If I could have one thing that I do not already have – and that isn’t much – I would want an invisibility cloak. Then, I could go around taking photos without being detected. I so badly wanted to photograph the Paris fashionistas who step, stroll, strut, totter, and sometimes stumble about in their amazing shoes. If I had my Harry Potter cloak, I would lurk near a Metro station, and then photograph them as they emerge and carefully make their way up the street. No way could these people be doing the kind of walking in Paris that Mark and I did. My feet and legs were killing me, even in my normal shoes. I saw women older than I (well, to me they looked older) walking gracefully on the uneven sidewalks in high heels, wearing short skirts or skinny jeans. I am in awe.
Instead of walking or taking the Metro, some Parisians take advantage of Velib, the bicycle sharing system. I saw people pedaling around town, and decided to give it a try. Being an independent soul, often too doggedly independent for my own good, I chose to avoid the guided bicycle tour and strike out on my own. How hard could it be? The website said there were stations every 300 meters. It sounded so easy.
There’s no booking. Just turn up and go! Go to terminal at a Vélib’ station. Follow on-screen instructions. Select a bike and enter bike number. Wait for the green light and signal and take your bike. The first 30 minutes of each trip are always free of charge. NEW: today, you can buy a ticket online; it’s easy, quick and secure!
Viola! I bought the one-day pass online which cost a mere 1.7 euros, and allowed me to use a number to get a bike without having to swipe my credit card each time. I could ride for 24 hours, and as long as I switched bikes every 30 minutes, that’s all I would pay. I struck out from my hotel to find a station, thereby making my first mistake, which was not going to the closest station, near my hotel.
My second mistake was assuming that, once I found the bike station, I would understand the directions. Instead, I found that the only part that is not in French is the line on the screen which asks you if you would like instructions in English. Unable to understand how to get a bike to release, I decided to call the Velib telephone number, which was an international call on my mobile phone. After three or four tries, with a phone call each time to the same guy who, although very nice, was difficult to communicate with, I finally got one of the bikes, which are heavy, “state of the art” monsters. By this time I was sweaty and frustrated, knowing that I had just spent $50 worth of minutes on my phone.
The phone calls were my third mistake, but now I was heavily invested and unwilling to give up. I had 30 minutes in which to find another station and switch bikes, and I now realized that I had made a fourth, critical mistake. Choosing to avoid the crowds on Champs de Elysees, I was in a part of the city I had not already explored.
Within three blocks I was in the middle of a busy roundabout, unsure of which way to go, with cars, buses, taxis and pedestrians everywhere, and no bike station in sight. The minutes were ticking by – it’s amazing how quickly you can burn up 30 minutes – and I decided to just head back to my original station. After all, if it was that hard to get the bike out, wouldn’t it also be hard to return it?
Turning around and backtracking was not as easy as it sounds. The streets of Paris are like the facets of a diamond, intricately connected. You are never far from where you want to be, but you cannot see it through the prism of the other streets. I was waiting for a red light, and a courier pulled up next to me on a motorbike. He smiled and said something in French, ending with a word that sounded like “trouble.”
“I speak English,” I said grumpily, which was my standard line when someone approached me. Inwardly I was thinking, “Yeah, you’re right, this is more trouble than it’s worth.” As he pulled away a moment later, it occurred to me that he actually said was “tres belle.” He was flirting with me!
I never did find the original station, so I turned toward the Arch de Triomphe and Hotel Elysees Bassano, knowing there was a station somewhere nearby, which I should have used in the first place. As a beautiful bridal couple posed for photos nearby, I jammed the bike into one of the empty posts, hot, sweaty, and praying for the green light to indicate the bike had been accepted. I went back to the hotel to reward myself with a glass of chardonnay, and to regroup.
That afternoon I walked to the Musee d’Orsay. Passing the bicycle stations, I was sorely tempted to give them another try, but I resisted. Instead, I made a mental note of the location of two stations, and on the walk back to my hotel later I had a carefully planned, successful ride. I just had to prove to myself that I could do it.
Were I to do the Velib again, I would obviously do several things differently. But the truth is that, much as I hate to say it, as a tourist, I would not recommend the bike sharing. The main reason is that it wasn’t fun. There was too much traffic, too many intersections, the streets are bumpy, and there were people everywhere who came to a dead stop in front of me – taking photos, or talking, or texting on their mobiles, or lost like me.
My experience was that you just cannot ride for pleasure and sightseeing in Paris. And, stations every 300 meters? Excuse moi. Not where I was riding. You have to know where they are hidden.
The bikes look like they work well for Parisian locals who use them to ride between a Metro station and their place of work, or home. And I suppose they are fine for guided tours as well, although from what I saw it looked like the tours encounter a lot of people who are likely to step in front of them at any moment.
