- - Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Woody Allen’s latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” opens with a montage of the city’s most iconic sights - the Moulin Rouge, Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe - all shot in static, postcardlike serenity. Mr. Allen’s Paris is idyllic, yet weirdly serial, discontinuous - much like the Paris you can expect to see from the back of a Segway.

Segway tourism is hardly a new phenomenon, but it all began, strangely enough, in Paris.

Saunter along the Seine on any given afternoon, and you’ll likely run into them - convoys of helmeted humans, artificially elevated to Himalayan heights, scooting around in Euclidean, single-file lines. They travel within a thick cloud of English and stop traffic at every intersection. They seem to genuinely enjoy not walking.

But then why squander precious hours aimlessly wandering the crooked, cobbled streets of Montmartre, discovering a hidden market, or pondering deep thoughts at a corner cafe when you can splice your Paris into an efficient highlight reel from aboard a Segway, right?

Paris is a city that invites exploration, almost by design. Eschewing the numbered grid-system you’ll find in most American metropolises, its grands boulevards extend diagonally from the Seine, forming a baroque web of side streets just pleading to be strolled upon. Aren’t Segways somewhat orthogonal here - the quick-fix Big Mac amid a landscape of four-course, prix-fixe menus?

“They’re just fun machines,” said Graham Robinson, 27, operations manager at City Segway Tours, one of several companies that offer two-wheeled traipses across the City of Lights and the first to introduce the concept, in 2003. “Sure, you can see the same things by bus, by foot, by bike, but it’s really about doing something different.”

City Segway’s junkets begin at the company’s offices, near the Eiffel Tower, crawl past the Musee d’Orsay and culminate in front of the Louvre. The first part of the tour is largely spent in a semiawkward state of technological adolescence. Everyone’s growing their Segway sea legs, adjusting to their wide loads and discreetly comparing each other’s motor skills. The learning curve, however, is surprisingly shallow, and within half an hour, even the greenest of riders are comfortable enough to tackle high curbs and execute (relatively) balletic twirls.

When you’re facing open terrain, devoid of all things human and pebbly, Segway cruising can be an exercise in ergonomic hedonism. The beast, once tamed, undulates with startling organic fluidity, and can often feel like an extension of your own body. But along the more crowded pathways of Paris, the craft demands sustained vigilance. Riders must avoid rocky pavement and lollygagging pedestrians, and are explicitly prohibited from traveling side-by-side for fear they may spin out into an abyss of doom and broken fibulas.

Instead of marveling at Parisian vistas, then, you’ll probably spend most of your four hours in a cocoon of technological preoccupation - which, for many, is a major part of the appeal.

“I’ve always wanted to try one, because they look fascinating,” says Mev Wilson, 54, a writer from Cincinnati, who saddled a Segway for the first time during her maiden visit to Paris. “The idea of being able to zip around and not having to walk all the time sounded really cool.”

Fellow tourist Vanessa Ralte, 35, echoes Ms. Wilson’s enthusiasm for convenience, adding that the Segway offers a nice alternative to “impersonal” bus tours or dreary walks. “Walking around is fine, but if the weather’s bad, or if you’re tired, you’re not going to enjoy it as much,” Ms. Ralte observes. “Whereas if you’re on a Segway, you’re not going to notice because you’re having fun.”

Yet TiVo-ing your way across Paris can leave some casualties - namely your ego. Segways aren’t the subtlest of accessories, and it’s hard to pull off “Parisian chic” while perched atop one. Expect photographs, stares and even a smattering of snickers.

Roman Winicki, 28, who grew up along the Left Bank, has seen his fair share of Segway-led jaunts. “It’s nice to see Paris take a more modern approach to tourism,” he acknowledges, adding he’s never met anyone with open hostility to the trend. “But the Segways don’t exactly fit in with the rest of the city’s architecture.”

Foreigners seeking cultural assimilation, then, would be well advised to spend their $120 tour fee on a pair of skinny jeans and a pack of Gauloises.

To be fair, Segway-centric outings aren’t really about “blending in.” In fact, they may be the most self-aware tours the city has to offer. They don’t brand themselves as an immerse experience, nor do they promise Parisian authenticity. Rather, they seem to embrace their quirkiness - and nebulous practicality - with a flair that many find appealing.

And besides, what American tourist can resist the chance to look down on Parisians for a change?

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