Friday 9 November 2012

Eau de Paris

Every day the population of Paris consumes 550 million litres of drinking water. That's 120 million gallons, or 145 million US gallons.  Per day!

The water is collected, treated and distributed by Eau de Paris, a public sector company, and comes from many sources: the rivers Seine and Marne; and underground sources in the region around Paris, but also as far away as Normandy and Burgundy.  Once the processed water reaches Paris it is held in five reservoirs: Montsouris and L'Hay-les-Roses to the south; Saint-Cloud to the west; and Ménilmontant and Les Lilas to the east.

Water from the furthest underground source travels 150km to get to the capital through pipes and aqueducts.  One of the most impressive is the Aqueduc de la Vanne which crosses the Yonne river and goes through the Forest of Fontainebleau before reaching the Montsouris reservoir.
The Aqueduc de la Vanne as it passes through the Paris suburb of Cachan
(photo credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz, via Wikimedia Commons)
If the idea of drinking water from the Seine shocks you, don't worry!  River water is treated carefully in two phases: clarification, a process that reproduces natural soil filtration to remove the particles; and refining, which eliminates any remaining bacteria, viruses, pesticides or other pollutants from the treated water.  The water is then chlorinated before being distributed.

Apart from providing fresh drinking water to homes and businesses in the capital, Eau de Paris also maintains a system of more than a thousand drinking water points on the streets, including the famous Wallace fountains (click for more details).

Pavillon de l'Eau

Pavillon de l'Eau
(photo credit: © Eau de Paris)
The place to go to find out everything you've ever wanted to know about water in Paris but were afraid to ask, is the Pavillon de l'Eau situated in a converted water pumping station near the banks of the Seine.

There is a permanent exhibition on the water system of Paris, as well as regularly changing temporary exhibitions, a cafeteria and a conference centre.

Source (pun intended!):

How to get there:

  • Address: Pavillon de l’Eau, 77 avenue de Versailles, 75016 Paris
  • Telephone: 01 42 24 54 02
  • Métro: Mirabeau (line 10)
  • Bus: 22/62/72 ("Mirabeau" stop)

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Tuesday 17 July 2012

Wallace fountain

Wallace fountain ("large" model)
(photo: Wikimedia Commons)
When you think of Paris, you think of the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Champs Élysées. These are certainly very powerful images and recognised throughout the world. There is, however, a more modest symbol, nonetheless typical of this great city, that deserves recognition: the Wallace fountain.  Or rather, fountains, as there are over 100 of them scattered throughout the city in all 20 arrondissements.

These small cast-iron sculptures were installed in the 19th century by the British philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace and designed by the French sculptor Charles-Auguste Lebourg.  Wallace, who inherited a fortune from his father, was already well known for his acts of charity.

Paris was in a bad state at the time.  During the Siege of Paris and the Commune the water supply infrastructure had been severely damaged.  Prices rose so high that many poor people could not afford clean drinking water.  Wallace, who was a genuine believer in good old fashioned Christian charity, felt morally bound to save the poor from turning to cheap alcohol.  By funding the installation of water fountains he provided Parisians, rich and poor, with a reliable source of clean drinking water.  Even today, his fountains are a valuable amenity to homeless people in the city.

Parisians drinking from a
Wallace fountain (1911)
The original ("large") model stands 2.71 metres tall and weighs 610 kilograms.  Standing on the solid base are four caryatids, representing the virtues of kindness, simplicity, charity and sobriety, who hold the dome of the fountain aloft.  If you look carefully you'll notice that the four maidens are not identical; each has a slightly different pose and folds the bodice of her dress in her own way.  The water flows in a single stream from the dome.  Originally there were metal cups attached to chains to facilitate drinking from the fountain, but these were removed in the 1950s for hygiene reasons.  The water supply is switched off in the winter months to avoid the risk of damage due to freezing.

There are other models of Wallace fountain, but this one is by far the most common.

The fountains were manufactured in Sommevoire, a commune in the Haute-Marne department in north-eastern France.

Richard Wallace, the philanthropist who gave Paris these precious and practical monuments, is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery. 

