Monday 1 October 2018

Public clocks

"Better three hours too soon than a minute too late."
(William Shakespeare, The Merry Wives of Windsor)

Your watch has stopped, your phone’s battery is dead, and you’re not sure if you’re on time for that train… 

Fear not: Paris boasts no fewer than 14 000 public clocks!

You’ll find them on churches, town halls, public libraries, train stations. Most of them are simple, functional instruments, but some are works of art.

Oldest public clock in Paris,
Palais de Justice
The oldest public clock in Paris is on the façade of the Palais de Justice. Built in 1371, its square face is 1.5 metres across. The hands are in moulded copper, the minute hand in the shape of a lance, the hour hand ending in a fleur-de-lis.

Mairie du 1er Arrondissement
Just across the Seine, next to the Louvre, the clock on the belfry of the district town hall of the 1st Arrondissement is decorated with the signs of the zodiac. On the other faces of the tower are a barometer and a thermometer. Built in 1858, it was fully restored in 2004.

Musée d'Orsay
The Musée d’Orsay was once a train station, so you’d expect to find a clock there. In fact there are several on the outside, but none match the splendid gilded clock on the inside. You’ll have to pay the entrance price to see it.

Central Téléphonique,
Rue Bergère
The telephone exchange on Rue Bergère is an early 20th century construction. High up on the side of the building a splendid wrought iron clock breaks the plainness of the redbrick façade.

Le Défenseur du Temps,
Quartier de l'Horloge
Near the Pompidou Centre is a rather dull concrete pedestrian zone called the Quartier de l'Horloge. Its drabness is spectacularly interrupted by the elaborate clock called le Défenseur du Temps. Originally, the automata that make up the clock went into action and a man fights against a bird, a dragon, and a crab which respectively represent air, earth, and water. Sadly, the clock has been out of order for some years now, but is still worth seeing.

L’Heure de Tous
St Lazare station
If you really need to know the time when you’re near St Lazare station, the mound of clocks in the sculpture called l’Heure de Tous won’t really help you. But just behind, on the main façade of the station, you’ll find a real clock.

I hope you make that train!


Find these clocks here:

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Tuesday 29 May 2018

Stones in Paris

The great icons of Paris are all above your head. But one of the enduring symbols of the city can be found at your feet: cobbled streets.

Philippe II (Augustus)
(Wikimedia Commons)
Philip II (Philippe-Auguste) is remembered as the king who transformed Paris into one of the major cities of Europe.

He granted the charter to the university of Paris at the Sorbonne; he moved the outlying food markets to a protected site, Les Halles, in the centre of the city

To defend the city, he constructed the Louvre as a fortress and had a great defensive stone wall erected around the city.

Less well known is the fact that and he had the main streets paved with granite stones to replace the dilapidated paving laid by the Romans several hundred years before.

Later governments extended the cobblestones, and by the middle of the 20th century, almost all the streets in the city were paved in this way.

Cobblestone as missile in May 68
Then came the "Events" of May 1968. The protests of students and workers in the city turned into a violent confrontation with riot police.

Behind the barricades in the Latin Quarter, protesters dug up the cobblestones and used them as missiles.

Beneath the stones they discovered a bed of sand, which gave rise to one of the enduring slogans of May 68: "Sous les pavés, la plage!" — "Beneath the cobblestones, lies the beach!"

From then on, the city authorities switched their preference from quaint (but potentially dangerous) cobblestones to boring (but durable) tarmacadam, a mix of tar, sand and gravel.

This type of surface is much cheaper, easier to lay, and more difficult to use a weapon.

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Monday 15 January 2018

Gare du Nord

Seven-hundred-thousand people pass through Gare du Nord every day. Of these, around 699 990 don’t stop to look at the building itself. Their loss!

It is the busiest train station in Europe and, if you exclude the monster-sized stations in Japan, the busiest in the world.

Built in 1846 with just two platforms, it served as the terminus of the Paris-Lille line. It was soon found to be too small and was completely rebuilt in 1866. The original façade was dismantled and moved to Lille where it can be seen today at the front of Lille-Flandres station.

Gare du Nord
with Eurostar (yellow), Thalys (red), TGV (silver & blue), and regional (silver & red) trains
photo: Wikimedia Commons (WiNG)
Gare du Nord has been expanded several times since, and today it is a major hub serving the suburbs of Paris and the north of France. It is also the terminus of several international services, including the Eurostar to London, and Thalys to Brussels, Amsterdam and Cologne.

The main halls of the station are rather modestly decorated compared to some of the other great railway stations of Europe, and the platforms are covered with a plain glass roof.

