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photo: paris plage, sunday

Some of Sunday's crowd, out in the bright sunlight to inaugurate 'Paris Plage.'

Vamos a la Playa!

Paris:- Sunday, 21. July 2002:- If you have any age on you at all you will have seen those incredible black and white photos in Life Magazine of Coney Island on a good day in summer when everybody in New York who doesn't live on Park Avenue is on the beach and there isn't a grain of sand to be seen.

When I saw it on Christmas Day last year, there were only seven warmly-dressed people and 18 large sea gulls flying over it, so I saw a lot of clean sand and I saw how big it was, especially if adjacent Manhattan Beach was added.

Instead of a miles-long seaside beach, Paris has its river Seine and this is flanked by an expressway for much of the right bank and along parts of the left bank. For most of history and most of the year there isn't any sand and hardly any sea gulls.

If residents and visitors want either of these, France has several coasts with hundreds of fine beachesphoto: boules players, paris plage and you can take your pick of types of salt water - of either the Atlantic or the Mediterranean varieties. There are so many beaches that is even possible to avoid the hopelessly overcrowded ones.

Not just for sunbathers, but for true sportmen too.

But not everybody living in Paris can get away to one of these seaside paradises in the summer. For the past several years the expressways beside the Seine have been closed to traffic for a few weeks in July and August so that Parisians and visitors can get a bit of air and closer to the river.

This has been fairly popular, but when the new city administration closed the expressways a week early last summer there was a lot of criticism - especially from motorists, because they were hot and bothered, and it didn't seem that many pedestrians were making much use of the precious asphalt.

The fuming - and the fumes from stalled traffic - were smelt and heard at the Hôtel de Ville - it is close enough to the eastbound quays for angry drivers to throw rocks at it.

But instead of bowing to the pressure from suburbanites who like to drive to work in Paris in the summer instead of taking public transport like they are forced to do in winter, the city government first said they made a mistake with the week-early expressway shutdown - and then vowed to do it right this year - by starting a week later.

Before the automobilistas could rejoice, the city's mayor Bertrand Delanoë also said the expressways would be shut down entirely - for 24 hours a day instead of just during the daytime.

But the big news was the city's intention to turn one of the world's most scenic downtown motorways into a beach and call it 'Paris Plage.'

The head of the automobile club called this 'kicking sand in the eyes,' but didn't say in whose. Le Parisien's snap opinion questions to the man-on- the-street have registered total indifference, mild doubt, or weak wait-and-see responses. Roughly 60 percent said they are not in favor of the idea.

For the past several days the weather forecast has been gradually upgraded, although Saturday's prediction for today in Paris was, 'Sunshine in Corsica.'

Instead, when I get out of my residential gloom and onto the street, the heavens look like what is calledphoto: bandstand, paris plage here an 'Ile-de-France sky.' This is one that is mostly blue with some fluffy white popcorn-shaped clouds in it. It is also warmer that the forecast high of 22 degrees.

Not many other passengers ride the métro with me down to the Cité stop on the Ile de la Cité. Out of this other, deeper gloom, things are not only brighter but there seem to be a lot more people around than usual - and this 'usual' is the major visitor season in Paris.

Getting ready to supply some hot beach music.

The Quai de la Corse and the Pont Notre-Dame are a short block from the métro exit, and on this corner it is immediately apparent that Le Parisien talked to the wrong people- on-the-street.

The bridges are thronged with beach fans, the south-facing right-bank expressway seems to be full of tens or hundreds of thousands, and the quays above the expressway seem to be just as crowded. I have never seen so many people in the centre of Paris on a Sunday before.

It looks like many more than I didn't see in the dark on the Champ de Mars for the Bastille Day fireworks last Sunday evening. It is certainly more than can fill the wide sidewalks of the Champs-Elysées on a good day. It looks like the Coney Island photo in color, with a river in the middle.

Great flaming beachballs! What if first-time visitors think it is like this all the time in summer, every summer?

I go along the Quai aux Fleurs towards the Ile Saint-Louis. The opposite right-bank - the Quai de l'Hôtel de Ville - looks chock-full. The quay I'm on is clustered with people observing the quay across the Seine. The Pont Saint-Louis is crowded, and not only to listen to the band playing on it.

On the Ile Saint-Louis there is a long line-up for the ice cream shop, all the café terraces are full, and what little traffic there is has slow-going with all the people carelessly milling about in the sunshine.

