Paris: Tips on renting a bike
In Paris last week, my fiancé and I really felt as if we were living like the locals. We sipped our espresso at the bar each morning and strolled hand-in-hand through the Luxembourg Gardens. But the most fun—and possibly most Parisian—thing we did was to crisscross the city using Vélib, which roughly translates as "free bicycle." (It's a euro per day for a subscription, and any rentals under 30 minutes are free.)
The city is utterly different when viewed on two wheels. We felt especially chic on the day we filled our little chrome bike baskets with Clementines from the market on Rue Mouffetard.
Earlier this year, my colleagues at Budget Travel recorded a video of how to rent a bike in Paris.
But I learned some additional lessons while cruising around.
• Tip: When a bike is defective (because its gears won't shift or it has some other flaw), a Parisian will typically turn its seat backwards as a signal to others not to use it.
• Try your AmEx card. This blog has previously reported that most American credit cards don't work at Vélib kiosks—the stands at each station that unlock available bikes. The typical European credit card has a microchip rather than a magnetic strip, but lucky for us, American Express Blue cards run on the chip system. On our first morning, we signed up for a one-day subscription in minutes using our AmEx Blue.
• Take the road less traveled by staking out a non-conventional route. We were staying fairly far down on the Left Bank, and each morning we'd bike up to the river, only to be met with Vélib stations that were at capacity. If all the spaces at one station are full, the kiosk screen will direct you to the nearest station with open spots, but we found this information wasn't always accurate. More than once we trudged from station to station looking for two spaces—a slightly deflating way to end an otherwise exhilarating ride. It seemed like most bikes were ditched at stations lining the river, but if you can start there and bike outward, you're sure to find plenty of working bikes and end with plenty of empty spaces.
• Think about Vélib rush hour. It seemed like the times we were looking to turn our bikes in—typically right around the time sidewalk cafés started to fill up—everybody else was returning their bikes, too.
• Parts of the city (around Canal St. Martin and down toward the Bastille, for instance) have gloriously divided bike lanes that are scenic and peaceful. In other parts of the city, though, one-way streets and bike lanes that double as bus lanes make it hard to get around. On one trip, we were yelled at by a French grandma and nearly barreled down by a bus. Let's just say that from then on, we mapped out our trips beforehand. As noted in Budget Travel's video, you can download a free map of the Paris bike routes.
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Paris: Champs-Elysees holiday treat
I'm not normally a big fan of the Champs-Elysées. This avenue is lined with quintessentially Parisian buildings and—frustratingly—international chain stores. What visitors find here looks a lot like what they left at home: a McDonalds, a Sephora, a Nike store, and so on. At this time of year, however, I make an exception to my grumpy rule. The Champs-Elysées during the holiday season is magic. Until January 15, the avenue shines with fairy lights. Between the Arc de Triomphe and the place de la Concorde, 400 trees are wrapped in strands containing more than a million lights. Even an anti-Champs Scrooge like me is powerless to resist the twinkling charm. To complete the experience, vertigo-free visitors should stop at the giant ferris wheel in the place de la Concorde . La Grande Roue Brille (big shiny wheel) provides an unmissable view upon the 2 kilometer avenue, not to mention the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and other nearby monuments. It turns slowly every day from 10:30 a.m. to midnight and costs 10€ ($15) for adults, 5€ ($7.50) for children, and is free for kids younger than three. MORE Our Affordable Paris series
Galileo, in bits and pieces
Galileo left a lot to posterity: The telescope, the laws of motion, and our understanding of the nature of planets and their satellites all owe some debt to his genius. But if you want still more from Galileo, now there's more. In 1737, while Galileo's body was being prepared for a move to Florence's Basilica of Santa Croce, various anatomical relics were pried from the corpse. The New York Times reported that "enthusiastic admirers" made off most notably with a few of the astronomer's fingers. (I hope my admirers are less enthusiastic, when the time comes.) One withered finger, a ghastly-looking thing that bears more resemblance to a twig than to a proper digit, eventually found its way into a display at the Institute and Museum of the History of Science in Florence. Other body parts went missing, but were recently recovered after a collector purchased them at auction and subsequently verified their authenticity. So Galileo's long-lost thumb, finger, and tooth will join the museum's collection in the near future. For those of you counting at home, that will unite three of the scientist's fingers, all from his right hand. I can find no definitive news on the condition of the newly recovered body parts. Galileo is perhaps most famous for his run-ins with the Catholic Church, largely over his contention that the sun was at the center of the universe, a notion that ran contrary to biblical understanding. Unwilling to fully distance himself from his heresy, he was tried by the Inquisition and served 8 years under house arrest. What gives a guy such chutzpah, such backbone? You can view a piece of his vertebra at the University of Padua—the last of the known body parts removed in 1737—and come to your own conclusions. Note: The museum's website says that it is currently undergoing renovations, though a "significant selection" of the permanent collection is still on public display on the ground floor. Renovations should be complete by Spring 2010, about the time the recovered body parts will go on exhibit.
Literary Paris: A lesson in pictures
Shakespeare & Company, the legendary left-bank English-language bookshop, has long been a magnet for literary talent. Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and George Orwell all frequented the store. So did the sultry Anaïs Nin, along with her lover Henry Miller who described the place as "a wonderland of books." The shop even published James Joyce's Ulysses when no publisher would touch it. New portraits of these and seven other Lost and Beat Generation writers were recently unveiled at Shakespeare & Company, thanks to the pen of a young English artist and blogger who calls herself Badaude. Her series winds up the very narrow staircase leading to a library where customers can sit and read for free. This is the same space where, after hours, young writers can sleep in exchange for work. To read more about the inspiration behind these portraits, check out Bomb magazine's recent interview with artist Badaude/Joanna Walsh. And for more information about Shakespeare & Company, including free English-language events like the one we described here, check their site. Shakespeare & Company, 37 rue de la Bûcherie, 5th arrondissement, 011-33/1-43-25-40-93.