You would hardly guess that the most magical place in Paris is a row of beige stone buildings on the far edge of the 12th arrondissement — practically in the suburbs. You’ll know you’re in the right place when you see the busty, armless mermaid, or the top-hatted man with a horse’s body, beckoning you through an iron gate. That’s where the real treasures are tucked away.
And then, as they say in the carnival, it will be time to Step right up! Because in this squat, 19th-century building, formerly used as a wine cellar, is the Musée des Arts Forains, or the Museum of Fairground Arts — a collection of circus oddities, carnival rides, magic-show paraphernalia and personal eccentricities brimming with charm. Come one, come all. And, s’il vous plaît, keep your hands and feet inside the ride.
That last rule might be the most important. Because that’s the greatest thing about the Musée des Arts Forains: You’ll walk through room after beautiful room of turn-of-the-century games, decorations, theatrical sets, instruments and, best of all, carousels that are more than 100 years old. The horses look fragile, but you’ll notice they aren’t behind a velvet rope. And then your guide will gesture to the horses, turn to you and say, “Veuillez-vous installer.” In other words: “Have a seat.”
Jean-Paul Favand once worked as an actor, and with his long, white ponytail and chevron-shaped mustache, he certainly looks the part of an eccentric artist. He was also an antiques dealer and restaurateur and became a collector of theatrical and carnival curiosities, including carousel horses, which he displayed at his shop and bistro.
“In the ’60s, everybody thinks that this is [junk], these kind of objects, the horses,” said my straight-talking and plucky tour guide, Joris Bedeau. “Popular arts were [of] no interest for the antiques [collectors].”
As the collection swelled to thousands of objects, Favand outgrew a succession of exhibition spaces before moving to the museum’s current location in Les Pavillons de Bercy in 1996. According to lore, a winemaker charmed Louis XIV into making the neighborhood a sort of 18th-century tax haven, permitting vintners to operate tax free. The stone buildings that now contain the museum were once wine cellars.
I learned most of this after my tour, when I had a chance to catch up with Bedeau and pick his brain in English. Unless a special group comes through, the reservation-only tours are conducted entirely in French, and most of the visitors are French, too. Given the museum’s location, far from the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower, it doesn’t seem to attract many American tourists — though you can ask for a brochure in English, which will help you follow along.
But you don’t need to speak French to experience the thrill of playing a Skee-Ball horse-racing game older than my grandparents. Bedeau gave each of us a ball as we sat down in front of a table divided into miniature lanes with several holes at each end, with a point value assigned to each according to its difficulty. Beyond, there was a row of jockey-riding toy horses on a track. And in between, there was Bedeau, who sounded a bell and shouted, “Allez allez allez!” We threw our balls into the lanes, and for each point we scored, our horses advanced that many spaces on the track. A few minutes of frantic clacking, and a victor was declared.
The horse-racing game was an attraction within Le Thé âtre du Merveilleux, or the Theater of Marvels, one of the trio of collections in this three-ring circus. The darkened room is like a Baz Luhrmann movie combined with a Diane Arbus circus photo: grandiose, lush, lurid and a little bit creepy. It’s a place where fin-de-siècle oddities compete for your attention: toy theaters, mermaids posing provocatively in L’isle aux Trésors (Treasure Island), mechanized fortune-tellers (like the one from the movie “Big”), feathered dancing ladies and gilded Egyptian statues. But also: a wooden leg, a large disembodied model hand with fortune-telling lines painted on it and, in the courtyard, arms holding candlesticks protruding from the trees. In one room, a half-woman, half-unicorn looms ominously over a player piano and, as my English brochure tells me, is said to play by telepathy.
Music can be heard throughout the tour — mostly from Favand’s collection of restored organs, some of which have been computerized. It’s the kind of sprightly vaudevillian march music you associate with circuses and carnivals, but when it comes from antique instruments, it resonates more deeply. That’s because some of these organs have a serious set of pipes. One mechanical organ, which uses a punch card to cue its notes, was so powerful I could feel the tune vibrating through my body. Another organ played Shostakovich’s Waltz No. 2 — famous from Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” and suitable, considering all the masks you’ll see on this tour — and all the children in the room began to dance.
Entire rooms are built around music. In the Salons Vénitiens, a collection of Italian artifacts, one of the highlights is a red-curtained ballroom with masked figurines from the Venetian Carnival peering down at you. At Bedeau’s cue, the animatronic actors begin to “sing” — or at least mechanically gesture along to a recording of the best-known songs from operas such as “La Traviata” and “Lakmé.” Think a highbrow version of the automated, anthropomorphized guitar-playing animal robots of the Rock-afire Explosion at Chuck E. Cheese’s.
Once Favand acquired those figures, he commissioned an engineer to create the computerized system that brings them to life.
“He’s like a stage director,” Bedeau said. “He thinks it’s like a stage here.”
If that’s the case, Favand’s production has the most incredible set — thanks, in part, to his eye for the dramatic. Much of the museum is in darkness, with spotlights highlighting prized objects. When you emerge from the cavelike pavilions, it takes a few seconds for your eyes to adjust. “The dark is very important for him,” Bedeau said — it’s a tool to “create mystery.”
Mystery is already abundant. The warehouse where Favand stores his collection is “forbidden to journalists.” Bedeau said Favand will not say how many items he owns. Some have pegged it at approximately 50,000 . But the tour guide says that the objects on display represent less than 10 percent of the collection. Many of them required hours of painstaking restoration. Why, then, let people touch — and potentially ruin — them?
Favand, Bedeau said, “thinks that objects are alive because you play with them.” They die not when they are broken, but when they are ignored. Things break all the time in the museum, Bedeau said, but that is not their worst fate: “So they are ruined, maybe, but alive.”
We mounted a carousel that dates to 1900 and, in its present incarnation, is a conglomerate of the best parts of other carousels. You’d never be able to tell if it weren’t for a few provided clues: ears that are pointing forward indicate a German carousel horse, but ears that are straight are French. (They aren’t on this ride, but it’s even easier to spot an English carousel horse — they look to the left because English carousels turn clockwise.) One scene from Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” was shot on this ride.
A waltz honked out of the organ as the horses bumped up and down, and exhilarated kids grinned. I felt light. I was on vacation in Paris and had spent the previous day drinking wine, eating steak tartare and walking the grand boulevards. But I didn’t truly relax until I hopped onto a carousel.
The next ride didn’t have any horses at all. We approached a carousel with no platform — just a metal cage encasing the wheels of a circle of connected oversize bicycles. Built in 1897 in Belgium, this carousel is self-propelled: Visitors climb on a bike and pedal to get it moving. It’s said to be one of two remaining in the world.
“In order for it to work better, I need sporty people older than 12 years old,” Bedeau said in French. (Younger kids could ride on a bench, where they wouldn’t have to pedal.) In English, he added: “Please join us on this carousel. It can go very fast, up to 64 kilometers [about 40 miles] per hour.” He wasn’t lying. We all pedaled furiously, and the ride creaked and squeaked as much as you’d expect for a nearly 120-year-old amusement.
By the end, we were all flushed and dizzy — and ready to do it again. Favand, the eccentric owner, is counting on his guests to give his rides life. Really, it’s the other way around.
Clarification: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Grande Mosquee de Paris as the Musée des Arts Forains. The image has been removed.
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Les Pavillons de Bercy
53 Avenue des Terroirs de France
Admission is about $18 for adults, $9 for ages 4-11 and free for children 3 and younger. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Check the website for dates, which vary. Closest Metro lines are 6 and 14.