My favourite part of watching the Tour de France on television is the last day – not the big finish on the Champs-Élysées, but the few kilometres before the peloton enters Paris.
Most years, the last place before Paris on the Tour’s itinerary is Meudon, a quiet and leafy hillside town overlooking the Seine in the south-west of the Paris commuter belt. I lived in Meudon for the last two years of my time in Paris, and so instead of watching the race I like to catch a glimpse of my former street, the local bakery and even my old running track.
Meudon is a great place for runners. Within 15 minutes running from my home, I had my pick of two municipal athletics tracks, both free to use. All the footpaths were in tarmac instead of concrete, which was a relief to my back and knees. And Meudon has a fine variety of stimulating routes; my usual 16-mile long run route in those days took me by the Seine, along forest roads, up and down hills and past typical scenes of small-town France.
I don’t miss that Meudon long run – I enjoyed it greatly for those two years but I’m happy with where I live and run now, back home in Ireland. Sometimes, though, I like to rewind and watch it play in my mind…
Miles 1-2: Seine-side to Sèvres and Bellevue
My run started at the foot of the Route des Gardes, a mind-blowingly steep half-mile road that terrorises competitors in the annual Paris-Versailles 16-kilometre race – but instead of going up the hill I turned right to take the main road along the Seine towards the town of Sèvres.
On the first mile I would pass one of those typical small, run-down French bars where at all hours the same two or three men would sit outside and watch the traffic pass. Few people walked along this road, so it made for an uninterrupted start to my run. On my left is an office block of tinted windows and a tram line which then crosses overhead to hug the riverbank. To my right, the river side, is the Cirque en Chantier big top on the Île Seguin, the island where once stood the Renault car factory.
A little further on, ending the first mile, is an Armenian school, which invariably reminded me of Charles Aznavour, the French crooner of Armenian extraction. I stood behind Aznavour in a queue in the bank in Paris once and I wondered why such a major star was doing something so mundane – surely a manager or personal assistant should have been doing this for him.
Mile two started at a busy intersection at Sèvres, in the shadow of an ugly office complex which always had rubbish bags and full skips outside, complete with the squealing and rustling of mice. At the end of this dark and narrow street, which had the deceptively elegant name of Avenue de la Cristallerie, I left the buildings behind to turn up onto the wider, airier expanse of a steep, tree-lined road – the other side of the same hill as the Route des Gardes: not as steep but a longer distance, so I felt I got a better workout. Hardly anyone walked up or down this road and so I could relax while running here. Past the entrance to a sports complex and under a soaring motorway overpass, I got to the top of the hill at a public clock that jutted out from the gable wall of a small storehouse, which I used for a rough split time.
The area at the top of the hill is called Bellevue, in recognition of its beautiful view over the Seine and Paris. Bellevue is normally a busy street with two bakeries, two brasseries, a butcher’s with a chicken rotisserie rolling outside, and the usual other French high street businesses – including my local post office and the estate agent from whom I rented my apartment. But in the evenings and early on weekend mornings, my usual running times along here, all the local businesses were closed and the street was virtually empty. The train station at Bellevue marked the end of mile 2.
Miles 3-4: Trains and castles
After Bellevue I took a road called Rue des Galons along the embankment above the Paris Montparnasse rail line. This exact spot on the line has an unwelcome claim to fame as the scene in 1842 of the world’s first major rail disaster, from which engineers first noticed what we now know as metal fatigue.
This high embankment road, looking out along the residential hillside neighbourhood, always gave me a great sense of openness and space when I ran along it. The other side of this road was lined with some lovely, idiosyncratic houses whose stillness was in contrast to the trains rumbling and shuddering far below. I often wondered if the residents found having such quaint, picturesque houses – slate roofs, shuttered windows, garden oaks – a sufficient trade-off for the obvious disturbance of living above a busy train line. This area is probably more relaxing for runners than residents – or maybe you get used to such things.
Turning right just before the next station, at Meudon, I ran around the high stone perimeter wall of an old graveyard, then along a narrow residential street with the unfortunate name of Rue des Bigots (in French ‘bigot’ originally meant a devout churchgoer). A tiny stone church stood on this street as if it were just another house, but I never saw any bigots coming or going from it.
Then I emerged at the bustling Place de Stalingrad (every French town seems to have one street or square named after Stalingrad, from whenever the local socialist party held office), with its bakery, brasserie, crèpe restaurant and supermarket – like Bellevue back up the road, a little hub of urban Frenchness. Passing the average French bakery on a weekend morning can be hazardous for runners, what with all the shopping carts, dogs on leashes and especially the queues on a Sunday mid-morning. (The first time I saw a queue outside a bakery in Paris, I wondered if France had overnight become the old Soviet Union, which would have been appropriate on Place de Stalingrad.) Not by accident, then, that I always ran here early in the morning or at night.
At three-and-a-half miles I started up the wide and impressive Avenue du Château, with tree-lined paths separated from the road by buffers of grass, much like Chesterfield Avenue through the centre of the Phoenix Park in Dublin. Avenue du Château is a steady half-mile climb, so I always made sure to run strongly up it for maximum workout benefits. This was one of my favourite places to run in Meudon. However, the tarmac surface had potholes in places so I was always wary of running downhill here in the darkness of night.
At the top of the avenue is the gate to the park where the château once stood, but I turned right towards one last climb – a brief, steep hill road up to the forest of Meudon. No footpath here; you run along the track worn into the grassy verge or you stay on the road and take your chances with Paris drivers. On the left is the observatory of Meudon with its impressive dome, while on the right is another municipal sports complex, with football pitches and a rugby pitch encircled by what seems like an old-fashioned cinder running track. I never ran on it, nor was I ever tempted, what with two modern athletics tracks near my home.
