The Accidental Cyclist

Saturday was cool but mostly bright, and completely dry. It was a free day and everyone in our group had their own adventures and I am anxious to read them in the “Paris” tab. This was mine:

Today I accidentally took a 22-mile bike ride through eastern Paris. I say “accidentally” because soon after setting out for Père Lachaise cemetery – about a four mile ride – I got distracted by an interesting lane that led up past an old canal and when the canal ended I took my best guess at where Père Lachaise might lie and eventually I was proven correct … if by correct one can claim that one meant to zigzag through practically every arrondissement east of Notre Dame before reaching one’s destination (which was about 3 miles from the canal as the crow flies. Alas, this crow don’t fly.)

I pride myself on having an excellent sense of direction. But Paris doesn’t. Roads bend and curve every which way, and a map of Paris’s streets looks like a blueprint drawn by a drunk. Still, since there are famous monuments everywhere and several prominent landmarks, like the Eiffel Tower or Sacré-Coeur, that frequently pop into view (sometimes in front of you when you could swear they should be behind you) you can maintain a general sense of where you are, if not where you might be going.

The canal is the Canal Saint-Martin, located in the 10th arrondissement. It was built by order of Napoleon Bonaparte in 1802 to bring fresh water to the city.

Like Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville, this district was originally home to working people, then bohemians looking for cheap digs, but now it is in the process of being “gentrified” and its funky vibe felt more manufactured than organic. Still, it’s very pretty.

But not nearly as pretty as the next surprise on my journey – Parc Des Buttes Chaumont, in the 19th arrondissement. It is simply one of the loveliest urban parks I have ever seen in any of my travels, anywhere. Steep slopes plunge to a placid pond, where a heron perched majestically on a submerged dam. Most of the Paris I rode today was as flat as a pancake, but a long, gentle incline took me to Parc Des Buttes Chaumont. I wondered what cataclysm of nature had created its abrupt steep hills and hidden dales and 30-foot waterfall. The cataclysmic force, I learned, was man, particularly one man, Baron Georges-Eugene Haussman who, as Prefect of the Seine, molded modern Paris in the mid-1800s.

A very bouncy suspension bridge leads to the Tower of Sybil
View of Sacré-Coeur from the Tower of Sybil

The park reflected the delusions of the Romantic Era, when city planners and designers created idyllic landscapes they imagined evoked the earth before humankind’s fall from grace. They did a pretty fair job of it, considering that what they had to work with was an abandoned gypsum mine that had become a citywide dumping ground. Now, the ornate Temple de la Sibylle, set majestically on a rocky cliff 50 meters over the artificial lake, offers one of the great views of Paris, particularly of Sacré-Coeur, far in the distance.

The experience of stumbling into this graceful space exemplifies what I love about bicycling when traveling abroad, or exploring any big city anywhere. I’d never heard of this park. There was nothing specific in that arrondissement that would have drawn me near to it, and I would never have put my finger on it on a map and said, “Today, I’ll go here!” 22 miles covers a lot of urban ground and, especially in a city that seems determined to confuse (and then delight) you, there are no end of happy surprises like Parc Des Buttes Chaumont. Next time I visit, it will be a “must” on my itinerary.

Bicycling in Paris is not for the faint of heart. With the exception of a few curb-bordered bike lanes, you ride right out in traffic. Actual travel lanes on Paris streets seem indefinite, more like suggestions than strict delineations. Cars swarm like bats that have lost their sonar as scooters and motorcycles weave in and out of a confusion of Renaults, Citroens and Peugeots. In some places, bicyclists must ride in the bus lanes – which is great except that people park in the bus lanes and buses, which are, um, pretty big, can loom up suddenly behind you. Still, after about one mile I rode with utter confidence because I realized that, unlike in Pittsburgh, where motorists seem to believe they will accrue points for swearing at, honking at and cutting off cyclists, motorists and bicyclists in Paris co-exist in peaceful unity, each aware, and respectful of, the other. On my entire journey, not once did anyone honk, swear, force me to the curb or cut across my path when I had the right of way.