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Tuesday 10 July 2012

Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis (part 2)

In the previous post we saw that the southern part of Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis is heavily influenced by the cultures from the north of the Indian sub-continent.  Well, as you might expect, the northern part of the street is indeed dominated by businesses from southern India and Sri Lanka.

Between Gare du Nord and La Chapelle the number of Tamil shops and restaurants has increased steadily over the past decade to the point where today Tamil is clearly the dominant culture in the area.  If you're looking for Indian spices or silks, you'll be spoilt for choice. There are also a large number of good-value Indian and Sri Lankan restaurants in nearby Rue Cail and Rue Louis Blanc.

Ganesh Chaturthi in Rue du Faubourg St Denis
(photo: Paul Munhoven via Wikimedia Commons)
Tamil people are mostly Hindu and many of the shops and restaurants have religious symbols on display. Ganesh Chaturthi — the Hindu festival of Ganesha — is celebrated every year around the end of August or the beginning of September.

The festival attracts thousands of devotees from all over Europe. The men pull a chariot bearing a gilded bronze effigy of the elephant-headed deity through the streets to the Hindu temple in nearby Rue Pajol.  Women follow the chariot,  carrying camphor pots on their heads and singing devotional songs. Coconuts are smashed all along the path of the chariot.  The shell represents worldly illusion; the flesh individual karma; the water human ego.  In breaking the coconut, devotees offer their hearts to Ganesha.

Getting there

  • Metro: Gare de l'Est (lines 4/5/7); La Chapelle (Line 2)

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Sunday 26 February 2012

Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis (part 1)

St Denis,
head in hands
Saint Denis is the Catholic patron saint of Paris (an honour that he shares with Saint Genevieve).  Legend has it that when he was decapitated in Montmartre he picked up his own head and walked — preaching all the way — to what is now the suburban town of Saint Denis, to the north of Paris.

If you want to walk from the centre of Paris to the Basilica of Saint Denis, start at Place du Châtelet and follow Rue Saint Denis to the north.  About two hours should do it.  You'll have plenty of opportunity to indulge in sins of the flesh before you start your pilgrimage, as the first few hundred metres of Rue Saint Denis contain some of the tackiest sex joints in town.

The name of the street changes several times along the way, the first change occurring at the Porte Saint Denis as you cross the Grands Boulevards.  Beyond that point the street becomes Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis.  (Faubourg means a part of a town outside the centre, but not as far as the banlieue.)  This is where the promenade becomes interesting!

Porte Daint Denis
(looking north)
Start by taking a good look at the Porte Saint Denis itself.  If it reminds you of the Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs Élysées, there's a good reason: it was built — as was the neighbouring Porte Saint Martin — to honour the great military victories of Louis XIV.  The gilded bronze inscription reads Ludovico Magno, "to Louis the Great".

The part of Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis from here up to Gare de l'Est is a true melting pot of cultures.  There are many small restaurants and cafés of different ethnic origins, along with greengrocers', spice shops and mini-markets.  The most obvious ethnic group are the Turks, with their sandwich shops and delicatessens, but there are also quite a few traditional Parisian establishments.

Among them is Le Sully, traditional in a classical way, if you see what I mean, but also in that you meet all sorts there: business people in suits, workers, students, artists, layabouts, men and women, young and old, and from all social and ethnic backgrounds — a reflection of the surrounding quartier.  For the biggest surprise, take a look at the prices.  In Paris you can expect to pay around €3 for a demi beer (25cl, approximately half a pint), more if you sit on the terrace, and more again after 10pm.  At Le Sully you'll get a pinte (50cl) for €3.50 regardless of the time.  Or how about a glass of wine for €2.20 or a cocktail for €4.00?  No surprise, then, that the place is usually quite busy.

A few doors up, on the opposite side is Julien, a fine example of the Art Nouveau style of Parisian brasserie. Well known for its traditional fare, it is worth a visit just for the décor.  The high walls are covered in great mirrors surrounded by painted mouldings and ceramics.  Between the mirrors are four nymphs representing the seasons.  Peacocks and herons hide among the flowers, and stained-glass ceilings dominate the scene.

