Paris by sidecar: A unique way to discover the City of Light

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As we slow down at a quiet intersection, waiting for the light to change, a man crossing the street stops dead in his tracks, lowers his headphones, and approaches us with a look of childlike delight. It’s impossible to exchange more than a few words, but that doesn’t seem to bother him, nor the many other Parisians who suddenly drop their usual cold reserve to smile and chat as we cruise through town. My guide, Simon Burke, is used to it. Cruising in a nice sidecar does that to people.

I’m sitting low in a Watsonian basket, bolted securely to the side of Simon’s burnished red Royal Enfield Interceptor 650 motorcycle. We zigzag through the streets by the Seine, and despite having lived in Paris for nearly a decade, I feel like I’m seeing it all again.

After years of intermittent closures, tourism has returned to Paris. And looking at the volume of visitors now, you’d be hard pressed to believe they ever disappeared. The city hums, and as we cruise, I think of the trilling flute solo and lingering beat of the 1968 hit song “It’s five o’clock, Paris wakes up.”(“It’s 5 o’clock in the morning, Paris is waking up”) by singer Jacques Dutronc. The city indeed seems to be waking up after a long slumber, yet the pandemic has hit the industry here as hard as elsewhere. Simon wouldn’t be sitting on the bike next to me if it wasn’t for covid. The difficulties encountered by the large touring company he had worked with for years gave him the boost he needed to start his own business, and he decided to combine his lifelong passion for motorcycles in Txango Tours, a private company that could be as nimble and independent as its beloved bikes.

The engine roars and we are now crossing the Bir-Hakeim bridge, the Eiffel Tower on our right shoulder. It’s an unusually wet and stormy day, but enough light comes through between the dark clouds to give the river a brilliant shine. I laugh dazedly as we race up the street, the wind blowing strands of hair around my helmet. Paris is coming at full speed, and without the barrier of a full windshield, or the responsibility of being the driver, I can really absorb it all.

Stop to smell the roses in an unknown corner of Paris

And I’m never more grateful to not be driving than when I see what lies ahead: the Arc de Triomphe, and around it, the famous Rond-point de l’Etoile. Twelve major avenues all empty on this spot, but there are no lanes and – read this part carefully – priority is given to vehicles entering, rather than those already on the roundabout. Rather than stopping at the edge of this swirling vortex, we dive straight into the path of several cars and buses. The temptation to hold on to the sides and close your eyes is strong, but like magic, order sets in and the traffic moves to absorb us. We circle around the imposing Arc, under which a giant French flag flutters in the wind. The Avenue des Champs-Élysées dives away behind us, towards the other major crossroads of Paris – the Place de la Concorde – and beyond, the Jardin des Tuileries and the Louvre Museum. But none of these will be our next stop. On this aptly named Paris Monuments Tour, we cover all the sites, but unlike those on a tourist bus, we are nimble and free, and take as many back roads as possible.

Time and again, ordinarily reluctant Parisians stick their heads out of car windows or stop in the street to admire the rigging. In 2022, a sidecar is charming, old-fashioned and unusual. Yet they were once commonplace: the first sidecar was invented by a Frenchman and was designed to be attached to a bicycle. They were once part of a common family vehicle, before the advent of affordable family cars. Today, they are reserved for enthusiasts, like Simon, and even my grandfather. When he emigrated from England to Australia, he brought with him his passion for vintage English cars and motorcycles. He and his wife were avid rally fans and spent their weekends cruising the outback, Nanna in the passenger seat with her helmet and goggles, maps of Australia spread across her lap in the days of before GPS. The motorcycle gene has so far not manifested in me, but there is no denying the thrill of being on a bike.

I’m brought back to reality as we zoom in on some of the French capital’s famous cobbled streets. Our tour is like a who’s-who of the curiosities of Paris: Arc de Triomphe, Palais Garnier, the Louvre, Pont Neuf. And even if you can’t see it well from here, it’s impossible not to think of the other grande dame of Paris, Notre-Dame Cathedral. In April 2019, columns of thick black smoke rose into the sky, when a fire of unknown origin set the old cathedral ablaze, destroying the spire, most of the roof and some of the upper walls, and taking with it him a bit of the Parisian soul. The smoke has long since cleared, but when you pass by, it feels strange and hollow, and it’s still under construction, nearly 900 years after the first stone was laid.

Pont Neuf is its usual glorious self, its stones worn by centuries of weather and foot traffic, and to the east, groups of tourists board boats on the tip of Île de la Cité, ready to go up and go down the Seine. The river is not an official stop on this tour, but it is the ever-present icon that connects the city. Paris is one of the busiest ports in France, but industrial areas are slowly being squeezed out as the banks of the famous river are converted into public pedestrian spaces. A multitude of gardens, open-air gymnasiums, bars and cafes have transformed the river into a 24-hour attraction. No wonder that for the Paris 2024 Olympics, the organizing committee eschews the usual stadium or concert hall and hosts the opening ceremonies on the river.

Discover the Paris of Samuel Beckett

We continue, back on the left bank now, along the river past the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de la Légion d’honneur. Then on the Pont de la Concorde, a bridge without beauty which is of great historical importance. Linking the National Assembly on one side and the Place de la Concorde, once bloodied by the bodies guillotined during the Revolution, on the other, the bridge is built from stones recovered from the Bastille prison. For now, the centerpiece of Place de la Concorde, a magnificent ancient Egyptian obelisk, is darkened, hidden behind scaffolding as it undergoes restoration. Further proof that, since the immobility of the coronavirus, Paris is moving and shaking again.

The sky has largely cleared and the sun’s rays dance across the golden statues of the Beaux-Arts marvel Pont Alexandre III as we cruise below. In a city of epic views, it’s still hard to beat. Ahead of us, the golden dome of the chapel of the Hôtel National des Invalides – better known as the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte – shines brightly, flashing in the sun as it passes. We weave our way through the beautiful, quiet streets of the 7th arrondissement when Simon does a few quick swerves and “flips the basket,” sending me, the basket, and my surprised laughter flying through the air. In a place as pretty as this, it’s easy to be stupid.

Finally, the Grande Dame. Raindrops slowly drip from the leaves of the plane trees of the Champ-de-Mars and the surprisingly delicate ironwork of the Eiffel Tower. She stands there, both imposing and slender, gently resting on the sodden ground and rising high into the sky, from where she enjoys sweeping views, clear of skyscrapers and cranes. The morning weather had slowed down the usual crowds, but now they have reappeared, shaking the rain off their umbrellas and folding them up, marching at a cheerful pace around the ancient City of Lights. Paris is waking up.

Hartley is a Paris-based writer. His website is Find her on Twitter: @its_annahartley.

This travel agency offers group sidecar motorcycle tours in Paris and Versailles. It’s not a passive experience: one guest rides in the basket, another on the back of the bike (a guide drives). The 2-hour Paris Landmarks Tour will take you to some of the city’s most famous sights, including the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Up to four people can go around with a second sidecar. The Paris tour is available every day, except Mondays. Tours cost around $130 for one guest, half for the second guest.

Prospective travelers should consider local and national public health guidelines regarding the pandemic before planning any travel. Information on travel health advisories can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and on the CDC’s travel health advisories webpage.

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