Christmas Markets and Big Wheels

photo: cafe la procope

Paris' oldest café, the Procope, in the Latin Quarter.

Neons In a Montparnasse Garden

by Ric Erickson

Paris:- Monday, 13. December 1999:- Last Wednesday I had an appointment in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and I rode out there on the RER without paying much attention to the ride, which made it seem shorter.

This was shorter than the last ride I had from there, on Monday, 12. July, when I left that area for good. On Wednesday, mixing the personal with business, I looked around the town a bit, and took a walk through its Marché de Noël.

The town has added to its sizeable collection of brand-name boutiques and disappeared some of its own places since I was last there. Although not originally designed to be a mall without a roof, it is this more than ever.

As such, Saint-Germain-en-Laye looks prosperous even if it looks like a concentrated branch-boutique. At a café wherephoto: marche de noel, honey I had a café, nobody was complaining, except about the café's pay toilet.

At the town's visitor office, the staff seemed genuinely surprised to see me when I went in to look for 'events' in the town, and in Yvelines.

Dozens of honey types at the Marché de Noël in Saint-Germain-en-Laye.

At its Marché de Noël there were not many customers, so the pine-wood 'chalets' seemed a little forlorn and full of unsold stock. I think I have forgotten more than I knew about these Marchés de Noël. It was only a couple of days later that I thought of some questions to ask.

Such as, where do they come from? All over France, these Marchés de Noël spring up, with their pine-wood 'chalets' and their year-in year-out stock, and with their staffs. What happens to all this transient commerce during the rest of the year?

I must have been subconsciously thinking of this on the RER ride backphoto: tree prices, la defense to Paris, because I got off at La Défense to see if there was a Marché de Noël in the big space there.

There was. It is huge, and at that time on Wednesday, it was full of thousands of workers from all the surrounding office towers - who don't have much else to do except shop. The mini-Manhattan-like La Défense is not overloaded with many cozy corners.

Tree prices are quoted by height at Marché de Noël at La Défense.

For all the readers who have be asking for Marché de Noël locations, I can now definitely say there is a big one at La Défense. At the end of métro line one, or via the RER line 'A.' For the Marché de Noël at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, go all the way to the end of the RER line 'A.'

Wherever else there is enough space, such as in front of the Gare Montparnasse, there is a Marché de Noël.

Paris' Big Wheel Deal

On the same day, on the same public-transport axle, I popped up from underground to verify the presence and operation of Paris' Big Wheel in the Place de la Concorde. Yes, the gondolas have been added and it is twirling around carrying passengers.

The eight-minute ride is worth 30 francs for adults, if you want to see Paris from 60 metres above Concorde. This is also above the tip of the Obelisk, so if you've always wanted to look down on it, now you can.

Typical overheard conversation: "How high is it?" followed by, "Is it higher than London's?" I was too busy taking photos to tell my fellow passengers that it doesn't matter how big London's wheel may be - if it has one - because it has its 'Millennium Dome,' based on designs by Albert Speer for Berlin.

There are a lot of warnings about standing up in the gondolas. Quaintphoto: paris wheel messages also inform riders they are being filmed by TV. I believe the TV-photos are for sale at a booth on the ground, where there is also a souvenir stand.

All the same - for camera fans - there are unglazed areas above the doors on each side, and the plexiglass ends were pretty clear. Last Wednesday was dim, so I don't know what light does to the plexi.

Paris' Big Wheel against a rare Paris big sky.

While in the line to get on, you have to decide whether you want a clear view to the Champs-Elysées or towards the Tuileries, and manoeuver yourself accordingly. To get the two views clearly requires two rides.

Thrill value? From the beginning it is obvious that Paris' Big Deal Wheel is a piece of solid engineering. The ride itself is like a modern elevator; there is none of that stop-start swinging back and forth, with the ground way down there below your feet - like on a regular ferris wheel.

Money for sensation value? For eight minutes - plus waiting time - 30 francs is neither too much nor too little.

Alternatives - for free; the roof of Samaritaine, plus it has a café terrace. Same thing for Galeries Lafayette, with a simpler café and lower-quality view. For pay, there's the Tour Eiffel - absolutely impossible to pass up - and the 59th floor of the Tour Montparnasse. Finally, weather permitting, there's the balloon at the André Citroen park in the 15th.

Other free heights are on Montmartre and up in Belleville. Of course, there are some who are perfectly content to have Paris at eye-level, and there are fans of the métro's underground, as well as its elevated parts.

For deep underground, visit the catacombs at Denfert-Rochreau. The daily line waiting at 14:00 to do this always surprises me.

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