Just across the street, in Cours des Petites Écuries is Brasserie Flo, owned by the same group.

Passage Brady
There are several arcades off Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis, covered passageways mostly housing small shops.  Passage Brady has long been colonised by Indian and Pakistani restaurants and spice shops.  More recently they have shared the space with barbershops, while the restaurant business has spread out to the main street.

If the southern part of Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis is heavily influenced by the cultures from the north of the Indian sub-continent, you might expect the northern extremity of the street to be dominated by businesses from southern India and Sri Lanka.

See Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis (part 2) — coming soon — to find out.

Getting there

  • Metro: Strasbourg - Saint-Denis (lines 4/8/9); Château d'Eau (line 4); Gare de l'Est (lines 4/5/7)

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Paraic Maguire (

Sunday 12 February 2012

Étoile de l'Est

Star of the East!  That's the name of one of the best value restaurants in the 10th arrondissement, if not in all of Paris.

If you're looking for haute cuisine,  or stylish décor, there are better options in town.  But if you're looking for value, look no further!  Their set menus are a great deal: starter, main course, dessert for €16.90!  If you add 25cl of wine (e.g. Bordeaux) it'll cost you only €2.00.  And if you're in the mood to lubricate the evening even more, your apéritif and digestif will set you back a mere €1.50 on top of that.

Bacon and poached egg salad
And the options on the fixed menu are quite varied.  The starters include shrimp and avocado salad; bacon with poached egg; cheese and gizzard salad.  The main courses are equally tempting: rump steak with pepper or blue-cheese sauce; fillet of salmon in a sorrel sauce; knuckle of lamb in calvados; filet mignon of pork with pineapple.  The desserts, on the other hand, are a little less adventurous: apple tart, crème brulée and a couple of other classics.  If these options don't suit you, there is also the possibility to order à la carte.  There are many different cuts of beef, duck and fish available, all at reasonable prices.

The restaurant is run by a couple — monsieur in the kitchen, madame serving tables —and is open Monday to Saturday for lunch and dinner.

Étoile de l'Est
set menu

Set menu prices:

(click on the image for a larger version)

€14.90 Starter and main course, or main course and dessert;
€16.90 Starter, main course and dessert;
€18.90 Starter, main course, dessert and drink;
€20.40 Aperitif, starter, main course, dessert, drink, liqueur.

Getting there

Address: 10 rue du Château Landon, 75010 Paris
Phone: 01 40 34 58 08
Metro: Château Landon (line 7); Louis Blanc (lines 7, 7b)

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Monday 6 February 2012

Coming soon on Sytyk Paris...

L'Étoile de l'Est

A cheap-and-cheerful restaurant near the back of Gare de l'Est...

Rue du Faubourg Saint Denis

A buzzing street filled with cafés, restaurants and markets of various ethnic origins...

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Páraic Maguire (

Sunday 22 January 2012

龙来了 — the Dragon has arrived!

This year, 2012, Chinese communities around the world celebrate the Year of the Dragon (龙年). The Spring Festival — as the New Year is called by Chinese people — starts on 23 January.

Flag of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912)
with five-toed dragon
The dragon is an important symbol in Chinese culture.  Unlike his European cousins, the Chinese dragon represents power, strength, and good luck.  For this reason, the emperors of China chose the dragon as the symbol of their supreme power.  But the emperor's dragon was no ordinary mythical creature: he had five claws per foot while the commoners' poor dragons had only three or four.

In Paris the main centre of Chinese culture is in the 13th arrondissement, around Avenue d'Ivry and Avenue d'Italie.  The annual parade is a spectacular affair with dancing dragons and lions, traditional music and song.  If you find it hard the tell your dragons from your lions, remember that the lion is operated by two people, while the dragon takes several.

Dancing lion
The lion dance incorporates the basic moves of Kung-fu.  The lions perform the traditional custom of cái ching (采青) in which shopkeepers leave a lettuce or cabbage suspended high above the door for the lion to eat.  The lion has to approach it carefully, dancing round it warily, then reach up to pluck it.  If he is successful, he is rewarded with a red envelope containing money.

