French carousels – colourful past and present

One of the great delights, whether in the Tuilleries garden in Paris or at the centre of many French towns, are the myriad colourful carousels. They are loved by children worldwide and form a component of almost every amusement park.

Carousel, Tuilleries, Paris

Carousel, Tuilleries, Paris

Once they were the main attraction, but time and technology has moved on. They seem the most innocent of rides, sparking the imagination of young fairy princesses and princes. And these days carousels come in many forms, whether purely horses in the traditional way, or with tigers and elephants in the ‘menagerie’ style or more recently teacups, planes or fanciful creatures.

Carousel - Arles, France

Carousel – Arles, France

They make such an innocent and healthy alternative to electronic – often warlike- simulation games… or do they?

Their origins were not so innocent as many imagine, nor are they a recent invention. Back in the 12th century, Arabian and Turkish horsemen used to develop their horsemanship skills with a game involving tossing a ball or rings as they galloped in a circle. These training games were observed by the Italian crusaders who identified these contests as martial training, and they gave it the name garosello, or in the spanish carosella – meaning ‘little war’ – related to the french word for war la guerre.

Carousel - horse

Carousel – horse

The crusaders brought the practice back to Europe and it became part of the jousting tournaments. Children love to model adult behaviour and especially where there is an element of excitement to fuel their imagination.

By the 17th century the cavalry displays had gained greater popularity and had become a popular ring sport. Louis XIV turned it into a huge spectacle in 1662 with Le Grand Carousel held in the square between the Tuilleries gardens and the Louvre. It became known as the Place du Carrousel, and young French noblemen trained for this game by lancing rings while riding legless wooden horses attached to a rotating platform.

Carousel - Avignon, France

Carousel – Avignon, France

Soon it evolved into a popular entertainment, and the practice horses were painted and decorated lavishly in imitation of the lavish public cavalry displays.

By 1800 this new entertainment had been copied and replicated throughout France, their size only limited by the available power sources – human or mules. In 1861 Englishman Thomas Bradshaw was the first to build one powered by steam, and around 1866 Frederick Savage developed a portable steam engine and cranking system to enable the horses to rise and fall while they were turned, and the modern carousel was born.

Carousel - Nantes, France

Carousel – Nantes, France

Popular amusements in the US and UK, they reached new heights between 1875 and 1930 – when the Great Depression forced the closure of many amusement arcades. Today, they may not be the main attraction, but they are present in many forms in all modern fairgrounds and of course form a delightful and colourful sight from Paris to Arles or Avignon.

Carousel - Seoul, Korea

Carousel – Seoul, Korea

Indeed, they are all over the world – from the US to Korea to Australia – but how many stop to think about where they came from and how they came into being?

Carousel word cloud

Carousel word cloud



Van Gogh’s bridge to Japan

Why are bridges so fascinating?

Bridges hold a special place in every culture. They are a means to cross  from one place to another; over a hazard, a dangerous river or chasm. So bridges are both a connection and a marker for a division. When you step off the land onto a bridge you are in a space between where you have been and where you are going. Metaphorically, bridges can cross the gulf between cultures and across history.

Many cities have iconic bridges: Venice has the Bridge of Sighs, London has Tower Bridge, San Francisco has the Golden Gate, Sydney has the Harbour Bridge and Paris has Pont Neuf.

Van Gogh’s Pont Langlois

Vincent van Gogh went to Arles in search of Japan – according to David Dale, author of A traveller’s alphabet of essential places.
In reality, he was looking for the light and colours that he saw in Japanese prints, and he found them in Arles. This post is about how we bridged the distance between France and Japan through Van Gogh’s paintings.

Van Gogh's Pont de Langlois [wikipedia - Kröller Müller]

Van Gogh’s Pont de Langlois [wikipedia – Kröller Müller]

Vincent van Gogh did several versions of the Pont Langlois bridge at Arles in southern France. The original bridge traversed the Arles-to-Bouc canal. It was a simple but functional drawbridge enabling canal boats to pass underneath when raised. A series of these bridges were built along the canal in the first half of the 19th century. The one nearest Arles was called Pont de Réginel but was more popularly known for its keeper, Monsieur Langlois – hence it was known as Langlois’ bridge.

