When we visited France recently, we made it a point to try riding our bikes from Versailles to Paris during an afternoon just to see what it was like. Although it was not an easy ride and we got lost numerous times, it was an unforgettable experience and a special way to experience these two famous French cities.
Alas, I have put together a video of that experience to share with you all. It shows the entire ordeal from riding within the well-paved and leafy suburbs of Versailles to getting lost on a forested path with weeds as tall as your head, to wandering upon an enchanting garden overlooking Paris. Part of it is a music video, part of it includes dialogue. Hope you enjoy!
Click on HD to watch in high definition.
Also, a short video of biking along the canal in the beautiful park of the Versailles Palace.
Bike the whole world! And vive le vélo!
We have visited 9 historical sites and found 2 that are awesome for casual bike rides and one that has the potential but fails miserably.
1. If Paris is your destination, you must pay a visit to Palace of Versailles. It’s only 13 miles/31 km train ride (or bike ride!) that costs about 3.5 euros. The Chateau de Versailles is an UNESCO’s World Heritage List for 30 years and it is one of the most marvelous achievements of French architecture and art. 3 kings from Louis XIII, XIV and the XVI with Marie Antoinette had lived there until the French Revolution.
Adjacent to it, are the Gardens and Park of Versailles where you can ride your bike for miles (~6 miles/10 km). It is heavenly and breathtaking! And it’s free for admission. If you don’t have a bike, there’s a bike rental. And if you want a different angle of the park, they have boats for rental too. The downside to the bike paths is that some parts are not paved, but quickly you forget about it due to the immense beauty of the park.
2. Another epic casual bike ride is to Mont St. Michel, another UNESCO site. It is situated in between Normandy, France on a island when high tides occur. Mont St. Michel started off as a monastery during the 8th century and over hundreds of years became a fortified city. The city of Minas Tirith in the Lord of the Rings, director Peter Jackson used this castle. It is majestic and godly.
Photo above is a new path to Mont St. Michel. From the car parking, it’s 1.6 mile/2.5 km of bliss riding to the place. As I was riding on this path, I felt as I was on a horse galloping from the danger behind me to safe haven like in Lord of the Rings. It also hosts night events and the place is lit up after dusk. A bike ride to it at night must be amazing!
Once the new path is completed, I hope they let bikes in and to include bike racks at the foothill. For now, bikes are allowed. Moreover, it would be wonderful to have a bike/ped path that wraps around the island commune, too.
Currently, there are 40 some residents living inside while the site get 3 million visitors, the most outside of Paris. It is pretty packed at the bottom of the castle, but the crowd thins out at the top where cost of admission is applied.
3. The last but not least epic site to check out is Chateau de Chenonceau in Loire Valley. It’s most visited chateau in France after the Palace of Versailles. Chenonceau was built during the early 1500s and overseen by 2 different queens, a rich heiress and a mistress, all women.
Again, we brought our folding bikes expecting to ride throughout the vast garden of the chateau, but it was a huge disappointment! I understand that some parts of the chateau should only be designated for pedestrians, like Catherine’s Garden, Diane’s Garden and the Maze. These are crowded places with lots of details to appreciate, so you would most likely want to walk anyway. What they did with the Palace of Versailles is a great example. The Palace and the nearby Gardens are off limits, while the Park is opened to all.
A huge and beautiful place like this, does the organization of the place expect people to walk throughout the whole area? As anyone knows, biking is quiet and covers large distance, which won’t degrade the emotions and the appearances at all.
Bikes are banned from entering and must be parked at the entrance. You can see in the next few photos that most of the paths away from the chateau and the gardens are all empty of visitors. It’s a great shame!
To conclude, France is a beautiful country with many huge spaces dedicated to historical monuments and buildings and if bikes are allowed and regulated properly, the enjoyment of these sites would be even more enjoyable.
We just got back from France and would like to report on what we observed about bicycling in Paris.
We decided to ride from our hotel in Versailles all the way to Paris. It was about 13 miles /21 km and when we got to Paris, the first thing we noticed were huge bike share stations called Vélib (short for bike and freedom in French). Everywhere you go, there’s a bike share station. The program is comprised of a whopping 20,000 bike shares in 1,800 stations, located 300 meters apart which explains what we saw. That’s about 1 bike per 100 Parisians, the largest bike share scheme per capita.
It’s no wonder that every 10 bicyclists we saw, about 8 of them are on a Vélib. And it’s so popular that Paris also has a kids’ version called P’tit Velib.
Although Paris has such a great bike share scheme and I do appreciate that the bridges over Seine River have separated bike paths, but their bike infrastructure on regular streets remains lackluster. You can pretty much tell that wherever there’s space, they just slap on some bike signs and say, “voila!”
I didn’t feel comfortable riding around. Many big streets don’t even have striped bike lanes and you’d probably want to avoid riding on them as much as possible. Cars are going pretty fast. In addition, the turnabouts are frightening to go into. Cars are always coming into the roundabout without slowing down, and drivers are always making right turns (I wouldn’t be surprised that right-hooks would make up most of the accidents there) in roundabouts. Moreover, the abundant exhaust fumes from the diesel engine cars was repulsive. There were so many scooters too and their emissions are not regulated.
