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Travel: Paris on a bike reveals hidden secrets

Notre-Dame is visited by 13million people per year Notre-Dame is visited by 13million people per year

Rob Bleaney
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
3:02 PM

In just one day on two wheels you can take in La Louvre’s world-famous art collection, the Musee D’Orsay, the Musee Rodin and reach the Tour Eiffel for sunset

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Hiring a Velib bike is a great way to get around. Picture: Jacques LebarHiring a Velib bike is a great way to get around. Picture: Jacques Lebar

Cruising down the Champs-Elysees on one of Paris’s city bikes may not quite match the glamour of Bradley Wiggins’ ride to victory in the Tour de France – but it certainly beats biking down the Finchley Road.

With the Arc de Triomphe ahead, the Eiffel Tower looming over the River Seine on your left, the magnificent Grand Palais on the right and the beautiful Jardin des Tuileries behind you, this short ride provides a snapshot of what Paris is all about.

No city on Earth has been written about as much as France’s capital, but then where else will you stumble across such incredible beauty around every corner?

Architectural wonders are everywhere, from the gothic masterpiece of Notre-Dame to the elegant shuttered mansions of the Marais.

Castille Paris, a stunning boutique hotel that shares a wall with Coco Chanel’s original AtelierCastille Paris, a stunning boutique hotel that shares a wall with Coco Chanel’s original Atelier

Walking is great, and the Metro is cheap and fast with stops everywhere, but hiring a Velib is the best way to explore. In just one day on two wheels you can take in La Louvre’s world-famous art collection, cross the river to enjoy the impressionists at the Musee D’Orsay, head along the Boulevard des Invalides to see the sculptures in the rose garden at the Musee Rodin and reach the Tour Eiffel for sunset.

Admittedly it can be a struggle to find a place to drop off your bike at times, so some prefer to take their Velibs slightly off piste. The restaurant/bar on the 56th floor of the Montparnasse Tower in south Paris is a great place to watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle after dark, as it does for the first few minutes of every hour. And the Ile Saint-Louis is a quiet haven in the middle of La Seine, where the galleries, bakeries and fromageries offer an inkling of what Paris would have been like in the 17th century.

But Canal Saint-Martin is the city’s best-kept secret. Relatively hidden and ignored by most travel guides, this is the Paris of the Parisians. In the 1950s the canal was almost filled in to create a highway, and not so long ago this former artisan area was so run down many of the city’s inhabitants considered it a no-go area. But these days summer sees locals flocking to the tree-lined avenues either side of the water to picnic and play guitars as barges pass beneath the picturesque iron footbridges.

And in winter Parisian students - more sophisticated and civilised than their hard-drinking British counterparts - fill the dark, cosy establishments where you can still share a plate of cheeses and meats for 10 Euros and you won’t get charged double for drinking at a table rather than standing at the bar.

Canal Saint-Martin is the city’s best-kept secret. Picture: Jacques LebarCanal Saint-Martin is the city’s best-kept secret. Picture: Jacques Lebar

Visit the canal on a Saturday and you can browse the quirky boutiques and check out the farmers market before taking a boat trip through the locks. Sundays are prefect for riding down for brunch, as the area is reserved for cyclists and pedestrians.

Drop in for a beer at one of the happening bars in lively Oberkampf - Paris’s version of Hackney but without the fashion victims - and end the day in cheese heaven at Les Fondus de la Raclette and you will wonder where the stereotype of the moody French waiter ever came from.

A little further north, Montmartre is much more on the tourist trail but has somehow managed to retain its authenticity. The monumental Sacre Coeur, standing proudly at the city’s highest point as a memorial to the French soldiers killed in the Franco-Prussian war, teams with visitors enthralled by its spectacular domes and turrets. But the surrounding streets lined with restaurants and galleries offer the romantic vision of Paris from films such as Amelie. The picturesque Place du Tertre, which has been associated with painters since the 1800s, still throbs with talented street artists, and the glittering Moulin Rouge is just down the hill.

Choosing where to stay in Paris is not easy because almost everywhere in the city is nice. The fact that the poorer areas are out in the suburbs may not promote social mobility, but it does mean that the inner city areas are safe, full of culture and history and interesting to wander. If you can afford it though, chic Faubourg Saint-Honore is pretty spectacular. This is the pulse of Paris design and couture, and mixes incredible shopping with elegant buildings and some of the city’s most popular attractions.

We stayed at the Castille Paris, a stunning boutique hotel which shared a wall with Coco Chanel’s original Atelier and is within easy walking distance of the fashion houses of Hermes, Versace, and Boucheron, the world-famous department stores of Galeries Lafayette and Printemps and the historic Jardin des Tuileries, Louvre and Musee D’Orsay.

After a day’s shopping and sightseeing, this is a wonderfully cosy place to relax. Housed in an aristocratic 18th century residence, the hotel mixes French charm and Italian style to fit seamlessly into its haute couture surroundings. Whether you fancy unwinding with a cappuccino and macaroon in the Salon de The, a glass of Burgundy in the courtyard, or indulging in pink champagne, Venetian calf liver, rabbit ravioli and classic tiramisu at the exquisite L’Assaggio restaurant, the delights are endless.

The hotel has recently received 5* status following a 20m Euro renovation, and our suite had two storeys and two bathrooms, floor to ceiling windows, luxurious modern furniture and the most comfortable bed you could wish for.

The only hardship of the hotel, and indeed the city, is leaving - but travelling by Eurostar makes heading home so much more bearable.

Gard du Nord is just 15 minutes from the city centre by Metro, you only have to check in half an hour before you leave and the train has comfortable headrests so you don’t crick your neck when you nod off.

Less than two and a half hours later you arrive in wonderful King’s Cross; it may not quite be Paris, but it’s an awful lot nicer than waking up in Stansted or Gatwick.

* Where To Stay

Castille Paris (part of the Starhotels Collezione)

Rooms: from £174 per night

Suites: from £799 per night

www.castille.com

+33 (0)1 44 58 44 58

* Getting There

Eurostar

Return to Paris: from £69

www.eurostar.com

* Getting Around

Velib bikes subscription

1 day = 1.70 Euros

7 days = 8 Euros

(first 30 minutes of each journey is free)

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