Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century flâneur explored the city by strolling. A flâneur walked, observed, listened, and had no destinations, appointments or deadlines. With due respect to Monsieur Charles Baudelaire, I have proclaimed myself un flâneur de la circulation et du parking when I am in Paris. What have I seen?
Paris, like nature, abhors an unoccupied small space. The smallest spaces seem to have the most in them. And the flâneur finds the treats in these spaces by walking the centuries-old narrow streets and alleys that wiggle through Paris. I will leave the driving to others.
If you must drive and park in the city, I suggest you follow this link. The authors “strongly advise most people not to drive in Paris,” but for those who must it provides advice on parking.
Paris is no place for drivers who are used to parking only in the wide-open prairie-like vastness of North American shopping malls. The scarce, almost impossibly small, on-street parking spots have elevated the art of parallel parking to an urban survival skill in which a small car is essential survival gear. Although I know a bit about where cars come from, the two Parisian Smart cars shown above seem like a breeding pair.
You might have a small nimble car. What about the other drivers? They might not be as careful or skilful as you. Safe parking requires protection from drivers of the crunch-and-grind school of parking. I was struck (so to speak) by the colour-coordinated foam and duct tape on this Citroën 2CV, an eloquent reminder that ingenuity and individuality are alive and well in Paris.
And thinking of Citroëns, a chosen few get parking spaces that are both well-protected and elevated above the common mass of cars. The luckiest ones are at C42 (C for Citroën, 42 for the street address) on the Champs-Elysées. Since 1927, when it acquired the property, the Citroën showrooms have added to the Champ Elysées’ reputation for elegance.
On 27 September 2007, a new building emerged on the site as the Citroën Flagship Showroom. This astounding showplace, the first new building on the Champs Elysées in 30 years, is the work of French architect Manuelle Gautrand, who won this honour through an international competition. “The central focus to the building’s interior are eight rotating turntables each topped by mirrors, each featuring a different Citroën model, that rise up vertically through the building to create a spectacular column of cars.”
But don’t take my word for it. You have to visit it.
Before we leave the Citroën Flagship Showroom, look closely at the rear bumper of the impeccable Citroën 2CV in its amazing parking spot in C42’s column of cars. Note the stylish curving upright element near the end that emphasizes and protects the tail light. Such an elegant touch might be fine for a protected—or even polite—parking world. But what of the street level world of bump-and-grind parking?
Remember the foam protectors on the front bumpers of the blue Citroën with red and blue duct tape. Now we see the other end of the story. And once again, my compliments to practical ingenuity.
While we’re on the Champs Elysées, let’s take a short walk to L’Atelier Renault. This is a place to linger. Aside from the boutique and exhibit space for both cars and art, the main attraction is the restaurant bar above the showroom. We have sipped, eaten, talked, rested, and even written there many times.
The memory of our first visit to L’Atelier Renault is the most intoxicating. From our table overlooking the Champs Elysées, we could see the banner for the 2006 Paris Auto Show (Mondial de l’Automobile) that we had visited a few days before. Dating back to 1898, the formerly annual show, now held only every two years, is the oldest and (for us) the best automobile show in the world. In addition to displays of the newest, latest, fastest, most famous, most futuristic, most exotic and perhaps dreamiest cars, it was also the site of a large well-presented collection of historic French vehicles.
Try to imagine our excitement a few days after the Motor Show when we visited L’Atelier Renault to find an exhibit about the Renault plant and its workers at Boulogne-Billiancourt. The photographer? Robert Doisneau. Long before his photographs of lovers at the Hotel de Ville, he was photographing workers at their stations in the assembly plant, as well as at the company’s cafeteria tables, where a bottle of wine awaited each worker.
The Champs Elysées is not the only place with one-of-a-kind parking places. One day as I walked along the Seine, I took the image below. I call it the “bring-your-own” parking spot.
It was no ordinary parking spot and no ordinary car. Having once been a car-crazed teenager, I recognized it instantly as an Amphicar.
I like cars and I like driving. One of my summer jobs as a university student was loading trucks on the night shift. When the trucks were loaded, I made obstacle courses out of oil and gasoline barrels and practised backing up and parking in tight spots, a skill that has served me well. If I ever find myself with a car in Paris, I’m ready.
Text and photographs copyright Norman R. Ball.