The next morning, prior to Mark’s arrival, I decided to finally activate my Metro ticket. It would have saved me a lot of steps, and a lot of leg pain, to have taken advantage of it sooner. But there were a couple of reasons why I didn’t. First, I was not destination-oriented; I wanted to walk so I could see all the sights.
Second, I didn’t want to spend my first days in Paris figuring out the metro. Sure enough, I went the wrong way on my first ride, which I quickly realized, no harm done. If I had spent more time in Paris I would have used the Metro much more, but it was crowded and I preferred walking, despite the pain and the rain.
Mark and I were moving out of the luxury Sofitel Paris le Faubourgh and into a small hotel for the last two nights. We decided to take the Metro, but had trouble agreeing on which line and which station. Instead of going to the convenient Concorde station near the Sofitel and transferring, which was my now-expert opinion of what we should do - I knew exactly where it was - Mark wanted to walk several blocks to another station in the rain, dragging our luggage, so that we wouldn’t have to transfer.
The station he wanted to go to was a large two-in-one, and I felt that it would be even more confusing, once we even found it. Just between you and me, I think he was punishing me for bringing what was, in his opinion, too large a bag.
I gave in, partly because I could use my new umbrella that says “Paris,” with has a picture of the Eiffel Tower on it. Also, because it was noon and we could stop for lunch in one of the little bistros.
Lunch was lovely, and after that I was in a much better mood. For the record, the large, rambling underground station was confusing, we asked for directions twice, and I still think it would have been easier to just get on at Concorde and transfer. But it wouldn’t have been as much fun.
When we emerged from the underground station – and by the way, not all of them have lifts, so we had to haul our bags up a lot of steps – we walked half way around the roundabout before realizing that our hotel was hidden in plain sight. The Hotel du Prony has the tiniest elevator ever; it can only fit one person with luggage, or two without, but we enjoyed our stay there. Five-star hotels are fine, but we liked the intimacy of chatting with the staff about culture and politics.
We were in the Batignolles, a fashionable residential neighborhood just north of the Arc de Triomphe where Edouard Manet and his friends once made paintings of café life. It would have been the site of the Olympic Village, if Paris had hosted the 2012 Olympics instead of London. This relatively un-touristy area was the perfect place for us to unwind and do some low-key exploring, stopping in cafes and admiring the rose gardens.
There were two things I wanted to do in Paris with Mark. The first was to go to Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris, site of the Sacred Heart basilica, and a favorite haunt of artists including Dali, Modigliani, Picasso, Mondrian, and the Impressionists.
We started our walk to Montmartre by once again going in the wrong direction, not realizing it until we hit the ring road. This led to the kind of silent bickering that married people do, mentally tallying up reasons to blame the other person. Finally, we had to just blame the sun, for hiding behind the clouds and not telling us that we were going west, not east.
Once we got going in the right direction, it was so obvious. The buildings were getting older and more quaint, not taller, squarer and newer. And we were going uphill. Soon we were crossing a bridge over the Montmartre Cemetery, the final resting place of many famous artists, scientists, musicians, performers, and writers. We would have liked to wander through, but instead continued on.
There is a gondola ride on the south side from the bottom of the hill to the top, but we were approaching from the west so we walked all the way up, rounding a corner into the Place du Terte, a charming, albeit touristy spot where starving artists including Picasso and other modernist painters lived at the beginning of the 20th century. Today, artists set up in tiny spaces to paint, sell paintings, and draw portraits.
The magnificent Basilica of the Sacré Cœur, or Sacred Heart, sits atop the hill, and we caught glimpses of its graceful domes around every corner.
It was worth lingering outside on the steps, soaking up the sun, crowd-watching, and enjoying the fine, if somewhat hazy, view of Paris spreading out below. We entered the church just as mass was finishing, and as we were leaving a group of nuns entered, took seats behind the altar, and were lifting their voices in song.
I was also hunting for a glimpse of one of the last two windmills that once ground grain, plaster, and grapes. We walked up and down some side streets and just as I was getting ready to give up we saw it, poking up through the buildings and trees.
Mission accomplished, we walked downhill and through the red light district, past the Moulin Rouge (I might have to finally watch that movie) and then south toward the river.
I had saved the boat ticket that came with my Paris Passport package so that we could do the bateaux ride on the Seine together. That was the other must-do with Mark.The bateaux route goes east upriver, passing the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, and Notre Dame Cathedral, around Ile de la Cite and Ile de Ste. Louis, the two islands upon which Paris was founded, then back downriver past the docks, turning around again past the Eiffel Tower before heading back upriver to the landing. We crossed under bridges at least 30 times.
I realized when we boarded that it was a very special Friday – the last day of school for the local children. A large group, with their exhausted looking teachers, was on the boat with us. The kids were dashing all around, and yelling and waving each time we crossed under a bridge. All along the route, people stopped to wave and cheer, which I think is probably a normal thing, every day.
And why not? Gliding along on the Seine, only seems appropriate to be celebrating just being in Paris.
Merci beau coups for reading!