A Soft-Pedaled Escape From Paris

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IT was easy to imagine that we'd pedaled our bicycles deep into a Pissarro painting, one of his sun-dappled, late-19th-century Impressionistic scenes of riotous summer vegetation outside Paris. Rows of soldier-straight poplars lined the narrow Canal de l'Ourcq, their leaves rustling in a breeze that tempered the warm August air. The surrounding woods smelled heavy and green, and the canal's still, dark waters reflected the slender poles of a few fishermen on its grassy banks.

Through gaps in the dense woods I caught flashes of golden wheat fields ready for harvest. Modern intrusions into this tableau were few: Mac, my partner, and I, zipping along a canal-side path on the bikes we'd rented in Paris, nearly 15 miles behind us, and the Yankees cap shading the face of a napping angler.

The Canal de l'Ourcq may have begun as a Napoleonic-era project to transport freight and to supply Paris with drinking water, but in recent years it has become a favored route for Parisian cyclists looking to escape the city. A paved, well-marked cycling path follows the canal for about 17 miles as it angles northeast out of the city, through the departments of Seine-St.-Denis and Seine-et-Marne, to the handsome town of Claye-Souilly.

The path marks a steady and fascinating progression from urban to pastoral, at first skirting Métro lines, train yards and old, disused factories now splashed with fantastic graffiti art before traversing tidy suburban parks and, finally, a sylvan landscape that can feel little changed from a century ago. Along the way, there are fine picnic spots, and, this being France, a cafe or two for a pick-me-up coffee.

During a monthlong stay in Paris this summer, Mac and I decided to take the long ride even though we're mere "vacation cyclists," guys who don't own bikes, tend to ride them only on vacation , and wouldn't be caught dead in spandex. To get an idea of the route, I checked the French-language tourism site of the Seine-St.-Denis Department. What became immediately clear was that we'd need decent bikes for the trip -- nothing hard-core like skinny-tire racing bikes or knobby-tire off-road cycles with dozens of gears, but basic, multispeed road bikes. Instead of the sturdy, three-speed bikes of Paris's municipal Vélib' program, which would be too clunky and expensive (39 euros apiece for a six-hour rental, or about $50 at $1.28 to the euro), we found a handful of outfits offering everything from kiddie-sized cycles to tandems to serious all-terrain models.

I chose Paris à Vélo C'est Sympa because it was within walking distance of our apartment in the Marais and near the flat bike lane along Boulevard Richard-Lenoir, which would shoot us directly toward the start of the Canal de l'Ourcq path. And the price was right: 15 euros for a daylong rental of a well-maintained six-speed cruiser.

We headed off on a Friday around 10 a.m., encountering a kaleidoscope of Parisian morning scenes -- fruit sellers hawking melons at a crowded outdoor market; a prancing, shaggy-coated spaniel out for his constitutional; a woman scrubbing her front steps; other cyclists running errands or heading to work.

Following Richard-Lenoir we reached the quays of the Canal St.-Martin, where we pedaled gently uphill alongside traffic until we reached the alternately paved and cobblestone pedestrian promenade along the Bassin de la Villette, the large rectangle of water just beyond which Paris ends and the Canal de l'Ourcq begins. With the basin and the shining, futuristic sphere of the Cité des Sciences to our left, we entered a short tunnel under the Boulevard Périphérique to exit Paris.

We emerged from the tunnel into a world startlingly different from the manicured cityscape behind us. Towering plumes of steam -- and the smell of fresh linens -- poured from the vents of a massive 19th-century laundry facility, while farther on, a barge was offloading gravel at a cement plant. In the densely populated, immigrant-heavy communes of Pantin and Bobigny, just outside Paris, we passed a rail yard of sleek, high-speed TGV trains and for several hundred yards rode alongside tracks where Paris Métro trains clattered by.

Graffiti covered fences, overpasses and the walls of old factories -- not just tags but poems, political diatribes and entire spray-painted works of art of buxom warrior princesses, a headless Buddha, skulking secret agents. Though the level, paved path can be crowded on weekends, we saw few people on our Friday ride -- other cyclists, a handful of in-line skaters, an occasional jogger. On one bench, shaded by a crab-apple tree, a trio of Roma musicians sat with a pink guitar.

Eventually, grassy parkland began to bracket the canal, bordered by town houses with well-tended gardens. By 11:45 a.m., when we reached the town of Les Pavillons-sous-Bois after an easy ride with many stops, we were solidly in the leafy suburbs of Paris. At the heavily wooded Parc Forestier de la Poudrerie (also known as Parc Forestier de Sevran), we picnicked on a secluded bench overlooking a glade filled with cruising dragonflies, and just beyond that, after a ride that included a few short but steep slopes, we stopped for postlunch coffee in the town of Villeparisis.

After that, the path followed the canal deeper into the countryside. We saw no more houses and almost no other people, and for the next 20 minutes, time seemed to have skipped a century as we rolled through a tunnel of green formed by overarching trees. We continued on a hard-packed, decomposed stone canal-side path to the center of Claye-Souilly where, by 2:15 p.m., we were sitting in a flower–filled park, next to the 19th-century city hall and within earshot of a splashing fountain, eating financiers aux fruits rouges from a pastry shop while contemplating our return to Paris.

The thought of a long ride back was not attractive, but we had another option: We made the easy ride back to Villeparisis, bought tickets (4.65 euros each) at its RER station, and boarded a train for Paris with our bikes. Thirty minutes later, we were coasting downhill from the Gare du Nord to the rental shop, where we turned in the bikes before stepping into a bar to celebrate our big ride with ice-cold beers.

"Did you rent bikes today?" the bartender asked, nodding toward the shop, and we told him we'd made it all the way to Claye-Souilly. He stuck out his lower lip and nodded a few times. "Pas mal," he said, not bad.

High praise, indeed, from a Parisian barman.

OFF THE PATH

The Canal de l'Ourcq bike path passes two large parks. In Bobigny, close to Paris, the 37-acre Parc Départemental de la Bergère combines green space with amenities like tennis courts and children's play areas. The nearly 340 acres of Parc Forestier de la Poudrerie (sometimes called Parc Forestier de Sevran) are laced with solitary paths and dotted with 19th-century buildings connected with the gunpowder factory (poudrerie) once located there; one of the buildings, the Pavillon Maurouard, hosts concerts and exhibitions, while another houses a museum devoted to the history of gunpowder. For information on both parks, check parcsinfo.seine-saint-denis.fr.

Summer often brings organized activities along the canal, including guided walks, graffiti art events, and bals barges, which are public dances on moored barges.

On the Place du Marché in Villeparisis, open-air markets take place on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.; villeparisis.fr/info_marche.php.

There is very little food to be bought along the bike path. You'll find a buvette (snack shop) in the Parc Forestier de la Poudrerie, and a bare-bones cafe, a few basic restaurants and a small grocery store for water and other provisions on the Place du Marché in Villeparisis.

A better bet would be to either bring a picnic or pedal through to the center of Claye-Souilly, around the city hall, where you'll find a good selection of food shops, cafes and restaurants.

travel

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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