, showing the world how to rescue tourism from the cloud of carbon which is rapidly enveloping it.

(Published in The Hindu on Sep 7, 2008. Earlier publications unavailable)

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