But any self-respecting pedometer would have given up after my first couple of days in Paris; my calves were so tired that the rest of my body would twitch with sympathy at the end of the day. I needed another way to get around, and you miss the whole city when you’re underground on the Métro.
So I spent an hour and a half a few days ago, standing in the hot sun with a line of impatient Europeans behind me, feebly attempting to rent a bike from one of the Vélib kiosks around the city. My Visa card, with its quaint little magnetic stripe, lacked the magical chip that would allow me access to the more desirable features of European banking — and one of Paris’ most desirable city services, this nearly free program that allows anyone to rent a bike from anywhere in the city, ride it around then leave it anywhere else there’s a kiosk.
Fat American tail between my legs, I returned to my hotel and Googled “Paris bike rental,” knowing full well that all those smug Europeans were laughing at my misery as they pedaled away on their matching bicycles. Grr. The city’s biggest rental and touring company, Fat Tire, had sold out every tour until after I left; even begging on the phone and choking back tears that I was SO ALONE AND REALLY JUST WANTED TO GO RIDE AROUND WITH SOME NICE PEOPLE was useless. The search continued. I happened on one company with a fantastic website, Bike About Tours. And within 10 minutes, before I knew what was happening, my blind rage had booked me a guided tour of the city for Monday morning. Well, all right.
Monday morning arrived, and like every other day since I’d arrived, it was sunny, warm and breezy. I headed to meet my group near the Charlemagne statue outside the Notre Dame cathedral, but my keen sense of direction and total inability to read a map led me to the far opposite end of the Ile de la Cité, behind the Palais de Justice. So I arrived just a few minutes before we were scheduled to leave, cramming the last bite of a pain au chocolate into my face (fat American).
Naturally, as I was the only person in Paris not vacationing with the love of my life, I also was the only party of one on the day’s tour. Except for an obnoxious older man whose fiancée had elected to stay behind and do something else in Paris that day. So, in his codependent boredom, he asked inane architectural questions. Like what those round rooms on the corner of that building were called. Or why there were so few buildings made with red brick, like the façade of the Place des Vosges. Wish you’d come along, Dear Fiancée, and kept your husband-to-be’s mouth erstwhile occupied!
Now, our guide. Oh goodness. Let’s ignore, for a moment, the very obvious wedding ring and constant mentions of his wife. Our tour guide, Paul, an ex-pat Aussie who moved to Paris nine years ago to be with the woman he loved — all right, so I can’t ignore it — well, he was hot. And hilarious. And offbeat. And totally rocked the rugged cyclist look. With his shaggy hair and perfect calf muscles and logo T-shirt for this company he and his friend had started three years ago, the one his dad still refuses to acknowledge as a real business. And his mind-boggling combination of perfect French skills and this endlessly endearing Australian accent, and the way he uses the word “discover” to talk about showing us places. And his sick sense of humor, like showing us a sculpture along the Seine that he calls “the Masturbator” and a mermaid fountain near the Centre Pompidou that shoots water from its breasts. Also, he wasn’t French. (I may get to that in another post. Really.)
So we hopped on our fabulous folding bikes — how very European — and began our tour. Which started in the Marais at the Holocaust museum then wound its way through back streets of the fourth arrondissement, including a stop to stare at the Republican Guard’s thoroughbreds in training, at the apartment building where Jim Morrison died in his bathtub (No. 17) and a look at a few “works” by Paris’ most famous graffiti artist, Space Invader. The most subversive mosaics I’ve ever seen, if that’s even possible. He invades spaces…with little tile pictures of ‘80s video game characters. Space Invader: get it?! Yeah. I didn’t either.
From the fourth, we headed to the Bastille and biked across the canal, gazed into the distance at the four glass buildings of the national library, designed to look like open books, then past the Jardin des Plantes and Paris’ largest mosque. Then we crossed the Seine and were in the fifth arrondissement, the Latin Quarter, where were darted through more back streets, peered into “secret courtyards” and saw the city’s oldest restaurant, which I’d never have been able to find on my own.
We stopped for lunch at a beautiful boulangerie and patisserie, Paul, which turned out to be like a French Panera. (Gross.) Tour guide Paul stood at the counter and helped everyone order, then I stepped up like a BADASS and was all, demander-ing mon déjeuner comme une vraie française. Don’t act like you’re not impressed, hot tour guide. There’s still time: Move. Be with me. We need bike tours in Chicago, too. I practically huffed my sandwich — my ham sandwich, my ham and BUTTER sandwich — and snarfed down half a chocolate éclair before we got back on our bikes to finish out the tour.
My favorite part of the tour had to be breaking the law — probably because we were breaking the law — riding our bikes through the entry and all around the pyramids and fountains of the Louvre’s courtyards. During this time, a guy in our group broke the seat off his bike (I don’t even know how you do that) and someone spotted Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek fame walking with his girlfriend. Excitement, ahoy: Celebrities, they’re just like us!
By the end of our four hours together, I was kicking myself for not booking this tour immediately upon my arrival. Though there are a lot of things I’d have done differently on this trip, like researching restaurants more in advance (every meal was a anxiety attack waiting to happen), but Paul was an amazing resource for the sorts of off-the-beaten-path things I would have loved to spend more time seeing. Next time.