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)

Copyright © 2012 — All Rights Reserved — Tous droits réservés
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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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Monday, 2 January 2012