The carousels of Paris

Long before Disneyland opened on its outskirts, the French capital gave children their own moveable feast.


Susan Hack
August 31, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

It's called the City of Light, but as my husband, young daughter and I
discovered when we moved here three years ago, Paris is also a city of
carousels. One of our favorites spins in a corner of the Champ de Mars,
the old military parade ground, between a playground and a small
refreshment stand. On Wednesday afternoons and weekends, two dozen
hand-painted wooden horses bearing names like "Baba" and "Bijou" emerge
from their "stable" (actually a locked green shed) to be suspended from
hooks off a circular wooden frame. Built in 1913, this antique carousel
remains powered by a simple hand crank. Pint-sized riders can request a
wooden stick or "baguette" to joust with the ring man, who stands on a
platform loading dozens of tin circles into a medieval-looking feeder.

Visit the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or all those Impressionist masterpieces
in the Musie d'Orsay? Our 6-year-old daughter, Sophie, still prefers the
ring game. Fortunately, almost every park and public square in the French
capital features a "manhge," or merry-go-round, including at least a dozen
survivors from the Belle Epoque. We've evolved a family quid pro quo: An
afternoon of museum time or other culturally enlightening indoor fare, or
simply a long, lingering Paris walk, earns a side trip to a carousel.

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We like the manhge in Luxembourg Garden, whose turn-of-the-century,
weathered wooden menagerie includes a camel, an antlered reindeer and a
solemn gray elephant, none much larger than a golden retriever. While my
husband and I munch sugar crepes and keep lookout for French movie stars
and their offspring, Sophie buckles a leather safety strap around her waist
and concentrates on spearing rings at high speed (an electric motor has
replaced the carousel's original hand crank). In the leafy Jardin des
Plantes, we'll follow a tour of the the newly renovated Natural History
Museum, the Mineral Museum or the dinosaur-filled Hall of Paleontology with a
turn on a contemporary merry-go-round of extinct and endangered creatures
featuring a wistful Dodo, a bright green Tyrannosaurus Rex and a leaping
phalanx of proto-giraffes. At the foot of the Eiffel Tower, flower-draped
donkeys cavort with palanquin-bearing lions under a midnight-blue canopy
painted with golden stars. Just across the Iena bridge, not far from the
Trocadero and the Museum of Mankind, we sometimes find newlyweds posing on
a double-decker carousel of prancing horses, wooden swings and rocking
sea-scallop carriages.

At eight to 10 francs (about $1.30-$1.60) per ride, an afternoon of Paris
carousel-hopping isn't cheap, especially when all three of us want
multiple spins. But just as on the Metro, you can usually buy a packet of
tickets at a discount. On our outings my backpack is a jumble of plastic
tokens. Just as spearing rings has gotten easier with practice for Sophie
(current record: 17), I've developed a system of color-coded envelopes that
help me keep track of which ticket goes with which merry-go-round in which
arrondissement.

Our carousel expeditions brighten the long, gray winters, and
Christmas brings a special treat: The Mairie of Paris, which allocates
citywide merry-go-round concessions to private owners, offers a week of
unlimited free rides between Christmas and New Year's as a holiday gift to
"les citoyens." Foregoing museums altogether, we head for the Place
Willette, at the foot of the Sacre Coeur steps, to line up for free turns
on an Italian-built carousel, whose painted ceiling features Venetian
canals, but whose stampeding horses (made of plastic) boast pink and blue
eagle feathers and an American Wild West theme. In the Place
Saint-Sulpice, Philippe Campion, head of an amusement park dynasty, sets up
a merry-go-round built in England in 1871, at the beginning of the steam
era, a precursor of the giant "salon" carousels popular at the end of the
19th century. The elaborately decorated wooden chargers have wild, flaring
eyes and double-seated saddles, and they rotate clockwise, contrary to their
continental counterparts. This summer, as always, this migrating
merry-go-round has reappeared in the Tuileries Garden, site of an annual
July-August carnival called the Foire du Trone.

American cities have one or two merry-go-rounds, if any. In Paris,
carousels are so much a part of the landscape that you find them not just
in parks and squares but inside supermarkets and fast-food restaurants like
McDonald's. When our list of outdoor favorites reached 25, I began to
wonder, why such a cornucopia? The answer, it turns out, has to do with a constellation
of factors, including France's reverence for tradition, a clement Parisian
climate, a habit of indulging small children and, of course, history.

"The carousel is a French invention," says Zeev Gourarier, a curator at
the National Museum of Folk Art and Popular Traditions in the Bois de
Boulogne. Children across the capital and in towns and villages throughout
the country ride wooden horses and play the "jeu de bagues" because of a
tragedy that occurred in 1559: the accidental death of Catherine de
Medici's young husband, King Henri II, during a jousting tournament. To
make equestrian games safer, says Gourarier, Renaissance knights stopped
jousting against one another and turned their energies to spearing rings,
scything the heads off effigy Turks and seeing how long they could
make a straw dummy spin.

