There’s something about getting on a bicycle that makes you look at a city quite differently. For one thing, you become much more aware of hills. And streets that end in flights of stairs, going up or down. Suddenly, the city is full of rises and falls.
Now that you can see Paris by Velib’, perhaps a quick tour of the city’s topography is in order. The highest point and best-known hill is the Butte Montmartre, which is why Sacré Coeur offers such splendid views. However, Belleville and Ménilmontant in the eastern part of the city are almost as high, and spread over a much larger area.
Chaillot on the Right Bank, opposite the Eiffel Tower, is now a modest hill with a gradual slope up to the Palais de Chaillot. Originally, the hill was much higher, but it was partly levelled in 1867 for the Great Exposition that year; the rock was used to build up the Champ de Mars on the opposite bank. Still, that area has quite a few streets that end in stairs.
Montparnasse, despite its impressive name and the fact that it is the site of the tallest building inside the city, is really an area of fairly gentle slopes rising up towards the south. There are two other small hills on the Left Bank. One is the Butte aux Cailles, and the other is the hill on which the Pantheon sits, the Montagne Ste-Geneviève.
The flatter parts are, not surprisingly, those closest the river. These areas are so low-lying that in January 1910, when the Seine overflowed its banks, it turned streets near the river into canals. Although these were the worst-off areas, places as far from the Seine as the area around the Gare St-Lazare were also affected.
A look at a map of prehistoric Paris explains why. Thousands of years ago, much of what is now the centre of the city (the first four arrondissements) was a large island in the Seine, an arm of which flowed to the north, along the line of the what eventually became Les Grands Boulevards. Today, this whole area of central Paris is nice and flat and makes easy bicycling.
Your best bet for riding from the Seine to the north of the city without working up a sweat is to follow the route of the Canal St Martin, which threads its way between Montmartre and Belleville and comes out at the Parc de la Villette. Do it on a Sunday and you get to visit some good markets along the way.
Heading south, the flattest route is along what was once the course of a buried stream called La Bièvre (there is still a street of the same name), which works its way between Montparnasse and the Butte aux Cailles. Or simply follow the course of the Seine downriver in the western part of the city.
Links: Read more about the Paris Flood of 1910 at Paris Under Water, which features photographs of what the city looked like during the inondations. A website sponsored by the national government offers maps and photos of the destruction along the whole course of the Seine in 1910 and another by the Mairie de Paris provides further details and photographs showing what happened inside the city.