The largest public park in Paris, the Bois de Vincennes, is an absolute delight for cyclists.
A few minutes in the Bois de Vincennes and it's easy to forget you're just a half hour by bike from the Louvre and even closer to the banks of the Seine.
The Bois de Vincennes – the Woods of Vincennes – really are like a magical faraway land of lakes and parks and forest-lined bike routes. If you have a spare hour in Paris – for that's all it takes to fall in love with this place – then a simple bike ride through the heart to of the woods is a lovely antidote to the crowds of the city proper.
Located in the 12th arrondissement on the eastern edge of the city, the Bois de Vincennes covers some 995 hectares of prime Paris real estate. You can fit three New York Central Parks into the the Bois de Vincennes, which also nudges out London's Richmond Park by 40 hectares.
The brainchild of Napoleon III, the park's development dates back to 1855, though the woods themsevles were used for hunting during Roman times and the nearby Chateau de Vincennes was started by King Philip VI of France in 1336. It was a key residency for French kings until Louis XIV decided in 1682 that he preferred Versailles. Chateau de Vincennes is now open to the public.
The 1900 summer Olympics were largely based in the Bois de Vincennes, including the cycling, which was housed in the velodrome here (there's still a public velodrome in the western corner of the park).
Today, cyclists whizz around the park and through the woods at their leisure. While it's possible to find a secluded wooded path during the daytime, the woods are commuter central before and after work, providing a stress-free passage to the office for locals.
There are four lakes providing ideal picnic spots and boats for rental. Covering 12 hectares, Lac Daumesnil is the largest of the lakes and a key focal point of the park. (Londoners will perhaps equate the feel of the area around here to that of Battersea Park, though I didn't see a single sign that banned cycling and stopped me in my tracks).
The Parc floral de Paris, one of four botanical gardens in Paris, is in the north of the park, the Paris zoo in the west, a farm in the east, and everything from the largest Buddha in Europe to archery, baseball and outdoor theatres in between. Oh, and the ocasional cafe as well.
There are designated bike routes throughout the Bois de Vincennes, which is – with the exception of a few crossroads – is a car-free zone. There are Vélib bike share docking stations in the park, while bikes (with baskets and pannier racks) are also available from the nearby Hotel de La Porte Dorée on the edge of the forest (and the hotel we stayed at). It's run by cyclists – the owners, Christina and Laurent, cycle through the woods every day on their way to work.
Paris is many things – wonderful tourist attractions, famous buildings and galleries and museums galore. It's also – more and more – becoming one of the world's truly great cycling cities.
This is nowhere more evident that in the Bois de Vincennes.