I probably have the same delusions that most Americans have of living this bohemian lifestyle in Paris, complete with daily trips to pick up fresh baguettes at a corner boulangerie, strolls through a vegetable market beside the Seine, and zooming around the tiny back streets of Montmartre on a scooter, Amelie style. Paris is one of those places that I hate that I love so much. It just sounds too cliche to say, “Paris is the most amazing city in the world”. Unfortunately, for me, it’s the most amazing city in the world. Inevitably, I’ll take a random trip and fall in love with another place like Budapest, or Tokyo, but inevitably, I’ll make a layover back to the French capital and take a quick stroll around the Rue Mouffetard, and every time, I return to that same tired conclusion: This place is magical.
My business partner-in-crime, Amy Cowan, and I had been throwing giant Frenchy Bastille Day street parties in our neighborhood of Oak Cliff for the past decade and by year ten, we decided we needed to experience the real thing in Paris itself. We figured we could turn it into a business trip too and check out some vineyards in the Rhone Valley in hopes of hustling some of our own private labeled wine back to Texas for our restaurants. That part was gonna be a long shot, but it justified staying in Europe for more than a weekend. But my big goal was to find and rent a real-deal Vespa and roll around the town like a couple of local poseurs.
I had done a little bit of research seeking out businesses that offered rentals in the city, but most of the sites I ran across looked like they were built in 2008 with pictures of really cheesy looking scooters that looked like spaceships along with vague "fill out this form for a quote" contact pages. I hate those. I wanted a real deal, old school looking Vespa with those classic lines, and I didn't want to fill out a bunch of paperwork. Also, most of the sites had vague pre-requirements for things like motorcycle licenses in your originating country. Who has time for that? I was also confused at the insurance requirements. I figured my best option was to just land, walk into a shop, play dumb, and see if I could roll out the door with no questions asked. I'd also scoured the message boards on travel blogs looking for advice and found endless reviews that said, “Absolutely DO NOT rent a scooter in Paris, you WILL die." This just made it all the more compelling. Fortunately, Amy and I share a presumption that we’ll die early anyways...I had cancer and she lost her mom early, so we tend to have a damn the torpedoes mentality on that kinda stuff.
We set out from Dallas in late July, leaving our 100 degree weather and arrived in a Paris that was also experience its own epic heat wave with similar temperatures. So that wasn't awesome, but at least we knew how to cope. The first snag in our trip occurred on the day we touched down. I was pumped about finding us a hotel next to the Bastille, which I thought was a boon, since I waited until a week before we landed to search for a place AND we’d be at ground zero for where all the action took place way back when. We dropped our bags off, set to walking, and made a b-line for the historic spot. Only problem was, apparently the Bastille was destroyed. Who knew? I just assumed it was stormed. Apparently, late 18th-Century Parisians didn’t have the foresight to anticipate the value of historic preservation and the epic tourist dollars that came along with it.
After that dismal failure, we marched on in search of a decent bowl of French onion soup, which the french call onion soup, a baguette, and something to drink. We’re obviously sophisticated travelers. We landed around mid-day, and I’ve learned from years of being on the road, it’s best to just muscle through that first full day without falling asleep to avoid jet lag. The only problem is, Amy likes a late night with endless streams of beer. I’m not a teetotaler, but I definitely wasn’t built with the iron liver that she somehow inherited, so I should have expected we’d be up past midnight. I wasn’t, however, expecting us to be out until 4AM. We stumbled upon the one bar that appeared to stay open deep into the night, which meant “Game ON!” for Amy. That sucked so hard. But it was also fascinating. Someone had lit a mini bonfire of oily rags in the middle of the street, and bartenders kept casually walking out and dousing it with pitchers of water. After minutes, it would reignite, and they’d start the process all over again. This was all in a backdrop of 200 year old mansard roofed buildings, tiny cobblestone streets, and a scaffolding surrounded Notre Dame only blocks away which had suffered its own fiery fate weeks earlier.
That next day was Bastille Day, July 14th and I was determined to rent a scooter. We started the morning by popping into an old corner boulangerie, which was amazing...but probably only because I’ve mythologized Paris to an absurd degree. There were rows of beautiful pastries filled with creamy marzipans, covered in crushed pistachios, drizzled with fruity sauces, and yet we got chocolate croissants. Because, you know, Americans. After that, we made our way to a spot that Google Maps said rented vespas.
There were a handful of shops that popped up, but the one I keyed in on was called Freescoot, right off of the Left Bank and directly beside the Seine (within eyeshot of the beautiful flying buttresses of the Notre Dame). I love this little edge of the famous "Latin Quarter". It's home to Shakespeare and Company, the classic bookstore originally opened by American Sylvia Beach in 1919 and frequented by so many famous writers like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Ezra Pound. Lined with quirky chalkboards, open tables of books, and a classic Wallace fountain out front, you immediately feel the immense history when walking over its creaky boarded floors. It's also close to one of my all time favorite underground (literally) jazz bars, Caveau de la Huchette. We'd later use this as one of our inspirations behind our own bar Revelers Hall in Dallas.
