There’s no shortage of ways to escape these days – books, movies, tv shows, the endless rabbit hole of social media and the internet – but how often do we have the opportunity to be transported to another time and place in person? Or on a journey of imagination as our guide described before leading us into a magical world of yesterday at the Musée des Arts Forains in Paris.
The museum is dedicated to the tradition of fairground and performing arts and is located at the Pavillons de Bercy the in the 12th arrondissement, a neighborhood that has historically been tied to festivities as it was once outside the taxable area of Paris, thus attracting the likes of wine production and ginguettes. Today a former wine cellar houses the museum’s carefully curated collection of objects from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Known as the Belle Époque or “beautiful age”, this period was marked by a vibrant spirit of optimism, culture and innovation that allowed arts and entertainment to flourish.
A visit to the Musée des Arts Forains is only available by guided tour (and often only in French), which can be hard to come by if you don’t plan in advance. But if you are lucky enough to experience this incredible place, prepare to be swept away literately and figuratively to a world of wonder and amazement. We were greeted by our lively guide in an outside area marked with cobbled lanes, lush trees, a crystal chandelier and other whimsical curiosities strewn about. He shared fascinating stories about the history of the objects that surrounded us as he led us through a series of beautiful spaces draped in red velvet curtains, glittering lights and a treasure trove of still-working carousels, carnival games and other artifacts of amusement. What made this immersive experience even more memorable was that we were able to dance to the music of a 19th century organ, compete in a vintage game of skee-ball and even ride on several of the turn of the century carousels.
One attraction in particular that warrants additional detail (or perhaps a word of caution?) is the bicycle-powered carousel called a velocipede. At first glance it may look as if this carousel would be hard to manually pedal, however it was nowhere near as challenging as one might expect, rather it quickly picked up roller coaster speed that was frankly quite terrifying. Despite this, it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to ride the velocipede carousel, which we learned is only one of two remaining of its kind in the world! The carousel was also featured during a party scene in the 2011 movie Midnight in Paris, which was filmed at the museum.
As our tour concluded we were led back to the entrance of the museum where we would soon re-enter the reality of today. Our visit to the Musée des Arts Forains was nothing short of magical and we were grateful to find this hidden gem in a city already rich with so many great museums.