I’ve always loved Paris but somehow never known it. I have been there more times than I can remember, both as a tourist and working. But going there for business or a city break – it feels like surfing a city, when you really want to dive in.
I didn’t want to go to Michelin starred restaurants, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower or anywhere on the Île de la Cité. I’d done that and that was no more Paris than The Ivy, Tate Modern and Buckingham Palace are London. Any big city is the sum of its parts, the districts where the denizens eat, drink and sleep.
How best to explore the Paris Arrondissements? The same way that I get about London, I thought – on my Brompton folding bicycle.
I booked 4 nights in a travel hotel in Montreuil, just outside the 20th Arrondissement and half an hour’s pedaling from the centre. I made no plans and took no maps. This trip was to be pure serendipity apart from my handheld GPS with the hotel location waypointed.
The morning after my arrival, I unfolded my bike and hit the road. I gauged the direction of central Paris by cycling into the Parc Jean Moulin near my hotel. From there, I could see the Eiffel Tower so I headed in that direction.
It brought me to the huge roundabout of Place de la Nation. I hung back and waited before entering the Place.
A young woman on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle wearing a long floral dress, Louis Vuitton handbag placed stylishly in the basket, swept past me and seamlessly entered the roundabout. I tucked in behind her.
Can you be accused of stalking someone on a bicycle? I hoped not. Her way round this intimidating roundabout was illuminating. Signal where you are going. Without nervousness or hesitation, go there. It works, even traversing the notorious Place Charles de Gaulle which I did for the cycling experience, rather than any wish to see it again.
For the next 3 days I rode where the whim took me, from one side of the city to the other. From the canals of the 19th to Paris’s Kensington, the 16th. From ‘un sandwiche et une biere’. in a pavement cafe near the Sorbonne to dinner in a restaurant on the Avenue Parmentier.
I rode about 30 miles each day from 9am to 6pm, returning to the hotel for a rest and shower before going out to eat in the evening. I ate when I found somewhere I fancied eating. I drank in back streets in the 20th. When I’d had enough, the GPS pointed to my hotel.
There is a line in a Joni Mitchell song where her character says ‘I was a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive’. She is spot on.
Advice is that the secret of a enjoyable holiday is careful planning and attention to detail . I propose an alternative. No planning and no detail. Not even a map.
But don’t forget your bicycle.