Upon arrival to Freescoot, we spotted a row of bright red Vespas. They weren't the old school clutch models, but the simple modern turn-and-burn kind, which was probably not a bad thing. One note of worth, I do own a 2005 125cc Vespa back home that's based on the classic 70's models, so I wasn't walking in blind, and it definitely does matter when contemplating your own scooter riding in the City of Lights. We walked into the shop and found a relaxed 50ish year old dude sitting behind the table and asked if we could rent a 125cc or 200cc Vespa. He asked about the whole motorcycle license thing and I sighed with resignation. Fortunately, he said you can still rent a 75cc model without a license, but you'd have to stay off of any higher speed roads and couldn't go all that far, like to the Marseille (DAMN! That was actually exactly where I was hoping to head). I was a little bummed...with two people riding, 75cc might get us up to 35mph, and that seemed way underpowered, but I relented. He said, "You'll be surprised, you really don't need much more than that." Turns out, he was right. There's so much stop and go traffic in Paris, that you're rarely getting up to speed, so I didn't end up noticing as much as I'd anticipated.
Other things to note, you have to wear gloves and a helmet while riding. It's the law. The helmets I get, but gloves? That kinda sucks, especially considering you'd have to stop and take your phone out randomly to check your location on Google Maps and constantly be pulling gloves off and on. Oh well, let's get this show on the road. I filled out a pretty basic form, no insurance required, tested out a couple helmets, ran through a 5 minute review of the basics: trunk here, accelerator here, brake here, this key does this, that key does that, et cetera, and we were off. One thing to note, they give you a giant u-lock and a heavy chain lock. One for the front wheel, one for the back. Apparently, these things get ripped off all the time, so that was a bit unnerving. It also meant that quickly parking and jumping off to check out a quick site wasn't gonna be all that quick. Lock the handlebars, lock the front wheel, lock the back wheel, put the gloves in the trunk, and lug around the helmet. Oh, and you have to park in scooter parking spaces only. A law was made recently that was discouraging the build-up of scooters on random sidewalk spots. Probably a good thing, but it would make it slightly more inconvenient when trying to find a stall. But, all that was a small price to pay for zipping around the classic boulevards of this town in the way it was meant to be experienced.
We pulled out onto the Quai de la Tournelle, and in no time began getting a feel for the scooter. One of the interesting things you find when on a Vespa in France is that people intuitively look out for you and make berths. Drivers are not offended at all when you jump in front of them or angle closely beside them. In fact, they expect it. In no time, I realized that the small dashed lines used to separate traffic doubled as scooter lanes, and streams of fellow riders would roll past whenever I decided to do what I felt was the right thing and stop behind a car. It was extremely nerve-wracking in the beginning, but you get a feel for it with a bit of time. I learned to pretty much follow what was in front of me, and be as assertive as possible.
We coursed our way around the whole city, bouncing over cobblestones, speeding down the Champs-Élysées and around the giant traffic circle surrounding the Arc de Triomphe. I was really curious how we'd deal with something that looked impossible to navigate, but it was relatively smooth. We ended up getting lost in Montmartre, which was where I really noticed the lack of oomph from the tiny engine since the hills are pretty substantial around the Sacré-Cœur, but it still chugged its way up and around...just at a snail's pace.
Ironically, the only danger we experienced was near the end of the night. We accidentally heading down a dead end lane, and deciding to pop a curb at a paltry 2mph in an attempt to make a cut through. It was too slow to clear the jump, which led to me dropping the machine on its side. Fortunately, Amy’s leg broke our fall, leaving a perfect muffler-branded burn on her calf that would bubble up and blister throughout the trip. That wasn’t wonderful, but as far as cool scar stories go, who could beat: “Oh yeah, I got that while crashing on a Vespa while riding around Paris?"
I kept the bike overnight, and that next morning, Amy decided she was done, but I still wanted to get some time in on the saddle and hit as many sights as possible. Since I couldn't make the trek out to the Marseille, I spent that last day riding up and down neighborhoods like la Montparnasse, and la Marais, and pretty much all the lower number Arrondissements. At several points, I'm sure I made some wrong turns down some one-way streets, and seem to recall a traffic officer pointing at me with what I assumed was a "pull over" signal, but I played dumb and kept on rolling. My dad and I actually have inherited the nickname "Wrong Way Roberts" for our random propensity to find ourselves driving in the wrong direction. But even with the sporadic turnarounds, it was still awesome. My final downfall was attempting to track down a gas station in the inner city area. Everything that popped up on my map turned out to be what looked like an old school single pump sitting up on a sidewalk with no credit card slot, and those classic black and white manual roller numbers. Nearly on fumes and worried I'd be walking this thing back to the shop, I eventually found a spot deep in the 15th Arrondissement. I rolled back up to the shop where a sign hung in the window that said, "Be back in 10 minutes". 30 minutes later (so very Parisian), the shop owner strolled back up, let us in and we dropped off the keys. Simple as that.
All in all, I'm so glad I gave it a shot. I definitely white-knuckled my way around several spots, I'm sure I broke a handful of laws, and probably pissed off a handful of Parisians in the process, but it was all well worth it. And I'd absolutely do it again.