All sorts of people ride: Stylishly dressed female executives, lumpy old men running errands to the store, children out in packs with friends, everybody. And here’s something I didn’t see and was grateful not to: Some grim Lance Armstrong wannabe cosseted in racing silks blowing past leisurely cyclists, growling and swearing because by impeding his progress by one nanosecond they might cause him to fail to achieve his “personal best” time. Here’s some news for all of your faux Lances – no one gives a rat’s ass about your “personal best” except you. And no one On High is keeping score. No. One. Cares. So get over yourselves. Jerks.

Based on a hunch, I headed off down the Rue Des Pyrenees (I was certainly not going to ruin the purity of my journey by consulting a map). It led in a generally correct direction but somehow I managed to ride right along, and right by, one of the long walls that contains Père Lachaise, which should not be easy to miss because it is 110 acres in size. Realizing my mistake, I backtracked, locked my bike and hiked up into this crowded city of the dead, with its above-ground crypts, solemn busts and narrow paths. It was also built under the direction of Napoleon (where did he find the time, what with world conquest and posing for portraits?) and named for King Louis XIV’s confessor Père Francois de la Lachaise (those must’ve been some confessions based on the number of bedrooms I saw at Versailles the other day).

The 20th arrondissement is nothing special and kind of gritty but the cemetery is a big tourist draw because of its famous denizens, such as: novelists Collette and Honor de Balzac; physiologist Claude Bernard, namesake of our hotel; opera diva Maria Callas; Chopin (who is, as they say, “not all there” – his heart is entombed in a Warsaw cathedral); the comic playwright Moliere; August Comte, father of Positivism; chanteuse Edith Piaf; Gertrude Stein, novelist and muse to Hemingway and many other writers of the “Lost Generation.” And on and on.

Eternity is not so bad if you remember to bring a good book
I found myself moved by the sorrow of the statue that guards this grave

The graves of the famous are hardly the most ornate or interesting. I found myself drawn to graves of people unknown to me (and I suspect unknown to anybody still living) guarded by statues or adorned with etchings that exude grief or mirth.

So many graves contain great stories along with the bones. I did not personally see the grave of Victor Noir, a French journalist sent to arrange a duel between his editor and an outraged royal fop his editor had insulted. Victor ended up, during the negotiations, on the wrong end of a duel himself. According to a website dedicated to the cemetery, Noir, whose oxidized copper likeness lies atop his crypt, his hat nearby, in the prone pose of his own death, has become the subject of a bizarre fertility ritual: “Due to the naturalistic style of the sculpture there is a rather prominent fold in Noir’s trousers which makes him appear to be aroused. It is said that by rubbing this area and leaving a flower in Noir’s hat, a woman is guaranteed a husband within the year. While the rest of the statue is covered with verdigris, Noir’s crotch gleams, proving the popularity of this myth.”

To the Victors ….

Okay then.

The grave I especially liked was home (for now) to Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. It features a life-size statue of Georges bursting out of the crypt. Maybe he is the real father of Positivism.

You go, Georges!

Tourists, however, come in bunches mainly to see the graves of Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison, whose tombs have both been fenced in because of over-eager admirers (especially Morrison’s) who want to commune with these misunderstood bards cut down in the thrall of tragic youth and leave artifacts like whiskey bottles and roach clips. Not wanting to give in to the hype, I resolved to not visit Morrison’s grave, but really, what would a trip to Père Lachaise be without stopping by to see the old Lizard King?

Exploring among the dead certainly gives one an appetite and I pedaled to the plaza that rings the former site of the Bastille for a nosh. And then it was down to Hotel Deville, over Citi Island and back to Saint-Germain. I am grateful that the bicycle is not due back until 11 a.m. tomorrow because in the morning I’m pointing my wagon west.

Au Revoir for now …

This is the End …

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