The joyous atmosphere of the procession is assured by fireworks, drums and cymbals whose noise scares away evil spirits and bad luck.

The other significant centres of Chinese culture are in the 20th arrondissement around Belleville, and the 3rd/4th around Beaubourg and the Marais.  Each has its own parade for the Spring Festival.

2012 parades

"Good fortune"
13th arrondissement: Sunday 29 January at 13.00
starting from 44, Avenue d’Ivry.

20th arrondissement: Sunday 29 January at 11.30
starting from Metro Belleville.

3rd/4th arrondissements: Saturday 28 January at 14.30
starting from Hôtel de Ville.

Getting there

"Chinatown 13th"
  • Metro: Porte de Choisy (line 7); Porte d'Ivry (line 7); Olympiades (line 14)
  • Tram: Porte de Choisy; Porte d'Ivry

"Chinatown 20th"
  • Metro: Belleville (lines 2/11)

"Chinatown 3rd/4th"
  • Metro: Rambuteau (line 11); Arts et Métiers (lines 3/11);
    Hôtel de Ville (lines 1/11)

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Paraic Maguire (

Tuesday 17 January 2012

Bathing in Paris

The rather unkind stereotype of the French as a nation unfamiliar with the daily shower is a persistent one. I suppose those who cling to it also believe the French chew garlic, drink red wine for breakfast and wear strings of onions around their necks.

There was a time, however, when indoor washing facilities were basic and the bathroom, as we know it today, a rarity. So what did people do when washing "up as far as possible, and down as far as possible" at the kitchen sink wasn't enough? They went to the public baths, les bains-douches. These were baths in the sense of personal hygiene and were provided as a public service, often in the same establishment as the local swimming pool.  (If you read French, you'll find a very interesting article with photos here: Le Zinc: Bains Douches de Paris.)

Thermes de Cluny
Public baths go back to at least Roman times in Paris — the ruins of the Thermes de Cluny in the centre of the city testify — then were forgotten for a few hundred years before making a comeback in the 18th century. At around the same time the notion of bathing as a leisure activity emerged. The first "swimming pool" in Paris was built in 1785 by Barthélemy Turquin on a floating jetty on the Seine. A few years later the Piscine Deligny opened, also on the Seine, and was a popular feature of public life in Paris until it sank in a storm in 1993.

The first indoor pool was built in 1884 and is still in use today in the 10th arrondissement, Piscine Château-Landon (see below). It wasn't until the building of the swimming pool at the Buttes aux Cailles (13th) (see below) in 1924 that the functions of public hygiene and leisure were strictly separated.

In 1946 the Piscine Molitor was the scene of the birth of an icon: the bikini. It was considered so scandalous that they had difficulty finding models for the presentation, so they got a dancer from the Casino de Paris — who was used to dancing nude — to strut her semi-naked stuff for the occasion. The bikini is of course still with us, but sadly the fabulous Art Deco Piscine Molitor closed in 1989.

Today Paris has 38 municipal swimming pools and 18 bains-douches. The latter are free so if you're in Paris and you need a scrub, you've no excuse. Bring your own towel!

Some of the municipal swimming pools of Paris deserve special mention:

Piscine Château-Landon (10th)

Piscine Château-Landon
(photo: Mairie de Paris)
Built in the Art Deco style, it consists of two pools: 25×10m and 10×6m. The dressing rooms and showers are on a double-level gallery surrounding the pools. The pool is partly lit by natural light thanks to a large glazed wall at one end. If you're around during the Nuit Blanche — an annual all-night arts festival, usually in early October, when many museums, art galleries, and other cultural institutions open and free of charge — try a psychedelic night-time swim accompanied by classical music and multi-coloured lights.

Piscine Pontoise (5th)

Piscine Pontoise
(photo: Mairie de Paris)
This is one of the most aesthetically pleasing pools in Paris and is registered as an official historic monument.  Built in 1933 in the Art Deco style in a striking red-brick building, its opaque glass ceiling allows the natural light come in.  You may have seen Juliette Binoche doing her lengths in the Piscine Pontoise in the film Trois Couleurs: Bleu.  It is one of the city's biggest pools (its main pool is 33×15m) and it has a 1m diving board. The building also houses a gym, two saunas and four squash courts.

