We sent motoring journalist Robert Puyal to the City of Light on a midnight search for a Secret Circuit.
What if we took the time, as we rarely do, to criss-cross the streets of an exceptional city like Paris?
Paris – the name alone speaks of dreams, ideals and emotions. Even for a Parisian. But Paris is also, more mundanely, something of an urban catastrophe, whose town-planners seem determined to gridlock the city. And yet, the car is the only thing that can transport you smoothly from one neighbourhood to another – from one world to another. Especially at night.
We glide through the streets, flitting between two of these different worlds: the Place de la Bastille, shrine to the revolution and still the rallying point for angry protestors, and the Place Vendôme, home to palaces and jewellers, beautiful but reserved, slightly cold and starchy, harking back to the days of empire.
It’s just six minutes between these two worlds; separating them are Rue Saint Antoine, Rue de Rivoli and Rue de Castiglione. The latter switches suddenly on to a vast cobbled parquet, smooth as a dance floor. Here, you’re sorely tempted to start waltzing the car around the Vendôme column at the centre of the square.
And then you’re upon it. La Tour Eiffel. Everybody knows its familiar outline, but the sheer scale of it still takes you by surprise. From the Bir-Hakeim bridge, itself made of riveted iron, the Eiffel Tower seems the perfect size, in harmony with its surroundings.
As much as we’d like to stay and admire, there’s Paris’ other famed man-made structure to sample: the Périphérique Parisien. There’s not a great deal of admiring to be done here. Well, unless you count turning off to cross one of its many bridges. Four are pedestrian and 17 carry tube and rail lines.
Gliding over each with one short burst of throttle, we sew the two banks of Paris together. The Pont-Neuf, the city’s oldest bridge. The Pont Alexandre III, in all its baroque flamboyancy, that takes you from near the Champs-Élysées towards the Les Invalides and Napoleon’s tomb. The Pont de Grenelle, on whose central pier stands the blueprint for the Statue of Liberty, gazing out, like a ship’s figurehead, towards her big sister in New York.
Blurring the Lines
For a long time, the two banks of Paris stood in stark opposition. On the left bank, were the artists, the students, the anti-establishment; on the right, the Bourse [stock market], the most beautiful neighbourhoods, and the Palais Royal.
Nowadays, the distinction has blurred. Various ministries are to be found on the left bank and modern art has largely passed to the right bank.
On to the most beautiful avenue in the world, according to the French, who rarely display an excess of modesty when it comes to their national heritage. All the same, the Champs Élysées might actually disappoint. To start with, it’s never quite empty, even in the wee hours, and little service roads that once ran the length of it and allowed for some car-bound window shopping are now gone.
The Périphérique Parisien is France’s busiest road. Every day, the city’s inhabitants waste hours in an exhausting bumper-to-bumper crawl. But at night, of course, it’s an open road. With a speed limit of about 50mph we’re not talking about Magny-Cours here, but it’s enough of a contrast with the 30mph limit on the capital’s main avenues. With the cruise control set, one circuit takes half an hour. I circle the town, like an aeroplane coming in to land, and choose a new point of approach through one of Paris’ 36 portes.
Every street in Paris has a story to tell. And the automobile has been the perfect travelling companion from which to hear those tales. Let’s see; which other kinds of Paris have we time to visit before the dawn breaks?