Even though I’ve lived in Paris for about eight years now, I continue to get lost on a regular basis. On a map, there is a certain logic to the planning: central hubs are scattered throughout the city, their streets extending outward like the spokes of a wheel. On foot, however, it’s often impossible to navigate. The spokes intersect haphazardly, oblivious to cardinal directions and without any sense of symmetry, making it similar to trying to find your way around a plate of spaghetti. This, of course, is what makes walking through Paris such a delight: even if you know the city reasonably well, nothing can be anticipated — there is always enough disorientation to give you a sense of discovery.
But if many of us have strolled quaiside along the Seine or through the narrow streets around Saint-Germain-des-Prés, how many have walked across the breadth of the city, from péripherique to péripherique? As I recently discovered, the answer is apparently quite a lot: there are seven official hiking trails within Paris and several urban walking groups organizing regular hikes. Over the summer I followed a 20-km-long jigsaw puzzle of a route from Parc de la Villette, in the northeast, to Parc Montsouris, in the south. Rather than using the standard red-and-white dashes that mark most French grande randonnée (GR) footpaths, the trail is indicated by an exhaustive list of 119 street names, and subdivided into seven sections featuring métro stops as points of reference. You don’t have to walk the trail though (it takes almost all day) to get in touch with Paris’s wild side. Just stop munching on that chocolate éclair for a second and look around…
Shrinking natural habitats throughout the world have forced many animals into closer contact with urban centers, often with unfavorable results. Birds are one of the exceptions. While some avian populations have clearly gone into decline in recent years, other species have managed to adapt to human cohabitation reasonably well. Studies have revealed that urban birds are effective recyclers, using an assortment of discarded objects for their nests. And some species have abandoned nests altogether, instead taking advantage of the shelter provided by old mailboxes, traffic lights, and telephone poles. Even without the pigeons, Paris is home to some 174 species of birds, from cormorants, swallows, sparrows, and finches to woodpeckers and falcons. The most popular nesting spots are the city monuments (tourists waiting in long lines take note), where cliff-dwellers, such as kestrels, jackdaws, and redstarts, have laid claim to the upper ledges and niches of the city’s most prestigious addresses: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Sacré Coeur, and the Arc de Triomphe. A pair of peregrine falcons were observed in the business district (La Défense) last year.
There are approximately 184,000 trees in Paris, though it ranks at the bottom end of European cities when it comes to green spaces (according to Le Monde, Rome has the most tree cover in Europe). Most of the trees here are nonnative species — sycamores (plane trees), chestnuts, and poplars — planted during the Haussmann renovations. The city’s oldest tree is a hobbled 407-year-old black locust, sent over from the colony of Virgina and propagated by royal botanist Jean Robin in the medicinal gardens at the eastern tip of Ile de la Cité. Redevelopment and the imminent completion of Pont Neuf in 1607 forced the relocation of the botanist’s gardens, and the black locust was moved to its present home in the Square Viviani on the Left Bank, just beyond the shadow of Notre Dame. Another easy one for visitors to spot.
Comité Départemental de la Randonnéé Pédestre à Paris: Schedules monthly walks in the city
Club International des Jeunes à Paris: A student organization that also organizes monthly hikes, generally finishing with an evening picnic
Randonneurs d’Île de France: The largest walkers’ association in the area (3500 members) organizes daily hikes throughout the Paris region
More info on hiking in France.