On a (pre-lockdown) visit to Paris, one of Europe’s premier cycling cities

Background

Admittedly, a travelogue about a few days in a European capital may seem somewhat untimely given current circumstances, but I have photos to share, an urge to write and it’s vaguely escapist. Plus there’s a little pandemic-related epilogue if you absolutely insist on a virusey slant.

To set the scene: I hadn’t flown (or indeed been out of the country) since a visit to Oslo in autumn 2018, I’d had a difficult year personally, and I felt battered by the abject state of our once-mediocre nation as the Brexit farce reached its whimpering crescendo. In short, I needed to get away and soak up a little continental cosmopolitanism. Eurostar had a sale on, so off I buggered to Paris for a weekend in early March 2020.

While this takes a little longer than flying, it’s much less stressful and you arrive without clogged, aching ears. I factored in a little extra time between arriving at Euston from Manchester and departing from the St. Pancras Eurostar terminal, so I took the opportunity for a small urban safari in this part of central London. Just a few hundred metres away from the traffic-clogged Euston Road, one happens across an array of quiet, filtered streets, of which peaceful surroundings I took advantage to enjoy my first (and thus far practically the last!) outdoor pint of the year.

Modal filter, London, just yards from the bustling Euston Rd. Amazing what can be done with a little willing.

The Eurostar leg was pleasantly stress-free. I had a double seat to myself and alternated between watching downloaded movies and gazing out of the window at the Kent countryside/tunnelly darkness/northern French landscape.

Arrival

We arrived in Paris with little fanfare. All passport checks had been done in London, so I just wandered out of the station and into the wan sun of this springtime Parisian afternoon. A gentle 2.5km saunter to my hotel in the Bastille district gave me a sense of what makes this city tick: wide cycle lanes, plentiful bike hire docks, extensive use of mopeds for single-occupant trips and a liberal sprinkling of escooters – with concomitant low traffic volumes and pollution levels. Compared to the car-choked rush hour in many UK cities, this was literally a breath of fresh air.

Beautiful allocation of road space for a two-way cycleway, one-way vehicle traffic and one lane for parking/bike-hire dock. And to wit at Friday rush hour.

Bag duly deposited at my hotel, I headed out on foot to explore the district. I wasn’t there to do any conventional sightseeing (I didn’t see that fabled tower once, for example), but instead just to go with the flow of this magnificent city I haven’t visited for 30 years. With the Happy Cow app as my guide to plant-based eateries and Google Maps for recommendations of everything else, I enjoyed just randomly taking the city as it came.

View from my hotel window. Vélib dock and example of a Parisian door-zone cycle lane: the vehicles park facing one way, cyclers ride in the oncoming direction so they never approach an opening door from behind. Clever.

Friday night took me to a rather pleasant fusion restaurant followed by free live music from a samba band at the Punk Paradise venue, all the while marvelling at how the city has laid itself out for bikes: protected lanes on most major arterials, many one-way side streets with cycle contraflows, mass bike parking etc. Posting the following photo on Twitter with the question of which city I’m in, hardly anyone imagined it would be Paris:

Saturday

Saturday continued the theme of randomness: having seen a sign to the Père Lachaise cemetery the previous evening, I wandered along a wide, sunny boulevard in that direction, to gravely read the stones as my hangover subsided.

I then resolved to make sense of the city’s Vélib bike-share scheme. Having miserably failed to negotiate their app, I succeeded in buying a 24-hour, five-trip pass from the console by the docking station. This cost me the entirely reasonable sum of €7, albeit I had to provide a stonking €300 deposit, rendering the scheme less than accessible to many visitors, I expect.

One of Paris’s many Vélib docks. They are sited literally every few hundred yards, and the app will tell you how many bikes (e-assist or standard pedal) are available in your direct proximity. It’s a wonderful system once you figure out how to subscribe.

Having unleashed the freedom of the bicycle in this mighty cycling metropolis, I mounted my Beeline smart compass for navigation and joyously pedalled across the city in search of a spot of lunch. Sadly, my chosen eatery Le Tricycle (come on, cycle-themed vegan restaurant – what more could you ask for?) was shut, so I opted for the nearby Hank Burger instead.

Many footways in Paris are lined with these slim bollards – I suspect to deter pavement parking?

Cue then an afternoon of wandering streets, squares and alleys, patronising cafés and galleries, a cycle across the city to visit the bizarre Deyrolle taxidermy emporium, a stroll along the breached banks of the Seine, and ultimately a pint of local IPA (bloody hipsters) as I contemplated the evening’s entertainment. After a tasty Indian meal served on banana leaves, Google pointed me to a festival of experimental music in the vaults of Les Frigos, which I rounded off with an exhilarating nighttime cycle back to the hotel along the banks of the Seine.

What better end to an evening than a dash through the dark in one of the world’s great cities, wrong turns all part of the experience!

Sunday

Sunday’s weather was colder and greyer. Having giddily used up my five Vélib trips on the Saturday, I spent the morning strolling around the Bastille district, starting with the amazing entirely plant-based VG Pâtisserie for breakfast.

VG Pâtisserie: stunning cruelty-free cakes and pastries.

Google then pointed me in the direction of the immersive L’Atelier des Lumières, a former foundry converted into a multimedia exhibition of art history, which I would definitely recommend if you’re ever in that part of town.

I then gradually wended my way back to the Gare du Nord via the marvellous Tien Hiang veggie Asian restaurant to check in for the Eurostar – and that was my trip to Paris. Indeed, my trip to anywhere for the foreseeable future.

This one arm of this square was bollarded off to provide a permanent play area for local kids. Vehicles can access by any of the remaining three. Another simple yet genius solution to the allocation of space.

In sum I had a wonderful couple of days. This is definitely a city that is moving with the times. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo has been unashamedly tackling congestion and pollution head on since 2014 – and it shows. Paris is a veritable joy to explore on foot, by bike, by scooter, before you go anywhere near public transport. New times need new solutions, and from what I saw Paris has certainly made huge strides towards becoming a true 21st-century city.

A particularly splendid example of a cycle contraflow, which are common on many Parisian side streets.

The virus

In retrospect, it’s astonishing how unprepared many of us were for the virus. At the time of my visit (6-8 March 2020), we were all aware that it was raging e.g. in Italy, but very few precautions were being taken in northern Europe. I saw a couple of official notices on schools advising on hygiene, the odd mask-clad traveller and so on, but there was no inkling that the week after I was there France would go into lockdown, or indeed that the UK would follow shortly thereafter.

As we now prepare to gradually come out of lockdown, cities around the world face the same issue: how do we start to move people around again whilst maintaining social distancing and avoiding a return to carmageddon? Paris is again ahead of the curve, with its already extensive active-travel network and a mayor for instance urging against allowing the city “to be invaded by cars, and by pollution”. The very language she uses! So they’re introducing measures such introducing 650km of cycle lanes to facilitate post-lockdown bike journeys or offering incentives to returnees to cycling – smoothly segueing a healthy recovery from the COVID-19 crisis into the safer, cleaner, greener society we need to tackle the even greater crisis of the climate emergency. In the words of our very own Chris Boardman, “Pick a crisis, and you’ll probably find cycling is a solution.” Paris gets that, on so many levels, and I wholeheartedly urge you to go and see for yourselves when the opportunity next arises.

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