Paris: Adventures in a sardine tin

By Rob McFarland

The often-photographed tour guide Marie and her 2CV in the Place du Trocadero. Photo / Rob McFarland
The often-photographed tour guide Marie and her 2CV in the Place du Trocadero. Photo / Rob McFarland

"Would it be possible to stop for a photo?" I enquire as we approach the impressive Luxor Obelisk in the centre of the Place de la Concorde. "Of course," replies Marie and promptly stops in the middle of the roundabout.

"Here?" I exclaim as cars, trucks and motorbikes weave around us. "It iz okay," she replies with a Gallic shrug and calmly continues explaining the history of the monument while I stick my head out of the sunroof like a meerkat and quickly take a photo.

Driving in central Paris is not for the faint-hearted. Navigating the city's chaotic web of backstreets can be a nightmare and Parisians have a driving style that is best described as assertive. Which is why you need someone like Marie. She is utterly unfazed by the traffic and her compatriots' random manoeuvres.

She works for a tour company called 4 Roues Sous 1 Parapluie, which, depending on how rusty your French is, should give you a clue to what differentiates them from the plethora of other Paris city tours.

As opposed to being crammed in a boring old coach or minibus, I'm experiencing the city from the back seat of one of France's cultural icons - a Citroen 2CV (or 4 wheels under 1 umbrella, as it is affectionately known).

It is amazing how fond the French are of this little sardine tin of a car. I'm staying at the stylish Baltimore Hotel in the 16th arrondissement and as soon as Marie arrives to pick me up a group of passersby gather to gaze longingly at it.

More than three million 2CVs were made between 1948 and 1990. The original A series model's 375cc engine pumped out a whopping nine horsepower, hence the name 2CV or deux chevaux, which means two horses. Our bright red number is rocket-powered in comparison, having been built in 1986.

What makes the 2CV ideal for sightseeing is that its canvas roof can be peeled back completely so you get a fantastic view of the history that bears down on you from all angles.

We start our adventure trundling up Avenue Kleber to one of Paris' most famous landmarks: the Arc de Triomphe. Dedicated to French soldiers who fought in the Napoleonic wars, this towering 50m-high monument is in the centre of the world's scariest roundabout. Imagine 13 roads converging with no lane markings and a bizarre rule that means drivers already on the roundabout must give way to people coming on to it. Thanks to Marie's expert driving skills, we emerge unscathed.

I'm on one of the company's most popular trips, the hour-and-a-half Essential Paris tour, which takes in many big-ticket tourist drawcards. It would be ideal for first-time visitors looking to get their bearings, whereas more experienced travellers may want to try one of the specialised itineraries such as Unknown Paris, Paris by Night or Paris Cinema.

From the Arc de Triomphe, we amble down the boutique-lined Champs-Elysees, past the Louvre and on to the tree-dappled banks of the Seine. Marie keeps up an entertaining commentary from the front seat while effortlessly dodging kamikaze delivery trucks, meandering cyclists and suicidal stray dogs.

Every time we pass another 2CV, both drivers acknowledge each other with a little nod or a wave.

We weave our way through the historic cobbled backstreets of Le Marais, past the former home of writer Victor Hugo and cross the Seine via Ile Saint-Louis - the island home of the legendary all-natural Berthillon icecream.

Our last stop for photos, thankfully, is not in the middle of a roundabout but in the Place du Trocadero. From here I get a picture-postcard shot of the Eiffel Tower, but almost as many people are taking pictures of our 2CV and Marie as are snapping Paris' most famous monument. Marie must turn up often on Facebook.

I come over all dewy-eyed when I have to say au revoir to Marie. From the back seat of a little red sardine tin, Paris has never looked more magical.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Thai Airways flies from Auckland to Bangkok with connections to 13 European cities including Paris.

The author took the Eurostar from London to Paris.

Where to stay: The historic and stylish Baltimore Hotel is well-located near the Arc de Triomphe.

2CV tours: The Essential Paris tour lasts 90 minutes and costs 60 ($93) a person with three people in the car and 90 a person with two. Pickups available. See 4roues-sous-1parapluie.com

Further information: Click here.

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of Thai Airways, Rail Europe and the Baltimore Hotel.

- Herald on Sunday

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