A ride to set hearts racing

Philippa Coates grabs the family and dons a helmet to tour Louis and Marie's humble Parisian estate. 

If the guidebooks and cliches are to be believed, you are supposed to go to Paris with a lover, or meet one there, perhaps while gazing wistfully into the Seine from the Pont des Arts.

But what if you're in Paris with your dear old dad and your pre-pubescent son? Shopping, intimate dinners and twilight cruises are out but there is always a bicycle day trip to the Palace of Versailles.

For me, what this lacked in romance (although the tour leader was cute), it made up for in treasured memories.

Providing equal parts education, entertainment and exercise, the tour takes eight hours and requires a slight degree of fitness. My dad laughed disdainfully when I asked if he could still ride a bike. My son, 11, would choose riding over walking any day.

It's no wonder Versailles all but wiped out France's economy.

It was a sparkling, early summer morning when we arrived at the Fat Tire Bike Tours headquarters, a couple of blocks from the Eiffel Tower. Our fellow riders - mostly American - were in high spirits as they selected red or blue bikes bearing names such as Strawberry Blond and Shishkabob.

Our leader, a Texan named Brent, promised us a day of "awesome" fun, food and fascinating history. My son liked him immediately. Today, Brent said, it was market day in Versailles, so we could stock up on the freshest food from the region for our picnic later on the banks of the Grand Canal in the palace grounds. Brent's confidence was something we were grateful for as the 25 of us veered out into the peak-hour Paris traffic towards the RER train station a couple of kilometres away.

With safety in numbers it was fun to be riding through Paris. Better still, no drivers appeared to be in the mood to say hello.

At RER we lugged our bikes down the stairs to the platform. Dad pretended he wasn't 79 and refused any offers of help. Somewhat nervously, we waited for a train marked "VICK".


The first one that arrived was more full than the 7.50am CityRail service from Katoomba. When the carriage doors opened the sardined passengers were alarmed to be confronted by a platform of cyclists. We were similarly alarmed at the sight of them. Brent made a call to wait for the next train.

This was less crowded and we were able to get 25 bicycles and riders aboard in 30 seconds - just. About 20 minutes later we arrived in Versailles and followed Brent to the markets. He chained our bikes together and sent us off to shop for lunch, with detailed recommendations for the best patisseries and local wines.

I gave my son some Euros and a couple of French phrases to remember, while Dad and I stocked up on ready-made baguettes, pastries and cherries. There was much to tempt us but we could only buy what we could carry and consume that day.

Back on the road, we were a happy bunch, confidently wheeling our way through Versailles' quaint streets, enjoying the scenery and ambience of this satellite town. The bikes were easy to ride, with wide springy seats, high cruiser handlebars and three speeds for the occasional incline.

Before long we reached the gate to the Grand Parc, created for shooting expeditions by Louis XIII, the king who got the Versailles ball rolling.

The palace estate is 800 hectares, 100 of which are formal gardens, fountains, lakes and flowerbeds. Gravel drives snake for 20 kilometres through forests of oak, ash, beech and cherry trees. Best of all, there are no cars to worry about.

After a pleasant ride in dappled sunlight we arrived at Marie Antoinette's Hamlet, a miniature French village with thatched buildings and a water mill she had built in 1783 so she could play-act at being a peasant girl. Then we came to the Grand Trianon, a pink palace built by King Louis XIV - as an escape from the main palace. (Trianon was the name of a village he bought and then demolished, so he could build on the land.) The Petit Trianon nearby was built by Louis XV in 1763 as a love-nest for his long-term mistress Madame Pompadour.

Louis XVI then gave it to his 19-year-old queen, Marie Antoinette, for her exclusive use. (They were not a close couple - he was more into stamp collecting and would have preferred not being king at all.)

Strolling among the manicured gardens surrounding the Grand Trianon, we got our first glimpse of the Grand Canal, Louis XIV's outrageous 1.6-kilometre water feature designed to remind him of Venice.

In the shape of a cross and entirely hand-dug, it is breathtaking for its scale and symmetry.

This being France, the linden and beech trees lining the canal don't have a branch out of place. The palace is closed on Mondays so the gardeners can get to work sculpting the 200,000 trees in the grounds.

At picnic time, we headed to the water's edge and our first glimpse of the palace. The Grand Trianon was large but this was extraordinary. Suddenly, it became obvious why the revolutionaries marched from Paris in October 1789 to storm this monument of greed and drag its occupants back to the capital.

After eating, my son dashed across the grass and leapt into the canal. Before long, everyone was taking the plunge.

We dried off and rode on to the palace. Those French kings took themselves way too seriously, especially Louis XIV, who turned his father's humble hunting lodge into this ostentatious spectacle and gave himself the title of Sun King for the duration of his 72-year reign.

The Hall of Mirrors, where the Allies and Germany signed a peace treaty ending World War I, was built to the Sun King's glory.

The Grand Apartments were just that - grand salons lavishly appointed in marble and gilded bronze, filled with murals, statues, paintings and tapestries. There the kings and queens slept, woke and dressed, always with dozens of servants, doctors and courtiers in attendance.

We toured ballrooms, galleries, the Chapel Royal - just a fraction of the palace's 700 rooms.

It's no wonder building Versailles required about 30,000 workers and all but wiped out France's economy. As Brent put it, Louis XIV built it, Louis XV enjoyed it and Louis XVI paid for it with his head.

We emerged from the palace in need of fresh air and the simple joy that only riding a bicycle can bring. By 5pm we were back at Fat Tires HQ, bidding our farewells and ready to flake out on our hotel beds.

Romantic Paris could wait.


Getting there

Air France flies daily from Sydney to Paris, see airfrance.com.au.

Touring there

Fat Tire Bike Tours, 24 rue Edgar Faure, phone +33 1 5658 1054, see fattirebiketoursparis.com.

Fat Tire operates tours from March to November, except during the final stage of the Tour de France.

For tours during the off-season, email info@FatTireBikeToursParis.com.

Tours cost EUR60 ($120) for students and adults (includes guide, bicycle, transportation to and from Versailles, Chateau entrance and audio guide).