I have to give a hats off to Parisian bicyclists. They don’t wear any head protection, no hi-vis outfits, and ride in fast and congested traffic.
However, there were some good ideas like what is shown in the photo below. It shows that bikes can go in the opposite direction of a one way street.
I noticed that all the bike signage were painted in a simple white color. I find this to be interesting because I think French design tends to be more artistic and elaborate. Also, the bike stencils are pretty crude.
Another good idea is having cross-bikes through wide intersections. That is sorely needed in the States, particularly at freeway passes and boulevards.
Notice the wide street above doesn’t have demarcation for cars. It has been shown to calm car speeds.
In conclusion, riding in Paris seems pretty dangerous but the city averages about 2 fatalities per year between 2007 – 2012, a fairly low rate for a city this big with 2.2 million residents. The French (at least the Parisians) have the bicycling spirit. They are a country of Tour de France, inventors of Velocipedes and derailleurs that made what modern bikes are today. Paris has a flat topography, density and beauty, and more would jump on bikes if they had the proper infrastructure.
Living in SF for almost 3 years, we’ve come to appreciate cycling and have developed an interest in exploring urban cities on our two-wheelers. Since our trips to Copenhagen and Portland (both good bicycling cities), we’ve made it a point to visit bike-friendly cities whenever we travel. My wife adores French culture but I had no desire to visit France again after an uncomfortable trip to Paris (I know, how can someone not like Paris? Well, I guess I can apparently.) unless it was to a city that is conducive for bicycling. The French city of Strasbourg had come up in one of her readings and upon further research, we learned that the city is actually quite bike friendly. But we were skeptical. There’s very little publicity about this city, the 7th largest in France, and we didn’t know anyone that had been there, so it was kind of risky. First we took a look at most of the streets using Google-street view (thank you Google!). Then we searched through youtube videos and stumbled upon this one short video (pay attention to what happens starting at the 0:09 mark). Did you see how that driver didn’t get angry and honk? He even put his car into a very dramatic reverse to make sure he wasn’t in the way! That part of the video finalized our decision to book our tickets to Strasbourg because it is a rare sight to see this kind of hospitality toward bicyclists.
One of the first bicycles (including bikes with derailleurs) was invented in France and with Tour de France as one of the top-watched sporting events, you would expect the entire country of France to be as bike friendly as the Netherlands, however that is not the case. So finding out about bike-friendly Strasbourg was wonderful. 15% of all commuting trips in Strasbourg are made by bicycle and women cyclists outnumber men by 70% to 30% (a number based on observations from Strasbourg Cycle Chic). So, why do you think the numbers show an accomodation to cycling and even more, why do women outnumber men by such a large margin? Here are some of the numbers that make Strasbourg, France’s bike capital:
– Strasbourg has 330 miles (500 km) of cycle tracks in a land mass of 30 sq. miles (78 sq. km). To understand this impressive number, we can compare it to SF. Strasbourg has 4 times the distance of bike lanes in SF, yet it is 40% smaller.
– Over 18,000 bike racks are installed and this excludes the secure bike parking lots (Veloparcs at tram and bus stations). The racks shown below were empty at the time of this photo, perhaps because they are located near the university and it is summer.
– A contra-flow system (many one-way streets carry two-way bike paths) in narrow streets which they have a lot of because the city was built way before cars were invented. This system helps with connecting the network of bike paths.
– I find it convenient that they have cycle tracks along the tramway which makes finding your way easy (bikes are allowed on trams except during rush hour).
– Some bike paths are incorporated into the sidewalks on the main streets (confusing) but pedestrians and cyclists share these spaces well and it does help keep cyclists safe from fast-moving cars. Notice the green and white crosswalks in the top left corner. The green crosswalk is for cyclists while the white is for pedestrians.
– Below is a bridge that allows only pedestrians and cyclists and there are few of these which also contribute to the network of continuous bike-ways.
I think the key to Strasbourg’s success in being bicycle friendly is their application of the urban planning principle of “filtered permeability”. Because of that, the city center has been transformed into a car-free wonderland that welcomes walking and biking. Pedestrians and cyclists can feel comfortable and safe. By doing this, they selectively “filter out” cars by reducing the number of streets that run through the center. The city center is calm and quiet and very pleasant to be in. Just biking through these linked public squares and bridges without any worries for cars is a great sightseeing experience and best of all, you can do “conversational cycling”.
Now I want to elaborate a little bit more on Strasbourg itself besides the bicycle infrastructure. It is the capital city in the Alsace region of France located close to the border of Germany. It is an old city and its history goes as far back as 12 BC. As you can tell from the photos, there is a lot of German influence in their food and architecture. The European Union Parliament is also located there, and it has the largest university in all of France. It is also known as the capital of Christmas because of their wonderful open air Christmas market and Christmas decorations and spirit. It is probably the most beautiful city I have seen so far in my travels and so it makes sightseeing by bicycle there a real treat.
I would like to end this with Thomas Jefferson’s praise of France, “Every man has two countries, his own and France.”