Piscine de la Butte-aux-Cailles (13th)

When it was built in the 1920s it was only the fourth public swimming pool in Paris.  It was innovative in that it separated the functions of washing and swimming into two separate sections of the establishment.  Designed by the architect Louis Bonnier, its façade in red brick is in elegant curves with hardly a straight line to be seen.  It is also registered as a historical monument.  The building is lit mainly by natural light: a series of  small windows to light the old bains-douches, and great arching windows for the main building.  The pool's water comes from a natural spring 580m below ground and arrives at a perfect 28°C.

Open-air pools

Six swimming pools in Paris have roofs that open, weather permitting:
  • Roger le Gall (12th)
  • La Butte aux Cailles (13th)
  • Keller (15th)
  • Auteuil (16th)
  • Hébert (18th)
  • Georges Vallerey (20th).

50m pools

Most municipal pools are 25m long, a few are 33m. There are six Olympic-sized pools:
  • Suzanne Berlioux (Les Halles) (1st)
  • Roger Le Gall (12th)
  • Blomet (15th)
  • Keller (15th)
  • Georges Hermant (19th)
  • Georges-Vallerey (19th — built for the 1924 Olympics, this is where Johnny Weissmuller won three gold medals before going on to become a model and then to play Tarzan in twelve films.

Getting there

Addresses, opening times and rates of the municipal swimming pools of Paris:

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Paraic Maguire (

Sunday 8 January 2012

Parc des Buttes Chaumont

Baron Haussmann is famous for designing the layout of the city of Paris as we know it today.  Under the authority of Napoleon III he levelled whole districts of mediaeval Paris to make way for the wide boulevards and avenues that are characteristic of the modern city.  His plan also included several areas of greenery, on the model of the great parks of London, to act as the lungs of the city.  To the existing Luxembourg (6th arrondissement) and Tuileries (1st) gardens he added Parc Montsouris (14th), Parc Monceau (8th) and — the most interesting of them all — Parc des Buttes Chaumont (19th).

Covering an area of around 24 hectares (60 acres), the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is the third biggest park in modern Paris, after La Villette (also 19th) and Tuileries.  It is built on a hill, the site of a disused gypsum quarry, in a style similar to other Haussmann-style landscaped parks.  What makes it different is the variety of terrain: manicured undulating lawns, steep tree-topped hills, a lake, waterfalls, cliffs, caves.  Nobody seems to mind — or know — that all of the "natural" features are artificial.

The most striking attractions in the park is the lake with its rocky island that rises to a height of 30m above water level.  The island is topped by the "Temple of Sybil" — inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, near Rome — overlooking a cave. The island can be accessed from the west by a wooden suspension bridge (65m long, 8m above the level of the lake) or from the south by the "Bridge of Suicides".

The park boasts many beautiful trees, some indigenous, some of more exotic origins. Among them you will find Cedar from Lebanon, Himalayan Cedar, Ginkgo, Byzantine Hazelnut, Siberian Elm, European Holly, and a venerable Oriental Plane planted in 1862 (before the park was inaugurated).

The varied scenery has made the park a favourite among locals, from the picnickers and sun-worshippers who occupy the lawns, to the athletic types who prefer to jog up the hill and do their stretching exercises around the bandstand.

The main entrance to the park is at the junction of Rue Botzaris and Rue Simon Bolivar.  The other entrances are Porte Secrétan, Porte Armand-Carrel, Porte de Crimée, Porte de la Villette and Porte Fessart.  There are also several minor entrances.

Despite the altitude of the park, there are no dramatic vistas. But if you want views, you don't have to go far: the Jardin de Belleville — less than a kilometre away — provides one of the best panoramic views of Paris.

Getting there
  • Metro: Botzaris (line 7b); Buttes Chaumont (line 7b); Pyrénées (line 11); Laumière (line 5)
  • Bus: 26, 48, 60, 75

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Paraic Maguire (

Monday 2 January 2012