Paris’s much-maligned ring road can be the gateway for drivers to explore some of the capital’s more out-of-the way attractions, explains Paul Lamarra
On the inside lies Paris and on the outside is the rest of the world. The boulevard périphérique that encloses the City of Light also defines its political boundary. Begun in 1958 and completed 15 years later, the ring road celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2013.
The revolutionary traffic system that was to define a new car-centred age in city planning takes up the space once occupied by the Thiers Wall, a defensive ditch and wall construction that was championed by Louis-Philippe, the last king of France. It was completed in 1844 and dismantled by the late 1920s.
Many would argue, however, that the 35-kilometre périphérique does a far better job of putting people off than any fortifications. View it on a map and it is clear that it places Paris at the heart of France. Almost all of the routes nationales converge on the ring road and during the rush hour it is easy to believe that much of France is using it.
It can be terrifying as vehicles with priority join from the right while cars cut in from the outer lanes on the left in an attempt to overtake and get into the correct lane to exit. The inside lane is only for those entering or preparing to leave the périphérique, so hogging it until your exit comes up is not really an option. Miss the exit you are aiming for (there is one for every kilometre) and the only feasible option is to go round again; a detour that will add around half an hour to the journey time. However, in the evening and late into the night, when the traffic is lighter and you can cruise at the 80km/h limit, driving can be a serene experience as the giant red neon advertising signs on top of the adjacent tower blocks light up the road.
Shopping for antiques
Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of the périphérique is that from the inside it is hard to see beyond it and from the outside it often seems preferable to take a huge detour to avoid it. Yet what it does offer drivers is easy access to significant but often overlooked Parisian attractions. Also, outside of the périphérique, hotels are cheaper and the parking easier.
Here are some of the attractions on offer, going in an anti-clockwise direction – the extérieur, or outer ring – and starting due north, which is roughly where the A1 autoroute joins the périphérique at Porte de la Chapelle.
If it happens to be a weekend, the first sight to present itself is the Marché aux Puces at Saint-Ouen. This posh flea market is perhaps the best-known of the Parisian sights beyond the périphérique and has more than 2,000 antique shops and stalls spread over 15 markets. Be aware that turning up with a spacious car boot could significantly increase the temptation to buy that expensive art nouveau mirror you have coveted.
Fans of modernism or surrealist French literature will find a number of its proponents such as Paul Verlaine and André Breton buried in the Cimetière des Batignolles between the Porte de Saint-Ouen and Porte de Clichy exits. Famous graves aside, it is also a peaceful place to wander under the chestnut trees.
Walk in the park
For much of the west side, the périphérique passes through the huge expanse of the Bois de Boulogne. Its 8.5 square kilometres easily hold the racecourses of Longchamp and Auteuil, as well as Stade Roland-Garros, venue of the French tennis open, and Parc des Princes, the football and rugby stadium, on its southern edge. During daylight hours you can enjoy a relaxing walk, visit the Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires and let children get their green fingers dirty in the Jardin d’Acclimatation.
Beyond the Bois de Boulogne, heading west away from the ring road, you cross the looping Seine to the monolithic structure of the Grande Arche de La Défense. Dominating the western skyline, it offers thrilling views from the glass lifts.
South of the Bois, trapped in a meander of the Seine, is the fascinating suburb of Boulogne-Billancourt. Take the Porte de Saint-Cloud exit to search out the remnants of the once-iconic Renault car factory and the architectural bling of the new developments that now occupy the massive site. You can wander among the zen-inspired gardens and ponder what it is like to live on a houseboat on the Seine.
Moving round to the south-east, the commune of Ivry-sur-Seine is best accessed from the Porte d’Ivry rather than the complicated exit at Quai d’Ivry. Leave here to visit the city’s growing Chinatown that has spilled over into the suburbs from the neighbouring 13th arrondissement.
Once over the Seine for the second time do not try to make sense of the Porte de Bercy junction but carry on to the Porte Dorée or Porte de Vincennes to reach the Bois de Vincennes. It is a wonderful park in which to walk among the flowerbeds of the Jardin des Quatre Saisons and to picnic under the pines. You might even encounter a free jazz or classical music concert. Within the park is the Château de Vincennes, one of the biggest castles in Europe, which has been undergoing restoration for more than a century.
From the Bois de Vincennes it is a quarter turn back to the beginning and to the suburb of Saint-Denis, where the star attraction is the basilica, burial place for most of the French kings from the 10th century onwards. Aware of its edgy reputation, Saint-Denis has sought to embrace its burgeoning counter-culture and introduced graffiti tours as a novel way of breathing new life into the area.
Many visitors might prefer the familiar sights within the confines of the périphérique, but those adventurous enough to tackle the ring road and venture beyond it will be rewarded with a Parisian experience that is certainly out of the ordinary.