Touring Paris on a Segway Scooter

The two-wheeled vehicle offers a cutting-edge way to visit the French capital. But you might prefer an electric bike

The group of tourists looks like a gaggle of futuristic robots in a Star Wars movie. Leaning forward slightly on their peculiar two-wheeled vehicles, which require no pedaling, these visitors to Paris roll at a leisurely pace across the Champs de Mars, in front of the Eiffel Tower. When they reach the trees, the helmeted crew suddenly spreads out and sprints—at about 15 km/h (9 mph)—through the trees to the Peace Monument, ending up at the École Militaire.

They attract attention, even in the French capital, where people can be so blasé about foreigners. This group of a half-dozen visitors from England, New Zealand and the United States meanders though Paris perched on humming machines. Their choice of vehicle is a Segway—an electric scooter defined somewhat verbosely as "a self-balancing personal transport system." The device was invented in California and is available in Europe at a price of about €7,000 ($10,850). It runs for about four hours on a single battery charge, and it's "environmentally correct," although it requires no physical exertion at all.

The Segway looks like an old-fashioned manual lawn mower. It has two oversized tires on both sides of a platform for the rider's feet. A steering column with a bar at the top is shaped like bicycle handlebars. To ride the device, which weighs in at about 25 kilograms (55 lbs.), you step on the platform and lean forward slightly. It will then hum and start to move. Stopping is just as easy—you lean back slightly. Leaning back a little more puts the Segway into reverse. To steer left or right, the rider tilts the steering bar. "It's child's play," says Steven, one of a dozen guides giving our group a brief lesson in front of the office of City Segway Tours.

He's right: Handling the Segway is easy. The solidly welded two-wheeler has five gyroscope sensors, linked to a multitude of computer chips, to sense changes in the driver's center of gravity. It uses this information to regulate the motor.

Everything okay? No? No big deal, says Steven, an American from Texas who is happy to provide a 10- to 15-minute driving lesson—all that's needed for an alternative tour of the city. Steven shows us how to mount and dismount and how the scooter, which is about 50 centimeters (20 inches) wide, can master uneven terrain and small curbs. Accidents are rare, but every customer is required to sign a liability exclusion form. This is, after all, an American company.

We put on our helmets, pack our on-board First Aid Kits, and our little convoy hums off in the direction of downtown Paris. "Cool," says Gwen, a computer specialist from Florida, "it's a lot better than walking."

Thanks to the elevated platform, we can occasionally hop across small garden walls. Surfing comfortably along on this electric scooter makes our tour a double delight. "Our French customers," says Steven, "don't take the tours because they want to see the sights, but it's a fun way to get around."

For the More Discerning Tourist...

Of course, and why would the French be interested in English-language tour of their own city, devised by Americans, no less? In front of the École Militaire we learn from Steven that Napoleon was "quite a short guy." At the Hotel des Invalides, we learn about two US pilots who hid in the dome just as Hitler paid a visit to the building in 1941. And at Place de la Concorde, Steven manages to send shivers down the backs of the group with his summary of the French Revolution. "Twenty-thousand executions with the guillotine, but at least it got the French people more freedom," he says.

Another tour, offered by "Paris Charms & Secrets" for €45 ($70), is less thrilling technologically but culturally far more discerning. The young Paris company has guides who speak German, Spanish, Japanese and Chinese, and operates a fleet of two dozen bicycles with electric motors. The vehicles are multi-speed, Dutch-style bikes with elongated batteries inserted near the rear wheel. The battery powers a motor that activates when the rider starts to pedal. The combination disk-and-drum brakes operate reliably.

Given the motorized bike's simplicity, the introduction at Place de Vendôme takes only a few minutes. Pharmaceutical salesman Jean-Luc and his wife Helène, both fit mountain bikers from the Atlantic coast, take the bikes for a test spin at the base of Napoleon's Victory Column. "You ride as if you were being pushed," says Helène, describing what she calls an "electric tailwind." After the first hill, Jean-Luc concludes that riding uphill feels like riding downhill. "Our goal is to offer an alternative way to see Paris by bicycle that is also suitable for older or less athletic visitors," says tour guide Delphine, explaining the concept of the four-hour tours—offered twice during the day and once in the evening—to well-known monuments and some of the French capital's more off-the-beaten-track curiosities.

Diamonds on the Café Mirror

After leaving the Place de Vendôme at noon, we ride past the Opera to the former headquarters of Société Générale. Standing in front of a giant safe, Delphine surprises us with an anecdote about a French painter whose forgeries—discovered in the bank's huge safe after his death at the beginning of the century—were the source of legal disputes for decades.

The tour is studded with historical tidbits. At the Louvre, for example, our well-informed guide points out a significant shift in the axis between the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and the museum. In the Latin Quarter she tells us about current real estate prices as well as the checkered history of local wells, the Parisian sewage system, epidemics and urban development. And at "Le Procope," a famous artists' café, Delphine points out scratches in the mirrored walls, left by suspicious mistresses who would put the affections of their benefactors to the test by checking whether their diamond gifts were real.

With confident hand signals she cuts a path through busy Paris traffic, and leads us to the old Roman Arena in the Fifth Arrondissement, a little-visited place even for Parisians. Then Delphine we ride to a site near Rue Mouffetard, where a nun saved the Saint Esprit convent during the French Revolution by showing looters the way to the wine cellar, where they promptly drowned their anti-religious sentiments in alcohol.

Another few strokes of the pedal and we learn how many women have been honored in the land of égalité with a tomb in the Pantheon (only two). Then we hear a brief art history lesson at the Church of St. Sulpice, where a number of Delacroix paintings are on display. A few blocks farther, and we hear the story of the Japanese pagoda (now a cinema) imported to Paris by the owner of a department store as a gift for his beloved wife. His plan backfired, alas, when she ran off with the son of the project's architect.

This whirlwind tour of the capital's more unusual sights is an experience even for French tourists, and thanks to the electric motors, it's anything but a sweat-drenching experience. We ride another 25 kilometers (16 miles) past the Hotel des Invalides and the Eiffel Tower before arriving at Place Vendôme in the late afternoon. "A complete pleasure," say Jean-Luc and his wife Helène, as the members of the group park their bicycles in an underground garage. "We discovered Paris, and it wasn't strenuous at all."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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