26 Jan 2014

23 Jan 2014

Biking culture in Paris

I spent 3 days in Paris this week for a ‘beat the January blues’ get-away. Although I travelled from London by Eurostar and not by bike, I took great interest this time about the biking culture in France’s capital.

People tend to buy expensive scooters over mid-range motorbikes in Paris, which is quite the opposite of London. A popular mode is the Piaggio MP3 because it can be locked upright when stopped at traffic lights. The French seem to have an appreciation for the effortlessness of a twist-and-go bikes for city riding.

The local authorities in Paris allow bikes to park anywhere for free, as long as they are not blocking cars or pedestrians. The rule is ~2m width for pedestrians to walk past (or on narrow roads, at a minimum, enough space for a wheelchair to get through).

As illustrated in the photo you can see just how popular bikes are in this city. The sensible and realistic parking laws alone encourage more people to get on bikes.

The popularity of bikes shows in other ways also. There is virtually no congestion in Paris, even at peak times. Only a few of the main roads had heavy traffic around 5-7pm but everywhere else had amazingly light traffic for such a large city—except when a bin lorry was blocking the road, for example.

But this brought out another bit of French biking culture—it appears to be socially acceptable for motorbikes to ride in pedestrian areas or on the pavement to get past obstructions on the road, as long as they do so courteously. The authorities seem to turn a blind eye to this and pedestrians were not bothered either.

The French have a certain respect for bikers of all types—more so than many other countries, including the UK. They recognise the benefits to reducing congestion and pollution and society shows its appreciation to bikers by accommodating them in ways from which many other countries could learn.

Once last thing that was interesting to me is that, while the majority of bikes in Paris are scooters, the only others you seem to see in any great numbers are huge bikes such as the Honda Goldwing, BMW R1200RT/GS and K1600GT/L etc. Seems to be one extreme or the other in the spectrum of available models—hardly any midsize bikes.

The shameful disappointment of Sacré-Cœur

I felt cheated out of my opportunity to visit Sacré-Cœur during my visit this week. As I made my way up the stairs from the carousel I was accosted by the infamous ‘string men’.

In brief, string men are con artists who approach unsuspecting passers by, tightly tie a coloured string around their wrist or finger and then demand payment, usually 20€.

Photo credit: Europe for Visitors website

Being the middle of the day on a Wednesday in January (when most of the residents of Paris are in work and few tourists are seen) I was almost the only person in the grounds leading up to Sacré-Cœur other than a group of about 10 of the string men.

One of the men approached me with a beaming smile, asking if I spoke English. I ignored him and kept walking. He became agitated and asked why I was walking away from him but didn’t follow.

One of his counterparts then approached me asking where I was from (in English). I kept walking, hands in my pockets, and within seconds I was surrounded by three of them.

They said their string bracelets were for the church and I had to take (buy) one. I said: ‘Non, merci’ several times, and then explained: ‘Je veux rien de toi’ (I want nothing from you).

At that point one of them aggressively tried to pull my hand out of my pocket. I realise that these are not violent people and therefore my safety was not at risk, but nevertheless I am not a small chap and it’s pretty ballsy to grab me in broad daylight.

I turned to the bloke and scowled: ‘Retire ta main maintenant’ (Remove your hand now).

They all left me alone at this point but I was so put off from the experience I had no further desire to climb the stairs to the church.

I’ve visited Paris perhaps 12 times previously and have never experienced this level of aggression with the scammers/con artists etc. I guess business is slow at this time of year.

I can imagine someone unprepared would feel extremely intimidated and vulnerable in this situation yet the authorities seem to turn a blind eye to this behaviour. What a shameful disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong—Paris is an extremely safe city and one of my favourite big cities to visit but I was really taken aback by what happened and felt it spoiled the experience of Sacré-Cœur on this occasion. I just wanted to take a few photos from the viewpoint at the top after all.

Paris at night

A collection of photos taken 21-23 January with Hipstamatic.

Tour Saint-Jacques, rue de Rivoli

Paroisse Saint Merry, rue de la Verrerie

Centre Georges Pompidou, rue Beaubourg

Centre Georges Pompidou, rue Beaubourg

Vegetables on display, Carrefour Market, rue de Clignancourt

Adonis Fleurs, rue du Faubourg Poissonnière

Le Grand Rex, Boulevard Poissonnière

Billboard for Le Grand Rex, rue Poissonnière

Macaroons and cakes, Boulangerie Kayser, rue des Petits Carreaux

Window display, Reflets de Paris (mannequin shop), rue Réaumur

Rue des Lombards

Stairwell to the toilets, Flam’s (tart flambée restaurant), rue des Lombards