28. welcome to the Musée des Arts Forains


On the second last day, when Cally asked me what we were doing, I was a little hesitant to say a carousel museum.

I was questioning it just a little bit myself. It seemed unlikely that we would enjoy it more than one of the other museums we had missed from lack of time. And it was out in the 12th arrondissement. But it had been highly recommended.

La Musée des Arts Forains is in Bercy, on the right bank. It’s a museum of antique carousel rides and games, a cross between culture and entertainment. It’s owned by a private individual, Jean-Paul Favand, an actor, antique dealer and avid collector who searches the world in pursuit of his passion. This photo of him is by Thibault Stipal for Le Monde.

Why Bercy? In 1709, during the reign of Louis XIV, one day in church, the king noticed someone in the congregation standing when all should be on their knees before him. Angry, he asked for the man to be brought to him. He was amused when he saw that the offender was actually a giant who had indeed been kneeling. The man complained to the king that he was a wine-maker, and that taxes were crippling his business. Louis gave him the right to sell his wine, free of tax, in Bercy alone. And so began the first wine cellar in this area. An historical beginning for 53 Avenue des Terroirs de France, Bercy. This graphic is from their website, www.pavillons-de-bercy.com, and shows how the old wine buildings are laid out.

These original wine storage buildings eventually fell into ruin and were bought by Favant in the 1960’s and restored to create his museum. Carousel restoration takes many thousands of hours, up to 20 old paint layers being removed one at a time by scalpel until the original colours are revealed. The velocipede carousel alone took 20,000 hours of restoration.

Before the tour, we wandered through the archway to the whimsical garden between the two long buildings. It looked like an enchanted place. All the gardens have been planted by M Favant.

The most famous photo of the Musée features this half-horse projection from a wall.

The tour moves from building to building and room to room of the museum. Clever moody atmospheric lighting creates a magical atmosphere. Each ride with its own music, Jacques Brel, Edith Piaf, tinkling fairground music. Pools of light shine on fanciful rides and statues. Tableaux of statues and animals are suspended from ceilings, lit by spotlights, with a surreal effect. Our guide Marina made it easy to believe that we were being taken back in to the 19th and early 20th centuries. It's such fun to actually experience restored rides and games as if you lived in those times.

Marina played her part with such dramatic flair, such clear and beautiful enunciation, that I was sure she must have a formal acting degree. Not so. She said that M. Favant is keen that the museum be a living place, a reflection of the fun of carnivals, not a museum of inanimate objects. Her eyes sparkled when she spoke of him - he's obviously a highly charismatic character who inspires guide performances.

She explained that fun fairs began in Venice. We sat on a carousel wth gondolas and watched a movie very cleverly projected on to a Venetian bridge movie set. As the carousel moved, Marina pretended to be a gondolier, using her oar to move us along, to the easily recognisable funfair music.

One I particularly liked was the velocipede carousel. Everyone mounted penny-farthing bicycles fixed to the perimeter, and we pedalled faster and faster, driving the carousel around. We actually reached over 30 miles per hour. You had to keep up or your feet would fly off the pedals!

Like British roads, British carousels are different: they go in the opposite direction from carousels made in the rest of the world. And horses for carousels are made to look outwards from the carousel. So you know whether the horse comes from a European or British carousel by looking at its head. Marina is holding the music for the music box behind her.

Best of all, there was a horse racing game, based on the Palio horse race in Siena. About 10 of us sat side by side, looking at the Piazza del Campo at the rear, with all the horses lined up on the right. I was in barrier 6, with the flag of Contrade Oca, the goose. I recognised it because when we were in Siena 2 years ago, the Oca flag was hanging from buildings everywhere as their horse had won the Palio that year.

We each rolled our lightweight ball up a slight incline away from us, trying to sink it into the red hole, the highest score. Other colours were not so valuable. Each time the ball fell into a hole, the horse belonging to that barrier moved forward. A big move for a red hole, less for the blue, and less again for other colours.

The person whose horse was first over the finishing line on the left, won! It really was a lot of fun, and amazing to think how old the game was, and in what beautiful condition it now is.

There was a beautiful brass game based on making a spinning top move in a certain direction to hit a bell. There was a detailed model of a castle and its people, made out of bread. So many fanciful statues, an almost life-sized elephant and rider, wax models, decorative elements taken from old equipment.

A statue of Esmerelda, the gypsy symbol of the funfair, and Josephine Baker, a black dancer who took Paris by storm in the 1920’s. She was famous for dancing topless, with exotic skirts made of bananas, feathers. M Favand has acquired her actual belt, now hanging from the hands of a monkey suspended from the ceiling.

The tour moved along quickly. Entertaining and amusing, full of activity. For two hours we were transported. As we left, Cally mused, ‘That could be the best experience of the trip!’ It's impossible to rank, but it was certainly a very entertaining morning.

You must book and pay online. If you visit, make sure the commentary is in English, or you’ll miss the fascinating explanations. The tickets said 'free admission' but in fact it cost 16 euro per head. Worth every cent. Several times a year, it opens to the general public, I assume for an entry free, without booking. This year from 26th December until 3rd January 2016.

The venue is also available for hire for events. What a place to have a party!