We fell in love with Paris on our first visit in 2004 and we’ve been back many times s. The velibs, or free bicycles, were introduced in 2007. As we’ve been curious about the drab olive cycles, our first summertime visit, just a week before they celebrate their third birthday, seemed like the perfect opportunity to take them for a test ride.
The low point of our experience came late on the second day. We’d squabbled over the route from Chinatown to the Latin Quarter and I’d won. A pyrrhic victory: we went hopelessly off course and found ourselves in an industrial estate with no map. To make matters worse, my bike was giving up the ghost. The seat had sunk down to the lowest possible setting and the air had pretty much escaped from both tyres. I was lost, uncomfortable and hungry – and it was my fault. In normal circumstances any one of those things would destroy my enthusiasm, but such is the charm of the velibs that not even this could dampen my spirits.
We are notoriously bad at planning, so unexpected ‘adventures’ like this are a feature of most of our trips. With that in mind our plan for the holiday was not ambitious: some gentle sightseeing, and plenty of rest and relaxation. On the first morning we leave our accommodation and go to the velib stand on the corner. For €5 each we subscribe for a week, and then we’re good to go.
Our first excursion is to La Butte aux Cailles, a former walled village that became part of Paris in 1860.It’s all winding streets and quaint art nouveau townhouses covered in ivy. On the bikes it’s only a short hop from where we are staying and we’re able to wind in and out of the streets with ease. We visit Place Paul Verlaine to sample the water from an underground spring, deliciously clean and crisp. Locals bring cartons full of empty water bottles to fill up and take home.
It was a searing day, cloudless, with temperatures hitting the mid-thirties, so we stopped for a drink in a bar-cafe on Rue des Cinq Diamants and watched the locals go about their business, before jumping another bike to go to a metro station on the #12 line. We want to go to Montmartre, but neither of us can face that hill in the heat.
The velib system is elegant in its simplicity. To subscribe, you authorise a deposit on your debit or credit card: if you don’t return a bike, you get charged. Once you’ve subscribed, you can take any available bike from any velib stand in Paris. If you return it within 30 minutes, the rental is free. This simple rule ensures people mainly use them for short trips, ensuring the stock – around 20,000 bikes on stands about 300 metres apart – is constantly in use. There’s even an iPhone app to help you find the stands.
By this second trip we are starting to see the downside of the velibs. One bike had almost no brakes. Another had no gears. We soon learn to run a quick check on the bikes before we take them. Late at night it can be hard to find a place to return the bikes: at rush hour it can be hard to find a stand that has any available. That’s how I ended up with a dodgy seat and flat tyres on our adventure: it was rush hour and we’d already been to two stations with no bikes. At the next stand we found three bikes: one was fine, one was cactus and the other one…let’s just say it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Taking and returning the bikes requires a small amount of skill, we discover. Access to the bikes is controlled through a touch-screen computer at each stand. You enter the post number for the bike you want to take, the computer matches it to your subscription, and away you go. However, locals use Navigo cards (similar to London’s Oyster card), which allows them to by-pass the touch-screen, swipe their card against the post and go. If there are only a few bikes on a stand, they can be as ruthless as bargain hunters at a sale. We develop a tag team system: I stand at the machine and book the bikes: he checks the bikes and tells me which post number to enter. Ha ha, victory is ours!
It’s not until you’re on the velibs that you realise how well-used they are by the locals: commuting, shopping and cruising, Parisians may complain about the velibs (mostly that they are ugly) but they’re using them. I don’t recall noticing the profusion of bike lanes on previous trips either. Seasoned cycle commuters in London, the streets of Paris held no fear for us, but it was still a delight to discover a network of dedicated cycle lanes. Admittedly in some spots you need an eagle eye to spot when the lane shifts from the edge of the road to the centre, but you’re well protected from the traffic wherever you go. Many of the cycle lanes are one way, which the Parisians largely ignore, acknowledging their civil disobedience with a smile and a shrug that says ‘we gave up smoking in our cafés, isn’t that enough?’.
Coming down from Montmartre that afternoon, the breeze generated by the motion cooling our skin and lifting our spirits, we feel confident to zip around the familiar streets where we’ve stayed on previous trips, looking for an interesting route south. We stumble across Canal Saint Martin, a picturesque spot with pretty ironwork bridges arcing over canals lined with parks. We stop for an ice-block, returning the bikes and taking a seat by the water. To our right, two guys in casual clothes relax, beer in hand, on an inexplicable blue sofa. It’s after six now, and they’re soon joined by mates knocking off work. We hope for a song from the man tuning his guitar a bit further along. We get one, but it comes from a trio sitting on the foot of the bridge: one plays guitar, one improvises a drum, they all sing. We’re enchanted but the teens to our left, trying hard to be louche, are unmoved.
It’s always more fun to ‘discover’ something for yourself when you’re travelling and that’s the real thrill of the velibs. You can travel around quickly (and carry provisions!) and thus see more and explore more than you can on foot. Yet it’s more intimate and personal than a car – you can see people’s faces, overhear their conversations. On foot we may never have discovered the canals: we never did on our previous trips. Over the next few days we see far more of Paris than on our previous trips: we travel outside the périphérique to Bois du Boulogne in the west for a picnic amongst the trees, and out to Pere Lachaise in the east. We didn’t eat in a restaurant the whole trip, the balmy weather encouraging to forage in the markets and picnic wherever the mood took us. Our free bikes gave us freedom.
Even our ‘adventure’ had an upside. There we were, in the middle of an industrial port, me pedalling furiously in the hope of finding a velib stand before my bike fell apart completely. Abruptly the port gave way to urban regeneration and, like a pie before a starving man, a velib stand miraculously appeared. With relief, I returned my bike and discovered two things: 1) we’d been cycling for over an hour and 2) you can’t take another bike straight away. Buoyed by the knowledge we were back in civilisation, we continued on foot to the next stand, picked up two more bikes (good, solid bikes this time) and followed the Seine to the west.
It seems like it was moments later that we stumbled across the magnificent Bibliothèque Nationale, an astonishing monument to books (even if the basement floods). Even more delightful was the discovery of the vibrant nightlife along Port d’Ivry. Chinese junks, old barges and paddlesteamers moored along the river bank have been converted into floating clubs and bars, while other restaurants and bars line the quay. The area links to Parc de Bercy on the right bank via the Passarelle Simone de Beauvoir, a foot and cycle bridge with gracious curving paths. In between the restaurants and bars, and all across the bridge, people are picnicking in large groups, playing music, eating good food and enjoying their liberté, egalité and fraternité. It’s too good to pass up, so we find a stand with some spaces, return our freedom rides, and join the fun.