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Bicyclists rode up a narrow street in Paris, where pedestrians, bikes, cars, buses, mopeds and motorcycles all respectfully negotiate the slowed-down etiquette of the shared road.

Dennis Gaffney • Washington Post,

Tourists on A Bike About Tour stopped at Place des Vosges in Paris. Bike paths cover the city, which also has 1,800 bike rental stations.

Dennis Gaffney • Washington Post,

A rolling tour of Paris, by bike

  • Article by: Dennis Gaffney
  • Washington Post
  • March 1, 2014 - 4:16 PM

Some tourists walk Paris, some sit at cafes, others zip around the metro to Eiffel-esque destinations. But I dreamed of seeing Paris from a bicycle.

Besides, my wife, our teenage daughter and I had spent five full days together, and there comes a time in every family vacation when one needs — how do I say this? — an intermission.

The ladies went shopping. I discovered Bike About Tours.

My 10 a.m. tour ­— including two American families, an Australian couple and an Argentine woman led by Fox McInerney, our Australian guide — began in an underground garage below the Hotel de Ville, Paris’ city hall. We rose from the subterranean garage into a crisp summer morning, and over the next four hours, we covered more terrain than most walkers can manage in a long day, wheeling through the Marais and Left Bank neighborhoods and past such famous sites as the Louvre, the Palais de Justice and Notre Dame.

This is no strolling tour; it’s a rolling tour.

I had worried that biking through downtown Paris would be a death-defying pleasure, but it’s quickly apparent that this is one of the friendliest bicycling cities I’ve ever pedaled. First, no hills. Instead of feeling like an intruder on car-dominated streets, I felt like an equal to pedestrians, cars, taxis, buses, mopeds and motorcycles, all respectfully negotiating the slowed-down etiquette of the shared road.

There are bike paths everywhere in Paris — on bridges, on grand boulevards and on one-way streets, laid down on a variety of bikable surfaces built over the last half-millennium: crushed stone, macadam, cobblestone and cement. They’re even painted on sidewalks.

“Since they introduced the city bikes, they’ve added a lot of bike lanes,” Fox said. He was referring to a public bike rental system akin to Nice Ride Minnesota called Vélib’, a word created by combining vélo, or bike, and liberté, to mean “bike freedom.” Introduced in Paris in 2007, Vélib’ now includes 20,000 rental bikes available at 1,800 stations. The city plans to have 430 miles of bike lanes to accommodate bicyclists like us ready this year.

On a bridge to the Latin Quarter, we stopped to spot some famous buildings, including the Montparnasse Tower, Paris’ second-tallest building (after the renovated Tour First). Parisians found the massive 1970s skyscraper so ugly that they quickly passed a ban on buildings more than seven stories high in much of the city, and I’m glad that they have. I’m convinced that Paris’ “City of Light” sobriquet doesn’t refer to the role Paris played in the Enlightenment, but to all the sunlight that can reach almost any Parisian street. In the same direction, we saw the Pantheon, built by Louis XV, honoring St. Genevieve, and the resting place of such French VIPs as Voltaire, Rousseau, Descartes, Marie Curie, etc., etc., etc.

Spotting art on the fly

Yes, it’s all interesting, but after five days in France, I was already up to my globes ocu­laires in French history, and I was happy that we didn’t enter any historic buildings, graveyards or churches.

Absent, too, were stops inside art museums or galleries. Instead, we were asked to spot the small mosaic works by the anonymous street artist Space Invader, who took his name from the video game that inspired about a thousand pieces that he’s plastered on Paris buildings over the past 20 years.

“It’s illegal, but nobody takes them down because they add value,” Fox noted. We located a handful of them, but I was far more impressed by all the anonymous craftsmen — metalworkers, stonecarvers and architects — who have made so many Parisian buildings such artistic treats.

At noon, we got off our bikes for the first time, walking down the alleyway that is Cour du Commerce Saint-André to see the restaurant Le Procope, which opened in 1686, making it one of the first to introduce coffee from the Muslim world to Europe. Robespierre, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin drank their java here, and I would have liked to raise a cup of coffee to these revolutionaries. But the tour didn’t stop for coffee. Instead, we stopped for lunch on Rue de Buci. Without my wife, who speaks French, and my daughter, who is learning it, I attempted a few words from my phrase book.

Just ask for le sandwich

“Je voudrais le sandwich,” I said, as I’d learned that whatever the French stuff into a baguette is good. I ate my sandwich, and then I uttered what must be the most beautiful rhyme in the French language: “Crême brûlée, s’il vous plait.” It was the first time that I had cracked a crust of this culinary gold on a sunny Parisian street while leaning against a bicycle, and I hope that it won’t be the last.

Soon, we were at the ­Louvre, and instead of yapping about art or architecture, Fox suggested that we take a few loop-de-loops around I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in the courtyard. I so lost myself in this aimless diversion that I also lost the group.

Fox fetched me, and next we rode through the elegant Marais neighborhood, past the Pompidou Center and Victor Hugo’s house. By then, I had grown convinced that bikes are the perfect sightseeing transport: They move fast enough to go far, slow enough to allow you to see the scenery, and they’re always easy to stop and park.

We pulled up next at the Place des Vosges, a square surrounded by expensive homes built for the nobility, and apparently their descendants still reside here: Fox told us that one five-story home recently sold for 32 million euros — nearly $45 million.

Less expensive is the water that bubbles for free nearby, at a beautiful cast-iron fountain financed by Richard Wallace, a 19th-century English philanthropist who wanted to provide water to Paris’ poor after aqueducts were destroyed during the Paris Commune in 1875. Tin cups were once chained to the statues; now bicyclists use these fountains to fill their water bottles.

“It’s a great place to get your drinking water,” deadpanned Fox. “It comes directly from the Seine.”

One of our last tour stops was on the banks of that river, at La Tour d’Argent, one of the most prestigious eateries in Europe, which Pixar used as inspiration for its animated film “Ratatouille.” Fox estimated that a full dinner for two can cost $1,000, although ordering its signature canard à la presse (pressed boneless duck) gets your name on a list of others who have eaten it, including Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. The restaurant also has floor-to-ceiling windows that provide a gorgeous view of Notre Dame.

For next to nothing, I have the same view from a bike, my Parisian version of liberté.

© 2014 Star Tribune