23 April 2007

Driving to and in Paris

We drove up to Paris under clear sunny skies last Friday morning. Our route took us from Saint-Aignan and through the forests of La Sologne toward Orléans. We circled south and east of Orléans on small roads and then made our way northeast toward Malesherbes and Milly-la-Forêt, passing just west of Fontainbleau on the A6 autoroute as we headed north toward Paris.

Our first stop was in the suburbs at Evry, where there's an Ikea store. We wanted to buy a light fixture we had seen on a trip to Ikea in Nantes about six weeks ago, and the Ikea web site showed that the Evry store had it in stock. It took us three hours to drive from Saint-Aignan to Evry, in the far south suburbs, and we arrived there at 11:00.

A Paris bureau de tabac that sells
like printer paper and ink cartridges.

After the Ikea stop, it only took us about 30 minutes to get into Paris. Traffic was very light, because, I think, the Paris schools were on holiday last week. A lot of people took their kids and got out of the city, I imagine, to take advantage of the fine weather we've been having since the first of April. So there were hardly any traffic jams and street parking was pretty easy. We like to drive to Paris and, when conditions allow, we drive around in Paris to go from neighborhood to neighborhood and do what we want to get done.

Instead of going to our hotel at noon, which we though might be too early for them to have our room ready, we decided to go have lunch somewhere. We drove into the city on the avenue de la Poterne des Peupliers (13th arrondissement), drove through the little circular place de l'Abbé G.-Hénocque looking for a likely café or brasserie for lunch, and then turned left on the rue de Tolbiac and headed toward Alésia in the 14th.

A quiet morning in Paris

We saw plenty of cafés and restaurants but were taking our time looking. We had two hours to kill before we were suposed to call our friends at their holiday apartment in the Marais.

Traffic was so light that we just kept going. We drove the length of the rue d'Alésia across the 14th and into the 15th arrondissement on the rue de Vouillé. These are old stomping grounds for me, and I told Walt we'd find a restaurant just a little farther down on the rue de la Convention, near its intersection with the rue de Vaugirard.

Paris has become a multi-ethnic city.

Walt noticed a Japanese restaurant along the way, so we started thinking about that as a lunch option. And then we thought about the Japanese restaurant that is very near a friend's apartment on the rue Lecourbe, near the Sèvre-Lecourbe métro station. Is that too far to go? No, not with such light traffic. So we drove up there on the rue de Vaugirard and found a place to park pretty fast, on the rue Blomet near the rue des Volontaires. We walked the equivalent of four or five blocks to the restaurant and got a table immediately.

You might be surprised that we would want to eat Japanese instead of French food in Paris, but when you live in the French countryside you eat French food every day of the week. We wanted something exotic.

Walt had a rice bowl (vinegared sushi rice) with salmon sashimi. I had a plate (a board, actually) with four pieces of sushi (rice with four different fishes — tuna, salmon, a white fish, and a large prawn) along with six California rolls (sushi rice with avocado and other vegetables). Both our meals came with miso soup and a shredded cabbage salad in a sweet vinegar dressing. We had a carafe of white wine. It was a delicious lunch. Most of the other people in the restaurant were eating meat or poultry grilled on skewers, but some like us were having raw fish.

Paris sidewalks

After lunch we drove down the rue Lecourbe out to the south edge of Paris and the inner ring road. Construction of a new light rail line has recently been completed along that road, called le boulevard des Maréchaux because long sections of it are named for different French military figures of the past. We wanted to see it. The number of lanes for car traffic were reduced when the rail line was built down the center of the boulevard on a grassy median strip.

We drove (again, with little or no traffic) alongside one of the trams on the new line, and we noticed that it moved at a brisk pace. We were just barely able to keep up with it. It stopped to load and unload passengers, and we stopped at traffic lights. The whole effect was very modern, open, airy, and efficient. The look and feel of the old boulevard has really been improved. The light-rail trains have the right of way at all intersections, so cars have to wait.

In San Francisco, Walt says, it would be just about impossible to get such a rail line built. When it comes to reducing the lanes available for automobile traffic, the car lobby is just too strong in California. There would be an outcry. It would take years. Everybody would be upset. And the city would just have to watch traffic get worse and worse.

A Paris fixer-upper in the 10th

In Paris, the new tram was planned, approved, and built in record time, and the result is fantastic. The trams were full of passengers. I'm sure there were Parisians who were upset to see the number of lanes for cars reduced. But what's the point of encouraging people to drive cars in the city — especially commuters? There's too much traffic already.

So why am I driving around in Paris? Well, because I can, I guess. Once in a while. Last year when we went to spend a week in Paris, we took the train and then walked, rode the métro and buses, and didn't feel the need for a car at all. It's all in the particular circumstances of your trip. What's nice is that driving is an option, not a necessity.

Coming up out of the métro

It seems right to me that the authorities should be encouraging people to use public transit, to walk, to ride bicycles, but not to drive. Paris has an amazing métro, an extensive bus network, an efficient regional rail system, and now light-rail lines around big parts of the city. It now has a lot of bike lanes, and that's something new. There are more an more pedestrian streets, and there's talk of levying a special tax on drivers who want to take their cars into the center of the city. London has already done that.

Driving in Paris is a once-in-a-while luxury, as far as I'm concerned. Usually traffic makes it slow, complicated, and frustrating. We were lucky to end up in Paris when so many people were on holiday outside the city. If I were going to be there for more than 24 hours, I'd leave the car at home.


  1. Wow, looks like you got lucky with the traffic!

  2. If it were not for my daughter, who took her driver's license last year, and needs to drive --I didn't want her to get the license and then not drive for years on end like myself-- I wouldn't have a car! I'd rent one whenever I'd go to Normandy or elsewhere. Between métro, buses and the RER, no one actually needs a car in Paris. And our mayor, very efficient, I must say, has managed to get the RATP, the transport system in Paris to work more on Sundays and at night.

  3. I found riding on Paris buses to be almost a high. You see everything and strain to listen to the conversations around you.


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