I never gave much thought to carousels I passed around the city before. But they are all over the city, planted in proper strategic locations waiting to pounce on their prime targets: the children of Paris. But Paris carousels are a source of delight, both to the child and to the parents who buy carousel tickets to avoid a public meltdown. There is something amazingly zen about tying the leather safety strap around a child’s waist and watching them turn around and around.
Carousels were born from tragedy: A jousting accident killed King Henri II, Catherine de Medici’s husband, in 1559, driving knights to practise a safer alternative to these tournaments, such as spearing suspended rings with their lances. For the birth of the Dauphin, Louis XVI held a carousel festival in 1662 in front of the Tuileries. In true Sun King fashion, it was all pomp and fanfare: 15,000 guests watched knights on their horses participate in jeu de bagues competitions. The celebration which took three months to organise lasted only three days, but the Sun King did himself proud because the memory of this grandiose fête still lives on: the location where it was held is known today as Place du Carrousel.
There are plenty of carousels around the city, so here are six noteworthy carousels of Paris to get you started:
Jardin du Luxembourg
Métro: line 4 (Odéon), RER B: Luxembourg
The green-roofed carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg is small and discreet, nothing fancy like the double-decker carousels we find at Hotel de Ville or Esplanade de La Defense. It’s also the oldest one in Paris, dating back to 1879, and the beat-up, weather-worn animals that millions of children have ridden over centuries were actually sketched by Charles Garnier, architect of the Opera house in Paris.
Part of the charm of this particular carousel is its jeu de bagues (ring game). Children sitting on the outermost circle of horses are given a stick and attempt to spear the most number of tin rings, replaced at lightning speed by a park employee after each ring has been caught. It takes some skill to load rings into that old wooden shank as quickly as the man did. A skill acquired over time, I suppose.
Forum Les Halles
Métro: line 1 (Les Halles), RER A: Chatelet-LesHalles
Forum les Halles’ carousel dates back to 1900, its horses hand-carved by the Limonaire brothers, known for building fairground organs decorated with Art Nouveau designs in the 19th to the early 20th century.
Bois de Vincennes and Jardin de Ranelagh
Bois de Vincennes: Metro: line 1 (Chateau de Vincennes), Jardin de Ranelagh: Metro: line 9 (La Muette)
Gustave Bayol, a sculptor who later focused on merry-go-rounds, became France’s well-known carousel carver – he created the animals that make their eternal rounds in the carousels of Bois de Vincennes (lots of carved little pigs for this particular carousel) and Jardin de Ranelagh.
Musée des Arts Forains
Metro: line 14 (Cour Saint Emilion)
Musée des Arts Forains is the place to head to for anything carnival-related, but the carousels here in particular are a joy to look at. There are fourteen antique carousels here, my favourite one being the Velocipéde, a bicycle merry-go-round that needs audience participation: you have to pedal to get the entire thing going.
Jardin des Plantes
Metro: line 5 (Austerlitz), line 7 (Censier Daubenton)
There’s the Dodo Manège at the Jardin des Plantes, which is relatively young (1992) but adopts a 1930s style and an interesting theme to boot – children can ride on extinct animals, or those on the verge of extinction. Where else can you ride dodo birds, Tasmanian devils, or triceratops?
Square des Batignolles
Metro: line 13 (Brochant)
At Square des Batignolles in the 17th arrondissement is a carousel of Disney characters created by Henri Devos. The former glove maker from Belgium was heavily influenced by 20th century pop culture, which explains the 1920’s Mickey Mouse and Pluto characters. He was also Bayol’s successor.
We look closely at carousels now, always in awe. They are no longer useless rides that empty my pockets of loose change, but beautiful pieces of art. People who can say money can’t buy happiness are wrong, because it can be bought, in Paris at least : 2,50€ for a three minute ride on a wooden horse.