I’m sitting low in a Watsonian basket, bolted securely to the side of Simon’s burnished-red Royal Enfield Interceptor 650 motorcycle. We’re zigzagging through streets beside the Seine River, and despite the fact that I’ve lived in Paris for the best part of a decade, I feel as if I’m seeing it all anew.
After years of on-and-off lockdowns, tourism has returned to Paris. And looking at the volume of visitors now, you would scarcely believe they were ever gone. The city is buzzing, and as we cruise, I think of the trilling flute solo and persistent beat of the 1968 hit song “Il est cinq heures, Paris s’éveille” (“It’s 5 a.m., Paris is waking up”) by singer Jacques Dutronc. The city seems to indeed be waking up after a long slumber, yet the pandemic hit the industry here just as hard as anywhere else. Simon would not be sitting on the bike beside me if it were not for covid. The difficulties faced by the large tourism company he had worked with for years gave him the boost he needed to strike out on his own, and he decided to combine his longtime passion for motorcycles into Txango Tours, a private business that could be as agile and independent as his beloved bikes.
The engine roars to life, and we’re now crossing the Bir-Hakeim bridge, with the Eiffel Tower over our right shoulders. It’s an unusually wet and stormy day, but enough light comes through between dark clouds to give the river a brilliant shine. I laugh giddily as we zoom up the street, the wind tossing loose strands of hair around my helmet. Paris is coming at me thick and fast, and without the barrier of a full windshield, nor the responsibility of being the driver, I can really take it all in.
And I’m never more grateful that I’m not driving than when I see what lies before us: the Arc de Triomphe, and around it, the notorious Étoile roundabout. Twelve large avenues all empty onto this one spot, yet it has no lanes, and — read this part carefully — right of way is given to vehicles entering, rather than those already on the roundabout. Rather than stopping at the edge of this swirling vortex, we dive right in, directly into the path of multiple cars and buses. The temptation to clutch the sides and close my eyes is strong, but magically, order prevails and the traffic moves to absorb us. We spin around the towering Arc, under which a giant French flag billows in the wind. The Avenue des Champs-Élysées swoops away behind us, down toward Paris’s other great traffic jumble — Place de la Concorde — and beyond it, the Tuileries Gardens and Louvre Museum. But none of those will be our next stop. On this aptly named Paris Monuments Tour, we are hitting all the sights, but unlike those on a tour bus, we are nimble and free, and taking as many back roads as possible.
Time and again, usually reticent Parisians pop their heads out of car windows or stop in the street to admire the rig. In 2022, a sidecar is charming, old-fashioned and unusual. Yet they were once a common sight: The first sidecar was invented by a Frenchman and was designed to be attached to a bicycle. They were once part of a common family vehicle, before the advent of affordable family cars. Nowadays, they are just for enthusiasts, like Simon, and indeed, my granddad. When he emigrated from England to Australia, he brought his passion for vintage English cars and bikes with him. He and his wife were keen rallyists and spent their weekends zooming across the outback, Nanna in the passenger seat with her helmet and goggles, maps of Australia spread on her lap in the era before GPS. The motorcycle gene has so far not manifested in me, but there is no denying the thrill of being on a bike.
I’m jolted back to reality as we zoom over some of the French capital’s famous cobblestone streets. Our ride is like a who’s-who of Paris sights: Arc de Triomphe, Palais Garnier, the Louvre, Pont Neuf. And although we cannot quite see it from here, it’s impossible not to think of Paris’s other great lady, the Notre Dame Cathedral. In April 2019, columns of thick black smoke billowed high into the sky, when a fire of unknown origin set the ancient cathedral alight, destroying the spire, most of the roof and some of the upper walls, and taking with it a little bit of the soul of Paris. The smoke has long since cleared, but when you pass nearby, it looks strange and hollow, and it’s yet again under construction, almost 900 years after the first stone was laid.
Pont Neuf is its usual glorious self, its stones worn with centuries of weather and foot traffic, and to the east, groups of tourists board boats on the tip of the Île de la Cité, ready to cruise up and down the Seine River. The river is not an official stop on this tour, but it’s the ever-present icon that ties the city together. Paris is one of the busiest ports in France, but the industrial zones are slowly being squeezed out as the banks of the famous river are converted into pedestrianized public spaces. A wealth of gardens, outdoor gyms, bars and cafes have turned the river into a 24-hour attraction. No wonder that for the 2024 Paris Olympics, the organizing committee is eschewing the usual stadium or concert hall, and it will host the Opening Ceremonies on the river.
We continue, back on the Left Bank now, skirting the river past the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de la Légion d’honneur. Then over the Pont de la Concorde, an unbeautiful bridge that holds great historical significance. Connecting the National Assembly on one side and Place de la Concorde, once blood-soaked from guillotined bodies during the Revolution, on the other, the bridge is built from stones salvaged from the Bastille prison. For now, Place de la Concorde’s centerpiece, a magnificent ancient Egyptian obelisk, is obscured, hidden behind scaffolding as it undergoes restoration. Yet more evidence that, since the stillness of the coronavirus, Paris is once again moving and shaking.
The sky has mostly cleared, and rays of sunlight dance on the golden statues of the Beaux-Arts marvel Pont Alexandre III as we cruise underneath them. In a city of epic views, this is still hard to beat. Before us, the gold dome of the chapel of the Hôtel national des Invalides — better known as the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte — shines brightly, winking in the sunlight as we drive by. We’re weaving through the beautiful, quiet streets of the 7th arrondissement when Simon makes a few quick swerves and “flies the basket,” sending me, the basket and my surprised laughter into the air. In a place as pretty as this, it’s easy to be silly.
Finally, the Grande Dame. Drops of rain slowly drip from the leaves of the plane trees at the Champ-de-Mars, and from the surprisingly delicate ironwork on the Eiffel Tower. There she stands, at once imposing and fine, gently resting on the soaked ground and reaching high into the sky, where she enjoys an expansive view uncluttered by skyscrapers and cranes. The morning weather had slowed the usual crowds, but now they have reemerged, shaking rain from their umbrellas and folding them away, treading a jaunty beat around the ancient City of Lights. Paris s’éveille.
This tour company offers group motorcycle sidecar tours in Paris and Versailles. It’s not a passive experience: One guest rides in the basket, another on the back of the bike (a guide drives). The two-hour Paris Monuments Tour zips to some of the city’s most famous sites, including the Eiffel Tower and Louvre. Up to four guests can take the tour with a second sidecar. The Paris tour is available daily, except Monday. Tours are about $130 for one guest, half off for the second guest.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.