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July 26, 2011

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Biking and picnicking at Versailles

I was riding along trails laid out for French monarchs, a bottle of wine and a day's lunch on my back. But where Louis XIV rode a horse, I had a humble beach cruiser.

The clash between the formal surroundings and my comfortable bicycle somehow made both better. My bike paths that day were the grounds of the Palace of Versailles, a former hunting lodge on the outskirts of Paris that Louis XIV turned into an opulent symbol of the power of the French crown. Now, long after the French Revolution, the palace and its formal gardens are one of the country's most-visited sites. As with many other stops around Paris, the stifling summer crowds can quickly overwhelm anyone who braves a tour on foot.

On a bike, however, it's a different story. The sardine-like atmosphere of the Chateau gives way to acres of open space, allowing you to feel for at least a moment what it would have been like to live amid all the luxury. And, because the palace was built with traveling by horseback in mind, the spread-out grounds are much more manageable on two wheels. A 30-minute trudge on foot is cut down to five by bike, allowing a visitor to experience the serenity of the gardens without wondering where the next bench is.

I hadn't brought my bike with me to France, which is why I signed up for a group tour through Fat Tire Bike Tours, one of several companies that offers day-long bike tours of the palace grounds. I arrived at its office around the corner from the Eiffel Tower just before 9am, where I was given my choice of more than 20 three-speed bicycles, each painted either bright blue or red.

From there, my tour guide, a New Zealander named Karl who had lived in France for the last year, shepherded 20 of us on a 10-minute ride through the streets of Paris to the nearest commuter train station. We lifted our bikes onto the train and tied them together in groups of four.

Half an hour later, we were in the town of Versailles, now a well-heeled suburb of the city. We left our bikes with Karl (not the first time that he would have bike-sitting duty that day) and spent almost an hour browsing through the local farmer's market, picking out the fresh baguettes, cheese and strawberries that would make up our picnic later in the day. Now armed with provisions, we remounted our bikes and rode up a short hill to the palace grounds.

Over the next two hours, it felt as if the place was ours alone. We pedaled through rolling green fields, past white horses and shorn sheep, all under the soft green canopy of rows of towering trees. Karl occasionally stopped the group and gave us a short background on the sites we were passing, from a pink marbled mini-chateau built by Louis XV to the bizarre fake rustic village that Marie Antoinette ordered built as her personal playground. There wasn't time to enter any of the buildings that we passed, but the bright, sunny day was more welcoming than the interiors anyway.

We soon came upon the Grand Canal, the cross-shaped artificial lake constructed in 1679 that stretches for a mile at its longest point, and rode on its edge until we reached its top. Once there, we parked our bicycles and spread out for a group picnic, with the grand Chateau visible straight ahead in the distance. Members of the group, ranging from a family of five from San Diego to a young Canadian backpacking through Europe alone, shared their food and stories of Paris, swapping restaurant recommendations and favorite sites.

Whether from the wine or simply drunk on the surroundings, a simple meal spread out on grass had never tasted so good - or passed so quickly.

Once the picnic was over, we continued along the Grand Canal in the direction of the Chateau. We briefly left the palace grounds, crossed a highway, and were soon among the tourist buses massed at the front entrance of Versailles. A ticket to the Chateau was a part of the tour package, so Karl once again stayed behind with the bikes while each of us spent the next hour and a half exploring on his own before we headed back to Paris, arriving in the city by 5:30pm and just in time for dinner.

It's hard to find a gold-laden palace disappointing, but after the wonderful bike ride, the Chateau was the biggest letdown of the day. While it was a historical treat to stand in the room where the treaty ending World War I was signed, I couldn't help but look out the windows, wanting nothing more than to spend a couple more hours bicycling through the sunny playground of kings.


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