Gare du Nord, main façade
photo: Wikimedia Commons (Nord794ub)
The façade, in contrast, is a grand affair, designed by the architect Jacques Ignace Hittorff. It is adorned with no fewer than 23 statues, representing the main cities served by the station.

The most prominent statues, along the line of the roof, are the international destinations: Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Warsaw, Brussels, London, Vienna, Berlin and Cologne, with Paris taking pride of place in the centre.

On a lower level are the major towns of northern France: Boulogne, Compiègne, Saint-Quentin, Cambrai, Beauvais, Lille, Amiens, Rouen, Arras, Laon, Calais, Valenciennes, Douai, Dunkirk.

The inside of the station was for many years quite a dreary place. However, development has taken place in recent years to brighten the place up and improve the services offered to passengers, including a shopping arcade, a brasserie, and several cafés.

Future Gare du Nord
photo: © Gares et Connexion
There is an even more ambitious plan underway to prepare for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games. The future Gare du Nord will include an open-air garden, an office complex, a five-star hotel and a complete redesign of the interior layout.

It promises to become an area worth going to see, rather than simply passing through on your way to somewhere else.

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Thursday 2 November 2017

The Paris Meridian

Paris is full of wonderful sights: historical monuments, museums, art galleries, the River Seine, many parks and gardens. But one interesting historical feature of the city is more virtual than physical: the Paris Meridian.

The Paris Merdian on the floor of the
Paris Observatory
(Photo: FredA, via Wikimedia Commons)

Lines of longitude go from pole to pole, through the equator. The prime meridian is the line arbitrarily chosen to be 0° longitude and is used as the basis for drawing maps and calculating the local time. The Paris meridian, which goes through the Paris Observatory, was established in the 17th century. François Arago used this line as a starting point for his precise calculation of the French prime meridian.

Historically, each country had its own prime meridian, which made international navigation confusing. This problem was solved in the 19th century, when an international committee selected the Greenwich meridian to be the common zero of longitude and standard of time reckoning throughout the world.

Most of Europe and North America aligned their clocks with Greenwich, but France maintained Paris time until 1911 when it at last fell into line with the international community.

Arago medallion, part of the
"imaginary monument"
created by Jan Dibbets
So, the Paris meridian, used for over 200 years, was no longer relevant. But it didn't disappear entirely. It can be traced today thanks to a work of art by Dutch conceptual artist, Jan Dibbets.

Homage to Arago is an "imaginary monument on an imaginary line" – a series of 135 bronze medallions planted in the ground along the line of the meridian.  They run right across the city from Porte de Montmartre in the north, through the Louvre, the Luxembourg Gardens, and the observatory, to Cité Universitaire in the south. Each medallion is 12cm in diameter and marked with the name ARAGO plus N and S pointers.

Sadly, some of the medallions have vanished over the years; some were stolen, others removed during roadworks and never replaced, or simply covered over.

One of them is appropriately placed at the point where the meridian crosses the Boulevard Arago.  It is on the plinth where a statue of the astronomer once stood until it was removed by the occupying powers in 1942.

Arago’s statue has disappeared, but the Paris meridian remains.

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Saturday 14 October 2017

Liberty in Paris

Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité!

Unveiling the Statue of Liberty, 1886
photo: Wikimedia Commons
Everyone knows the motto of the French Republic, "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," which has been used since the days of the French Revolution in the 18th century.

And Liberty was one of the most famous gifts in history: from the people of France to the people of the United States on the occasion of the centenary of the American Revolution.

The Statue of Liberty was sculpted and cast by Auguste Bartholdi in France and shipped to New York in 1885, and erected on a frame designed by Gustave Eiffel.

Replica on Île aux Cygnes
photo: H. Zell
(Wikimedia Commons)
For the centenary of the French Revolution, a group of US citizens living in Paris reciprocated and made a gift of a replica of the statue to the people of France. It is on an island in the Seine, the Île aux Cygnes, and is about a quarter of the size of the original.

It's not an exact replica, though: the inscription on the book in Liberty's left hand shows not only the date of the US Declaration of Independence in 1776, but also the date of the storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789.

Replica of Bartholdi's
bronze model
Luxembourg Garden
photo: Páraic Maguire
In 1900, Bartholdi donated the bronze model he had used to make the statue to the Musée du Luxembourg. It stood in the garden until 2012 when it was removed for conservation reasons and replaced by a bronze replica. The original can now be found in the Musée d'Orsay.

After the death of the sculptor, his family bequeathed the original plaster maquette to the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. A bronze cast from this plaster can be seen in the grounds of the museum.

Many other replicas exist throughout France and, indeed, the world. Some are scale models, others are variations on the original.

