There is something romantic about the idea of a meeting under the Eiffel Tower. In this case, however, my meeting was with a blond haired Californian named Kyle and there were over a dozen other strangers also meeting him. Kyle was also carrying a large sign saying 'Bike Tour Meeting Point,' which would dispel anyone's final thoughts that this may be some kind of romantic encounter.
Kyle was the tour guide for the morning and after a short walk to the tour office/bike storage area, I was introduced to our mode of transport: Californian beach cruiser style bikes, which our group would ride round the sights of Paris. “The Parisians may honk at us. They may even shout stuff in French. But that just means they're welcoming us to the city,” Kyle joked before the caravan of cruisers pulled out into the streets of the 7th Arrondisment. There are dozens of ways to see the City of Lights: by boat, bus, walking or even by Segway, but seeing the city on two wheels seemed to be the perfect way to get around. Hoping to hire a Velib-Paris' citywide bike rental scheme, for the rest of the weekend, I was keen to get an introduction to cycling in the traffic. A single look at any Parisian intersection gives the impression that the streets are barely even safe for the cars! A cyclist would surely just be an afterthought for many drivers.
The tour took in many of the city's famous sights: the Eiffel Tower (entrance to the 1889 World Fair and home to countless foolish stunts and tricks), the 'bus shelter' Peace Monument, the Military School (from which Napoleon graduated along with countless war heroes), the Dome Church (resting place of Napoleon and one of the best military museums in the world), Pont Alexander III (the most beautiful bridge in Paris) and the Grand and Petit Palace (more remnants of Paris' various World Fairs).
It was as we approached the infamous Place de la Concord that my biking skills were really tested. I looked upon a giant traffic circle, centred around a gold tipped obelisk, with seemingly dozens of roads joining the intersection and hundreds of cars, buses, coaches, trucks, scooters and motorbikes all jostling for position. Expecting to walk this part of the route, I don't think I was alone in my mouth going a little dry when Kyle said, “Take up this whole road. This is one of the worst roundabouts in Paris, but we're just going to take over the place. Wait for the green signal!” No one had time to question this logic as the light turned green and, unwilling to be the one left behind, I eagerly followed Kyle, who was racing into the circle blowing a whistle and ringing his bell. Everyone followed behind, a line of cruisers riding into the Place de la Concorde, ignoring the hundreds of other cars and we rang our bells, which were barely audible over the roar of traffic. It was with some relief that we came to a stop after just a few hundred meters, before we were close to completing even half a lap of the famous intersection. We must have been quite a sight, but one Parisians are surely quite used to by now.
At every stop Kyle explained what we were looking at, summing up the history and major dates with a collection of anecdotes. It was an enjoyable, and at many times amusing, look into French history, architecture, life and culture, focusing more on the gruesome, the funny or the just plain stupid rather than the history book facts that can often be so dry and dull. As we stood at the Place de la Concorde, site of 500 years of history (young by French standards), I listened to Kyle and imagined his notes must have looked something like this: Place Louis XV/Revolution/Concorde/Revolution 1789, blood, gore, horrible. Louis XVI execution: dull blade, lots of pain. Marie Antoinette: More blood. Dude tries to collect blood (and maybe head) as souvenir. Napoleon: more violence, lots of wars, blood and gore.
Paris is full of beautiful gardens and it was in the Tuleries that we took a break for lunch. Just a short walk (we were not allowed to ride out bikes here) from the Place de la Concorde, where we were told stories of gruesome execution and mass violence, and within sight of the great Louvre museum, I tucked in to a French hotdog. It came highly recommended by our guide and came served in a crispy baguette, topped with greyer cheese and strong French mustard. It was far from the cuisine that France is famous for but it was none the less an enjoyable lunch to give me the energy to make it through the remaining half of the tour.
The second half of the ride doubles back to the tour office after passing the Louvre, but takes in a slightly different route enabling me to see as much as Paris as possible in the relatively short four hour tour. Crossing the Seine, I took in the grand vista of Paris including the Musee d'Orsay, the Conciergerie, Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter and Pont Neuf, just visible in the distance.
We passed familiar sights as we continued: Pont Alexander III, Les Invalides and finally the Eiffel Tower. As I gazed upon these ancient monuments, I tried to recall the dates and stories associated with them, wondering upon at the detail and beauty that has remained in tact through so many centuries of war and revolution.
It was only after I had parked the cruiser back at the office that I broke my reverie and realized I spent the return journey barely looking at the other bikers, the intersections or cars that may (or may not) have been about to run me down. Only four hours of practice and I am already acting like a local!
The tour was taken with Fat Tire Bike Tours
Matt Scott has spent the majority of his adult life working and traveling abroad. A keen writer and photographer his work has appeared on line and in print in publications around the world. He currently lives in Paris where he works for an active travel company.