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The idea of mounting wooden horses on a rotating frame dates to the
17th century; the word "carrousel" (the French spelling of "carousel"), if not the actual invention,
dates to an immense equestrian festival Louis XIV held in the courtyard --
the Place du Carrousel -- of the Louvre. Partly to entertain 15,000
cooped-up nobles when he moved his court from Paris to Versailles, the Sun
King had his engineers design the first documented rotating merry-go-round,
a four-seater with gilded chairs for ladies and horses or swans for the
men. Indeed, Versailles, with its fireworks, dancing fountains and other
royal amusements, was the Sun King's private Coney Island: The world's
first roller-coaster, a huge, gilded chariot pulled along a rail, made its appearance there, as did the gondola swing sets called Bateaux des Pirates
that are still found in many Parisian parks today.

By the end of the 18th century there were merry-go-rounds in at least
three public gardens in the capital; in the wake of the French Revolution,
the merry-go-round, like other aristocractic entertainments, was finally
becoming accessible to the masses. According to Gourarier, the current
plethora of permanent carousel emplacements stems from the Second Empire
and Baron Haussmann's green campaign (he added 24 squares and three large
parks to the city), as well as from the traditional sites of "fjte
foraines," seasonal carnivals that originally sprouted up across the city
during the Middle Ages but reached the height of their popularity at the
end of the 19th century.

"Of course no one today remembers any of this," Gourarier sighs as we
pour over engravings of the Sun King's contraptions in his office. "France
is a hierarchical society, which values the fine arts in museums like the
Louvre. Our children ride them every day without realizing that carousels
also represent a valuable and interesting part of our patrimony."

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Interest is so lacking that the Museum of the Fjte Foraine, at Bercy,
which houses one of the world's best collections of merry-go-rounds, does
not receive enough vistors to justify daily opening hours. It's worth a
visit by private appointment to see the many examples of the different
styles of merry-go-round animals that developed throughout Europe and to
experience 30 rare but still-working 19th century amusement park
attractions, including 14 carousels, one of which is made entirely of
wooden bicyles.

In between curating duties, Gourarier spends much of his time trying to
convince the French government to block the export of dismantled carousels
to private collectors in the United States. When I hand him a map
of Paris, he points out surviving public merry-go-rounds of museum quality:
a cavalcade of horses at the Forum des Halles hand-carved in 1900 by the
Limonaire brothers, also known as manufacturers of carnival organs; a
carousel in the Bois de Vincennes whose every animal (mainly pigs) is the
work of Gustave Bayol, the French merry-go-round master, active in Angers
from 1887 to 1909; and the merry-go-round in the Square de Batignolles built
by Bayol's successor, Henri Devos. Originally a glove-maker from Belgium,
Devos worked in Bayol's atelier but was also influenced by 20th century
popular culture, particularly early animated Disney films. The Batignolles
carousel is a strange but charming amalgam, with a canopy hand-painted
with roses and portraits of Belle Epoque children and a menagerie of
scraggly 1920s Plutos and Mickey Mouses.

On a recent summer Sunday we embarked on a mission to see how many
carousels we could ride in a single afternoon. We started in the
16th arrondissement on a Bayol carousel in the Jardin de Ranelagh,
and then headed for the Tuileries, where a pink and white wedding cake
carousel recalled the animated one ridden by Julie Andrews in
"Mary Poppins." In the Place de la Ripublique, another double-decker
merry-go-round displayed a fin de sihcle fantasy of charging black bulls
and twin-tailed mermaids (though its more recent sound system blared the
Macarena). After lunch we crossed to the left bank of the Seine to check
out carousels by the Gare Montparnasse and in the Parc Montsouris. The
Metro journeys between each carousel took an average of 15 minutes, far
shorter, we noted, than the wait for most rides at Disneyland Paris.

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Our last stop was the merry-go-round in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont,
Baron Haussmann's eccentric landscape of grottoes and waterfalls carved
from an old rock quarry in the 19th arrondissement. The carousel,
which according to the
gray-haired attendant has been in the same spot for more than 50 years, features oversized versions of small animals --
rabbits, cats and foxes -- and fraying strings for tying toddlers to their
backs.

Until this point I had been focusing on differences in canopy styles, music
and menageries. But as we joined the neighborhood's immigrant Muslim and
Orthodox Jewish families watching smiling children spin past us in the late
afternoon sun, I was struck by my own powerful nostalgia. From the tourist
quarters and the bastions of the French elite, to the Place d'Italie, where
Vietnamese and Chinese families had gathered near a 1950s-era
merry-go-round of helicopters and flying space ships, different communities
had been sharing this same pleasure. The carousel is one of the many
miracles of Paris: a royal toy transmuted not just into a democratic
symbol, but into one of the most enchanting and enduring of our common
childhood memories.

Sophie's legs almost reached the ground when it was finally her turn to
mount a red-ribboned black kitten. She can always go to the Louvre on a
rainy day, I thought. Thanks to this city of carousels, she's learning
that culture and history are living entities, and that in Paris children
have their own moveable feast.

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Susan Hack

Susan Hack is a writer who lives in Paris.

MORE FROM Susan Hack

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France Travel




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