Paris on two wheels
Paris on two wheels

Former stockbroker Olivier Marie-Antoine was on a Eurostar train between Paris and London when it occurred to him that two wheels would be the best way to see the French capital.

A keen student of history, his initial idea was to host Vespa tours of Paris but the insurance costs proved prohibitive. "Have you considered electric bicycles," his insurer asked and told him of another client who made the machines.

So Olivier hired one and took to the streets of Montmartre, a former bastion of artists such as Picasso, Dali and Van Gogh, topped by the majestic Basilica of the Sacre Coeur or church of the Sacred Heart.

Montmartre is the steepest hill in Paris and Olivier knew that if the bike could handle the climb he could take it anywhere in the city. But on the first slope, the battery failed.

"That was it," he remembers. "I thought the idea was dead so I made two left turns to come back down the hill and amazingly there was an electric bicycle showroom I never knew was there."

Three years later, Olivier has a fleet of 250 watt Eazy Mouv Compagnie bicycles. Easy to use, they have a speed limit of 25km/h and a silent motor that kicks in after a few peddles. And Olivier now has a multilingual team of 10 staff who take cyclists to famous landmarks and other lesser known but intriguing attractions.

Olivier spends hours poring over the National Archives and has become well versed in the royal and revolutionary history of France. His tours revolve around two main historical features the long serving Louis XIV, the Sun King, under whom many of Paris' great monuments were built and the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, a tactical genius and the man who changed France forever with innovations like the the metric system.

Olivier says he gives the kind of tours he loves to take when travelling in other cities.

"All the landmarks are great," he says, "but it's good to see things that even people very familiar with Paris don't know so much about.

Despite extremely busy roads and confusing traffic laws, riders are easily able to cover the 25km tour in four hours and Olivier shepherds the party expertly, like a mother duck helping her chicks across the road. I'm amazed by the patience of the good-natured Parisian drivers who often give us right of way and don't honk their horns.

We start at Vendome, one of five royal places scattered through the city. The huge square was built by Louis XIV to allow his legions of noble subordinates to meet and enjoy the sun.

A huge green column tells the story of Napoleon's victory over Russian and Austrian forces at Austerlitz. The square is bordered by buildings bearing Louis' sun king emblem, some defaced in the revolution.

The opulent Ritz Hotel glints in the sun and across the road are the headquarters of jewellery firms Tiffany and Cartier.

Olivier leads us to the magnificent glass-ceilinged art nouveau Societe Generale building. Still operating as a bank, the 105-year-old building was originally built at great expense so as to attract only the richest clients.

Downstairs the four-level safe is the biggest in Europe and has an 18-tonne door, glass-faced to allow investors to see the complex system of locks keeping it secure. Through the years, the safe has housed untold fortunes and expertly made masterpieces.

A lot went on behind locked doors at the nearby Palais Royal, another building associated with Louis XIV and the place where he allowed his cross-dressing brother to live a life of debauchery in a complex which had 180 bars and thousands of prostitutes.

The cannon on the lawn is fired every day at noon, as it always has been, to alert those engaging in the decadence to the fact that it was midday.

As we cross Paris from the Louvre to the Pantheon and into the maze-like streets of the Saint Germain district where the 1000-year old walls still stand, Olivier weaves tales of slavery in Mauritius, Knights Templar, and the origin of the French flag. He is one of the few tour leaders to have access to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit where the nuns used their charms and copious amounts of wine to dissuade revolution- aries from destroying the chapel and he tells with passion stories that have shaped the city. It's a city full of surprises.

We park our bicycles in the Latin Quarter and walk down a pretty but unremarkable street.

"Most people don't stop here because they don't think there's anything attractive," Olivier says before ducking through a doorway.

I follow, surprised to find a 2000-year old Roman arena where crowds of up to 15,000 once gathered to watch men fight lions and each other.

Now the locals come to play bocce, petanque and football and the Arenes de Lutece rings with the shouts of excited school children. The vast stadium was only uncovered in the 1800s but for many Parisians it still goes unnoticed.

As we head back to the Vendome, Olivier tells us how he's been learning about Paris since the first day of his tours. He had just bought the bikes and was in the square when he saw a man motioning to him from the back of a truck.

"I went to see what he wanted and he was trying to lift a piano down, so I helped him," Olivier says.

"When I came back later he was in the square playing the most beautiful music. I told him he might get arrested. He said, 'I don't care - I'm marking the anniversary of the death of Frederic Chopin.

The man pointed up behind were we are standing to that building and said, 'Chopin worked in there, you know.' I had no idea. I was astounded."

If it hadn't been for an epiphany on the Eurostar and a flat on the Montmartre, I would never have known either.

·Olivier Marie-Antoine's Paris Charm's and Secrets electric bicycle tours are among the many itineraries from which travellers can choose when visiting the French capital with Tempo Holidays.

Niall McIlroy visited France as a guest of Air Asia X and Tempo Holidays.

The West Australian

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