The Chain Gang Goes to Paris

Modesty forces me to say this wasn’t my idea, but I do think it’s a wonderful one – thank you Nicolas Rannou, French triathlete now based in Exeter.

We’re all familiar with Paris’ famous landmarks, places like the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre. Starting in 2012 we’re going to be running Chain Gang bike tours in and around Paris.

Over the next few months I’ll be writing much more about this new trip, but during my recent researches I was struck once again by how well one is rewarded for a bit of research. I wonder if there is any point in visiting Paris without a little bit of background about the various Kings Louis, Versailles, the Revolution and the Terror, Napolean Bonaparte and his wife’s first son, Napolean III?

It adds spice, visiting the ‘Conciergerie’ on the Ile de la Cité, to see the  names of the prisoners guillotined, names that include Danton, Marie-Antoinette and Maximillian Robespierre. Even more interesting, touring the Catacombes, to learn that Danton and Robespierre’s remains are among the 6 million sets of bones that surround you. How are the mighty fallen, eh? Ozymandius. eat your heart out!

I like the fact that in the centre of the Place de la Bastille is the huge ‘July Column’, topped with the golden ‘Genie of the Bastille’.

Around the outside of this vast space which straddles 3 ‘arrondisements’ is a line on the pavement that shows the outline of the original military fortress, the Bastille – huge. In 1789 the revolting mob, with 26,000 rifles stolen from the Hotel des Invalides, attacked the Bastille, usually taken to be the beginning of the French Revolution. But have a closer look at the July Column.

Wrong July, wrong revolution. This impressive monument commemorates the Revolution of July 1830, and the coronation of the Citizen King, Louis Philippe I (And likely to be Louis Philippe the Last, unless the French have another violent change of heart).

In fact there have been plenty of other ‘Revolutions’, the revolution of 1848 that brought Napolean III, late of Royal Leamington Spa, to power. A huge amount of what we see in Paris today is the result of Napolean III and his favourite town planner, Baron Haussmann. But Napolean III himself was overthrown just 23 years later following his disastrous foray against Bismark, which led to the ‘Paris Commune’ in 1871.

An astonishing 20,000 ‘Communards’ were killed in and around Montmartre by the French army in La Semaine Sanglante (the bloody week), and a further 40,000 marched to Versailles for trial, execution or deportation.

Makes Sacre Couer feel a bit different. No wonder, when the students took to the barricades in 1968, it felt much more serious to Parisiens than is immediately understood elsewhere. Vive Les Revolutions!

Veterans of our Dordogne tour may have seen the Cathedral of St Front in Perigueux, and thought it similar to the much more famous Basilica of Sacre Coeur. It’s the other way round – the iconic Sacre Coeur was based on little old St Front.

But what of the cycling?
Don’t worry, there will plenty to excite the cyclist. We’ll be cycling out to Versailles, in the West beyond the Bois de Bologne, and we’ll also ride way out to the East of Paris, along the Canal St-Martin on our way to Chantilly, and from there we’ll follow cycle paths along the beautiful Val d’Oise.

But by the end of the week I reckon you’ll agree with me – our best cycling will be flying around Paris on our Vélibs, the City bikes. I’ll write more about this brilliant system in future months, but cycling around Paris on a Vélib is a pure delight, and more than anything else that’s what I look forward to sharing with my fellow Chain Gangers.

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