Like so many of the lovely things in life (the little black dress, confetti, macarons, ballet, and so much more …), the carousel originated in Paris.
Rewind to the jousting tournaments of medieval times, knight games that were in part inspired by the myth of Sir Lancelot — that passionate lover, brave fighter and all-round dreamboat. Lancelot captured French society’s imagination as the epitome of chivalry, the knightly code that encompassed courage and courtesy. Lancelot wannabes would compete at tournaments in all their finery to thrill the maidens.
The popularity of jousting — where two knights on horseback would charge at one another at full speed, and each try to unhorse the other with his lance — continued into the Renaissance era, even though it could be a brutal affair. The death knell came when King Henri II was killed during one match (I’ll spare you the gory details); his devastated wife Catherine de Medici banned the sport.
By the 17th century, jousting tournaments had been replaced by a less violent, more elaborate version of an equine extravaganza known as un carrousel. Almost an equestrian ballet, a carrousel was an intricately coordinated pageant of a parade, with horses and their riders elaborately dressed. One of the most famous carousels of the time was that of 1662, a celebration Sun King, Louis XIV’s first son. It was held just to the west of the Louvre (the royal palace at the time), which is why this public square there is now called the Place du Carrousel.
Carousel games included ring tilting, where players would ride their horse, lance in hand, towards a ring, which was usually hanging from a pole by a ribbon. The aim was to spear the highest number of rings. In order to hone their ring-spearing skills, noblemen practised on a device that consisted of rudimentarily carved wooden horses suspended from beams radiating out from a central pole; to the side, rings hung off another pole, waiting to be speared. Oui: the earliest prototype of today’s merry-go-round.
Some of the oldest carousels in Paris are actually close in resemblance to their Renaissance ancestors. The one in the Jardin du Luxembourg has a troop of creaky horses, along with some random wooden wildlife, cranking around under their bottle-green circus-tent top. The riders on the outer circle of animals take a small spear from the operator, who then stands by holding a ring dispenser — the kids have to aim their stick and try to detach as many rings as possible as they go around. It’s a childhood ritual of which many Parisians have fond memories.
Over time, of course, most merry-go-rounds have forgotten their initial purpose, and are little more than a whirl of sparkling lights and pretty music. Some might say, as far as rides go, they’re actually as dull as you can get. But once you know the real tale, you have to admit the carousel has had one incredible ride through history.
Five of Paris’s Prettiest Carousels
- Jardin des Tuileries (pictured above). This jewel-box of a carousel twinkles away in the children’s area of the Tuileries, by the trampoline playground and the whimsical statue of Charles Perrault, author of Cinderella and Puss in Boots.
- Jardin du Luxembourg. Dating from 1879, this simple but sweet merry-go-round is the oldest in Paris, and the ever-patient operator plays the rings game (jeu de bagues) for delighted kids all day long.
- Place Saint-Pierre, Montmartre. A double-decker glittering confection of a ride, it looks like something from a fairytale, especially with the creamy cupolas of Sacré-Coeur hovering overhead.
- Hôtel de Ville. Another Belle Époque storybook style of carousel, in front of the iconic town hall.
- Jardin de Plantes. The quirky dodo manège is a veritable zoo of extinct and endangered animals, such as a triceratops and gorilla.
All the Fun of the Fair
In the glorious film Midnight in Paris, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald throw a glamorous party in a moodily lit Belle Époque fun park, complete with a golden bicycle carrousel. It looked like the movie set of your dreams, but it was actually the fabulous Musée des Arts Forains (Fairground Art Museum), which is located in an old winehouse just to the east of Paris. Happily this is not the see-don’t-touch type of museum. Designed to recreate the sumptuousness of travelling fairs of the 19th century, the red-velvet-curtained ballrooms are a treasure trove of organs, statues, waxworks, and various fun-park curios. You’ll also get to take a spin on the antique rides, including the famous bicycle merry-go-round. To book a place in one of the private group tours (they’re in French, but English handouts are provided), click here.