Cars are parked - when did they get here? - on the Pont Louis-Philippe, but pedestrians use the road as well as the sidewalks. On the right-bank side, from the bridge, the riverbanks below look like an oversized version of the Paris Marathon - going in both directions.

Everywhere I look the stairs and ramps leading down to the riverside are full of people descending slowly. There are, in effect, lineups to get on the beach.

The sidewalks along the quays, the ones lined with the bouquinists, are jammed too - partly because this is where the traffic is. And, despite all the advance warningsphoto: strollers, sunbathers, paris plage and publicity, there are a lot of drivers who have chosen this route - to get to the beach? - today. Insane!

The doubtful, the curious and hard-core beach fans are here this inaugural Sunday afternoon, to gawk or to beach-test an inner-city expressway transformed into 3.8 kilometres of seaside along a fresh-water river, one that isn't quite clean enough for swimming.

People, people everywhere, and hardly a grain of sand in sight.

To do this, the city completed its months-long planning and last Monday 17 various city service agencies began the installation of a 100-metre-long sand beach, with 80 imported palm trees, 22 blue and white striped beach changing tents, 150 parasols and 300 blue canvas deckchairs.

To this grass patches have been added, two free water-spray stations - 'brumisateurs' - some boules pitches, several drink kiosks run by the nearby permanent cafés, a guiguette for dancing and several other areas for musicians to perform concerts.

Other activities include places for scaling the quay's walls, a river fishing club, a play area for small kids, a marine knot-tying clinic and a skate and roller rental outlet. There are also two points where graffiti artists can show off their talents. The only four-wheeled vehicle on the entire stretch of beach is a 'Roue Libre' bicycle rental bus.

'Paris Plage' also has 33 seasonal employees to help run all of this. The entry to the beach is free. There are an appropriate number - through probably not today - of comfort stations, first aid posts, and security people watching over it all.

As they say, "This is not all folks!" Next Thursday two more elements will be added. These are off the beach a bit, in front of the Hôtel de Ville. One is an area set up for beach volley-ball and another, smaller area, will be a micro-golf course.

It will only be after the Tour de France does its final-lap tour of Paris on Sunday, 28. July that 'Paris Plage' will reach the full extent of its programmed attractions.

All of this will be open to the public 24 hours a day - for strollers and roller folks - at nighttime with the illumination from the passing bateaux mouches. The drink kiosks will be open from 9:30, sporting activities will begin around 13:30, and the dancing and music will start around 16:00 and continue until 22:30.

The formal area of 'Paris Plage' stretches from east of the Pont Sully to the west of the Pont Neuf, all on the sunny side of the right bank.

Some of my little tour today has shown that a good number of sand fans are avoiding the beach itself and are arrayed around the Ile Saint-Louis like basking seals, and they are probably in a lot of the other places along the Seine were the edge of it is accessible.

On TV-news tonight Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë guessed the turnout for 'Paris Plage' could be 600,000 today, and this might be pretty close if all those who took it in from the opposite banks and the bridges are included.

The better than predicted weather and the higher than forecast temperatures probably helped, and all the publicity did its work too. No doubt, skeptics were deceived by the Parisians, who are historically fond of new spectacles. All the same, there are still two complaints - not enough sand and a moan common to all, 'the Seine is not the sea.'

Addressing the latter, the mayor has promised that two floating pools with clean fresh water are going to be constructed and put into operation within a few years.

Le Parisien managed to find a number of visitors last week who said beaches were not their reason forphoto: sunbathers on the beach, paris plage coming to Paris. But a good number of these tried out the sand today too. Now you know it is not silly to bring a bathing suit to Paris, or have an excuse to get a new one at the summer sales.

Ah, here we are - some grains of visible sand. Perfect!

Sunday, especially a sunny one, is usually a good day for the roller shop in my street. Today the young fellow who runs it spent most of his time sitting on its stoop, waiting for closing time.

The concept of 'Paris Plage' has been designed by Jean-Christophe Choblet. The successful beach scene created at Barcelona for the Olympic Games in 1992 inspired this Paris version. All the same, and like the mayor, he hopes that every day at the beach in Paris is not quite so popular as its opening day.

Which is today, when everybody in Paris has gone 'vamos a la playa!' You can do this too until Sunday, 18. August.

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