Miles 5-7: Forêt de Meudon
The next right turn takes you into the forest, which has tarmac roads if you don’t fancy running on trails. At the corner is the Standard Athletic Club, an upmarket sports and social club for the exiled British in the Paris area. The Union Jack flies at the top of a flagpole just about visible over a high wall that shields passers-by from the sight of cricket being played here in summer. Queen Elizabeth visited the club twice, in 1957 and 1972.
Some of the roads through the heart of the forest were closed to traffic. On Saturday mornings there would be a couple who seemed to be dog-trainers by trade, such was the number of canines they unloaded to bring for exercise in a field just beside the Standard Athletic Club – and apart from them I had the forest roads to myself. Sunday mornings were busier, with runners, walkers and cyclists, so Saturday was the best day for running here.
Taking an underpass beneath a busy road, and then passing by large stacks of telegraph-pole-length logs, I came to a roundabout in the heart of the forest. In the centre of the roundabout was a huge communications tower, rising out of the trees and early-morning fog like an alien spaceship or a villain’s lair. Here I took a left turn onto another forest road, dead straight for a mile and a half so I could always ramp up easily to marathon race pace or faster.
Miles 8-12: Vélizy
You emerge like a mole from the shady Forêt de Meudon, blink away the daylight, and find yourself squeezed between a motorway and an office park. This is the edge of a neighbouring town called Vélizy.
I had a nice four-mile loop in Vélizy, starting on the road through the office park. As you’d imagine, this was a quiet stretch on a weekend morning, another great place for running.
The road then followed the forest perimeter before coming to a park and some more French urban quaintness – photogenic houses, another small church and the colourful jumps of a pony-riding school.
The furthest point of my run was the town hall of Vélizy, outside which stands a bust in honour of a former mayor named Robert Wagner. Now, Robert Wagner may have been a fine mayor, but I think we’ll all agree that he did his best work in Hart To Hart.
The return half of this loop took me along a wide and normally busy road which, during my time running there, was virtually closed off to allow construction of a tram line in a strip along the centre. On the far side of this road is a military airport – I discovered this one morning when, like the scene in Top Gun when Tom Cruise rides his motorbike alongside a fighter jet taking off, I found myself inadvertently racing a French military plane. In terms of thrilling Paris training runs, that ranks beside the time I raced and beat a five-person rowing boat as far as a bridge on the Seine.
Miles 13-14: Meudon la Forêt and Clamart
Once I finished my Vélizy loop, I would take a flyover across the motorway to the area of Meudon la Forêt, a bustling market street along which I had to run carefully to avoid bumping or frightening old people wheeling their shopping home. After this geriatric obstacle course my route headed towards the park and forest of Clamart.
When I first ran here, I looked through a wire fence at the small, wooded, peaceful park with its winding tarmac paths and thought how good it looked for running. Then, after a few seconds of the impression that something was not quite right, I realised why the park was so tranquil – it had been converted into a cemetery, with graves placed here and there in the shade of trees. I wouldn’t be running in there, then.
Around the other side of this cemetery park was a crematorium. It was a low, round, modern building of stone and glass, surrounded by a large car park, that looked more like the visitor centre of a tourist attraction. Also, despite always looking for one, I never saw if it had a chimney.
Through the car park was a lane to some rugby and football fields in synthetic grass. Every Saturday morning while I was running past, a fire engine would be parked nearby as the local firefighters played rugby. (I offer this information to those of you who are fans of firemen or plotting Saturday-morning arson in Clamart.)
Then my run took me down a steep road through the forest. At the bottom were two lakes in which the water always seemed to be a greenish brown. Notwithstanding that, you’d always see one or two people fishing there. At the car park by one of the lakes, the Étang de Trivaux, was a small open-air café in summer that was a meeting point for a group of motorbike enthusiasts – on my Saturday morning run I’d pass a line of Harley Davidsons parked outside as their grey-haired, leather-clad owners sat at the café tables, probably giving out about their tranquility destroyed by that young running hoodlum.
Miles 15-16 (finish): Meudon, Route des Gardes and home
The wide main street of Meudon was where I would start to wind down my long run. On Saturdays it was never a busy street – its peak hours seemed to be weekday evenings, when Paris office workers got off the train and headed for the supermarket, and Sunday mornings, when churchgoers crossed over to join the bakery queue. Teenagers clumped together at bus stops – many secondary schools in France are open for a half-day on Saturday, which always added to my feeling of freedom on a Saturday morning long run.
Once past the town centre, I had the choice of going downhill under the towering Meudon viaduct if I wanted to take a mile off my run. But usually I stayed uphill by rejoining the Rue de Galons in the opposite direction to earlier in my run. This brought me back towards the station at Bellevue, where I turned right to head down the Route des Gardes.
A little bit down the Route des Gardes, the trees clear on the left and you get a spectacular view of the Seine and Paris, including the Eiffel Tower. On dark evenings the tower is lit; on sunny mornings I liked to look at the river and follow it with my eye back up towards the city centre. With my mind on Ireland so much at that time, it was good to appreciate my surroundings, even if only once a week.
The Route des Gardes is so steep that I had to take great care not to go barreling downhill out of control. I would usually meet other runners on their way uphill, perhaps preparing for the Paris-Versailles race.
But their journey was only starting; I was heading home.
- Read more blog posts about running in Paris, including the Paris Marathon.