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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