Biking Paris after midnight on a warm summer’s night is a spectacular way for residents and visitors to (re)discover the pleasure of Paris by night.
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Paris, 4 a.m.—A couple I met this July afternoon told me how disappointed they were with a “Paris By Night” driving tour that they’d taken the previous night.
“We saw the major monuments,” they said, “but we never saw them by night.”
Apparently, year-round, the company is offering an 8 p.m. Paris By Night Tour even though night doesn’t fully descend over Paris until after 10 p.m. from late May to late July.
“The driver was nice enough to extend the tour for 20 minutes because we felt cheated,” they continued, “but we never made it past twilight.”
Twilight is known in French as “the time between dog and wolf” (l’heure entre chien et loup). On the right evening and with the right company or mindset, there’s breathtaking seduction in its deepening blue. But this couple had been looking forward to encountering full, howling wolf.
I sympathized with them for being the victims of misleading advertising, or at least of static advertising since 8-10pm would indeed have a night component nine months of the year.
I suggest that they join me for a bike ride that night.
“What time?” they asked.
“Round midnight,” I said. “Or one a.m. or two, if you truly want to know Paris by night.”
They laughed, thinking I was joking.
“Seriously,” I said. “We’ll use Vélib, the public bike share system.”
“That’s too late for us,” they said. “We want to be at Versailles first thing in the morning.”
Wanting the butter and the money for the butter (vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre) is the French expression for having one’s cake and eating it too, or in this case of experiencing Paris by night in early July without being willing to stay out past one’s usual bedtime.
Travelers touring Paris on a working-day schedule certainly get to see the museums and the monuments. They get early restaurant reservations and make all the right pastry stops. But one of the best ways to experience Paris as a living city is by assuming a wobbly schedule whereby you:
- take the streets at least once by 7am so as to appreciate the opening of cafés, markets, gardens and parks while (re)discovering the aura of old monuments before they get poked by selfie sticks,
- and stay out past midnight at least once so as to truly appreciate after-hours in the city.
I understand that taking on such a schedule is disturbing to some. (Napping helps.) Between overcoming jet lag and maintaining one’s habitual rise, dine and sleep times, an untethered program can be troubling for some, and unadvisable when traveling with children.
But for me, one of the unsung pleasures of Paris is the midnight stroll or bike ride. Make that 2 a.m. on a warm summer night. In fact, “off-the-beaten track” in such as heavily visited city as Paris isn’t a place, it’s a time — especially that time in summer when most tourists are in bed dreaming of Paris. That’s when venturesome and sleepless travelers are out living their dream.
Sometime after midnight, heading out, or home, on foot or on bike (of not too much alcohol in the bloodstream), you’ll stand or sit or walk or ride by the river.
You’ll bathe in the diffuse yellow light of the streetlamps as it plays against sidewalk, street, stone buildings and the lower leaves of chestnut, linden and turkish filbert trees. You’ll listen to or take part in street conversations.
You’ll want to feel safe, of course. In certain quarters you might have to contend with or steer clear of alcohol-fueled night-folk. But Paris is a well-lit city. It is, after all, the City of Lights.
So I went out biking that night. I meandered along the boulevards and avenues and well-lit rues, through open squares and along the banks of the river and of the canal, rediscovering the true pleasure of Paris by night as I encountered:
Brazilian salsa dancing by the Arab Institute,
a friendly game of pétanque (bocce) by the river,
the intimate end of a long picnic,
a tête-à-tête with a view,
a headless martyr,
spiders over the Seine,
a heap of garbage beside City Hall.
silent cemetery walls.
and a dance of drunken seduction after a neighborhood bar has closed.
I could go on and on.
But it’s 4am. I’m going to bed.
Text and photos © 2015, Gary Lee Kraut, except for Va-nu-pieds’ photo of Notre-Dame in the morning.
Biking Paris after midnight is one way to travel in the spirit of France Revisited.