Can you find Liberty?
Centaur, Carrefour Croix-Rouge
photo: Páraic Maguire
The smallest is well hidden on the centaur statue at the Croix-Rouge crossroad (officially: Place Michel-Debré). It takes a keen eye to spot it.

Flamme de la Liberté
photo: Ignis
(Wikimedia Commons)
The most misunderstood is an exact, full-scale replica of the torch flame, the Flame of Liberty, at the intersection of Avenue de New-York and Place de l'Alma. It happens to be near the spot where a former princess died tragically in 1997 and has been hijacked as a memorial to her.

The Flamme de la Liberté was in fact another gift to the people of France, organised by the International Herald Tribune on behalf of donors throughout the world, as a symbol of Franco-American friendship and in gratitude for the restoration of the Statue of Liberty, carried out by two French companies in 1986.

Vive la France! Vivent les États-Unis! Vive la Liberté!

Copyright © 2017 — All Rights Reserved — Tous droits réservés 
Paraic Maguire (

Friday 14 July 2017

Covered Passages of Paris

Window-shoppers (from À Travers Paris, 1894)
(Wikimedia Commons)
Window-shopping — one of the most popular pastimes in Paris since the invention of footpaths.

Before the introduction of separate spaces for vehicles and pedestrians, shoppers mingled with horses and carriages on the street, and usually ended up with their shoes and clothes covered in mud — or worse!

Another innovation to improve the lot of the flâneur came in the early part of the 19th century: covered shopping arcades.

Here, shoppers could move around in comfort and safety, protected from the weather and the traffic. By the middle of the century there were around 150 passages couverts in the city.

Each one connects two streets and is lined with small shops, galleries and cafés. The passages are covered with iron-and-glass ceilings to allow natural lighting in daytime.

Here are some examples of the remaining passages.

Galerie Véro-Dodat

Galerie Véro-Dodat
(Wikimedia Commons, Jean-François Gornet)
One of the shortest, at just 80 metres, is Galerie Véro-Dodat near the Louvre.
Its modest length is somewhat disguised through the impression of perspective created by the diagonal pattern in the black-and-white floor tiling, and the relatively low ceiling.
The parts of the ceiling that are not glass are decorated with beautiful engravings.
It is also one of the least frequented of the covered passages, though this adds to its charm.

Passage du Grand-Cerf

Passage du Grand-Cerf
(Wikimedia Commons, David Pendery)
Closer to the classic style is the Passage du Grand-Cerf. Its 12-metre ceiling is one of the highest of all the passages.
Opened in 1825 on the site of a hotel of the same name, it fell gradually into decay before being fully restored in the 1980s.
Today it houses fashion boutiques, furniture stores and jewellery workshops.
And if you like knitting, you’ll find what you need here.

Passage du Prado

Passage du Prado
(Wikimedia Commons, Ralf Treinen)
The Passage du Prado, named after the museum in Madrid, was built in 1785 but wasn’t covered until 1925.
It is certainly not the most chic of the passages, but it has its charm nonetheless.
The two branches of the passage are perpendicular; the junction is covered by a glass dome in a metal frame.

Many of the covered passages of Paris were destroyed during Haussmann’s restructuring in the 19th century, others disappeared as department stores became more popular.
Only around 20 survive today, each one worthy of a visit.

To find the passages described here: Google map

For more information, visit the official website of the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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Paraic Maguire (

Saturday 28 November 2015

Morris columns

Along with the Wallace fountain, the Morris column is an icon of Paris that everyone knows to see, but whose name is known by few.  Its main function is to advertise theatrical shows.

The original advertising column was designed by a German printer, Ernst Litfaß (or Litfass) and the first models were installed in Berlin in 1855.

The French version was created by Gabriel Morris, also a printer, in 1868.  Some served a dual purpose, for example to store cleaning equipment for street cleaners.

Before its introduction, advertising for theatrical events was a haphazard affair, with posters being hung on trees, lampposts and the walls of public urinals.  The city authorities decided to standardise the business and granted an exclusive contract to Morris.

Colonne Morris, Paris
21st century
Colonne Morris, Paris
circa 1885
The design has changed little in the century and a half since their introduction. The cylindrical column is topped by a hexagonal dome bearing the arms of the City of Paris.  There are several hundred installations in the city.

Many of the older models have been replaced and they are now maintained by JCDecaux, the same company that installs the city's bus shelters, advertising billboards and runs the self-service bicycle system, Vélib.

(Image source: Wikimedia Commons.)

 Copyright © 2015 — All Rights Reserved — Tous droits réservés Paraic Maguire (