In the best of times, the streets of Montmartre are thronged with tourists trying to absorb some of the village’s former country charm. Walking the narrow streets one inevitably ponders how pleasant it must have been when this place, much removed from bustling Paris, would have been the kind of quiet, inexpensive place where artists flourish. While the streets and buildings are much the same as they were, the streets now regularly fill to capacity, making it difficult to imagine how the formerly quiet village must have been.
But today we are not walking. Rather, we are bundled into a tiny classic red Citroën 2CV. As we slowly inch our way down the street, a river of tourists happily parts before us. From our comfortable seats, and without the need to concentrate on negotiating our way through the crowd, we have the opportunity to fully engage our imaginations in the experience at hand.
But I have jumped into the middle of the story. Let’s get back to the beginning.
A friend recently contacted me with a very specific travel question. Her mom, an avid traveler since youth, recently had undergone some medical treatments and was still recuperating. How could her mom continue to engage in her passion for travel? We put our thinking caps on to come up with some things to do that would enable her to continue to have the kind of travel experiences she treasures, without the exertion that is usually required.
After some searching, I came across a great company, 4 rous sous 1 parapluie. “4 wheels under 1 umbrella” is a Parisian company specializing in tours conducted exclusively in the much beloved Citroën 2CV, or as the French call it the “Deudeuche”.
Back in 2003, entrepreneur Florent Dargnies was looking for a way to give visitors a true Parisian experience in an original way. Combining great guides with classic 2CVs in the city of love turned out to be a winning combination, and 4 rous sous 1 parapluie has since developed their service to include a variety of specialized routes for first-time visitors and regular patrons alike. The fleet of 2CVs has now grown to over 20 cars, all kept in top shape by an on-site repairman, a real master at keeping all those French treasures running smoothly for their daily excursions.
The Citroën 2CV has grown into a French icon, making it the obvious choice for 4 rous sous 1 parapluie to place at the center of their vision. Designed by engineer Pierre Jules Boulanger, he set out to create a “car for people”, a simple automobile: light on comfort, good for transporting people and goods, can handle any kind of terrain, and is not expensive to maintain. It took a while to catch on because of its odd looks, but in combination with its practicality, its looks soon helped it to become a French classic. But you need not take my word for it. As you drive around town you will immediately notice that everywhere you go people are looking at you, waving and taking pictures. Driving around Paris in a 2CV you become the tourist attraction.
“4 rous sous 1 parapluie” translated curiously means “4 wheels under one umbrella”
We booked our 2CV tour for May 8th. Coincidentally this is a national holiday in Paris. May 8th is “Fete de la Victoire” marking the end of hostilities in Europe in World War II. In retrospect, it was a perfect coincidence because we encountered very little traffic and all public buildings were officially adorned with the French flag. It made for a Paris even more picturesque than usual.
Vincent, our guide and driver for the day, picked us up at our hotel at Places des Vosges. He arrived decked out in a signature St. James blue and white striped T-shirt, the uniform of all 4 rous sous 1 parapluie drivers. After giving us a brief rundown on what was in store, he opened the roof and settled us into our seats, all outfitted with blankets in case of a spring chill. We opted for the three hour “Magic Tour”. I figured it would be a good way to get an overview of the city, and a feel for its rich history.
Off we went passing the Opera and Bastille, making our way past Ile de Cite, all the while zipping up and down tiny side streets as Vincent pointed out obscure landmarks and told us about their part in the history of Paris.
Of course we love taking pictures, and Vincent was happy to oblige whenever we spotted a “scenic spot”. Each time, he quickly found a safe spot off the rue to park, and let us out to do our snapping.
We drove around the Pantheon and through Saint Germaine where Vincent stopped to show us where, in 1799, Mhe metric system was introduced. To educate the pulic, it was important for the government to communicate this new system of measurement. Physical meter markers were installed at strategic locations around the city and two of them are still in place today.
Continuing on, we passed Musee de Orsay, the Louvre and some more obscure stops along the way. Then we began the steep climb up the hill to Montmartre. It is generally not possible to drive up to Montmartre, but who can resist a red 2CV. With a smile the policeman waved us through and voila, we were in the heart of Montmartre slowly making our way through the crowded cobblestone streets.
After an amazing three hours, Vincent dropped us back at Place des Vosges and we said our goodbyes. What a wonderful time we had. Most importantly, my friend and her mother duplicated our experience just a few weeks later, also to great acclaim.
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