Finding the Langlois Bridge

I had heard that the bridge was still around and could be seen today. Actually, that’s not quite true, as we found. The original bridge became structurally unsound and was replaced in the 1930s by a concrete bridge. That, in turn, was destroyed by retreating Germans in 1944. They destroyed all but one of the bridges along the canal, leaving only the one at Fos sur Mer. This was one of the original bridges on the canal and was the same design as the one Van Gogh painted in 1888. In 1959 the Fos bridge was dismantled with a view to relocating it at the site of the Langlois bridge, but the canal had since been widened and it was decided to move it to its current location near the Montcalde Lock. It is not easy to find. You can find it here [Google maps link].

pont de Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

Pont Van Gogh, Arles France. [photo Jerry Everard]

It took a few goes and finally, we turned down a little side street on the outskirts of the town and there was Pont Van-Gogh – its new name – restored to working order. Some might consider it a reproduction or a fake. But since it is from the original series and contemporary with the Langlois bridge, I think it is close enough. I was struck by how accurately Van Gogh represented the structure. You can see how he faithfully reproduced the chains, support beams and pulleys for raising the bridge.

He painted four oil paintings and one watercolour of the bridge and completed a number of drawings.

This version is in the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.

Langlois Bridge

Langlois Bridge [source: Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam]

The link with Tokyo

Little did I realise that this bridge was a key to his link with Japan. In the late nineteenth century, Europe was Japan crazy. High quality lacquer furniture, boxes, ceramics and pottery were being exported to Europe by the shipload. As it turns out, many of these were wrapped in fine paper prints, some by famous Japanese artists. Others, like the prints of Japanese women were adverts for Geishas or high class escorts. Around 1857, Hiroshige – a Japanese artist of the Edo period – published a book in Japan called One Hundred Famous Views of Edo. This was soon after the great 1855 earthquake that had destroyed many key buildings in what is today called Tokyo. It was a record of the rebuilding, and of the surviving structures. At the time, it was the largest such collection. 

Hiroshige's Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake

Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake [photo – Jerry Everard]

The post-impressionists were inspired to look differently at the world through the different perspective and flat use of colour in these images. Van Gogh amassed a large collection of Japanese woodblock prints. One such print was of the Edo period bridge that led into the Emperor’s palace in the centre of what we now call Tokyo. Hiroshige’s depiction of the bridge in a sudden storm, with its elegant lines and unusual foreshortening, inspired Van Gogh to paint a copy.

 And this is Van Gogh’s version:

Van Gogh copy in oil of Hiroshige's Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake. [photo-Jerry Everard]

Van Gogh copy in oil of Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake. [photo-Jerry Everard]

Edo Bridge

We found this connection in Tokyo, at the Edo-Tokyo Museum – which has a full-size replica of the Edo bridge. It is extraordinary and surprising how connections turn up in the places you least expect. Here is my photo of the replica bridge in Tokyo:

Replica Edo-Tokyo bridge at the Edo-Tokyo museum, Tokyo. [photo - Jerry Everard]

Replica Edo-Tokyo bridge at the Edo-Tokyo museum, Tokyo. [photo – Jerry Everard]

From a painting in the Musee d’Orsay, to a bridge in the South of France where Van Gogh sought to connect with his vision of Japan seen through a print of a bridge, we found an extraordinary connection with a reproduction bridge in a museum in Tokyo. This is what makes travel so worthwhile!

What connections have you made across the world in unexpected places? Let us know in the comments below…

You can have these posts delivered to your in-box by hitting the ‘subscribe button to your left 🙂

Driving through the looking glass

Driving in France is like driving through the looking glass – at least for those of us who usually drive on the left and sit on the right.

The hire car was straightforward – I asked for the smallest they had, and it was only a little bigger than the car I drive in Australia. I get in – no problems – I drive a French car – how hard can it be? Okay so the gear shift is now done with the right hand – I can deal with that.

Citroen 2CV at Arles

Citroen 2CV at Arles

Remember the mantra – say it aloud!
I start and pull out, remembering my mantra “right is tight and left is loose” – I repeat that to myself a few times just so I’m clear on that – a right turn is like a left turn in Australia and vice versa. I hunt for a gear – any gear as long as I can pull away – and I find myself developing a dough-mixer style of selecting gears – it works. Sometimes.

Useful tip:
I recommend taking a timid passenger with you – they can be very helpful. “You’re being British” I hear – oh yes that’s code for ‘I’m about to wipe off the passenger mirror on the parked cars – I quickly make the course correction.

Very handy having an audible warning device like that – if I start to drift to the right I get a faint ‘oooh’ rising quickly to a piercing shriek that I can no longer ignore – it’s very effective – every driver should have one.

French road sign

French road sign – Beware: vehicles exiting (or does it say: End of Roundabout…)

I approach a turn and mutter my mantra again. And here I learn a fundamental truth: roundabouts are a godsend! how else do people turn left in this country? I will never again criticise Canberra for its myriad roundabouts – OMG they are soooo useful! And France is full of them. The great thing is, that not only do they make left turns easy, they allow you to check the signposts, sometimes two – or even three – times until you are sure that you have the right road. Um… just make sure you enter the roundabout to the right and proceed anti-clockwise around the roundabout – otherwise it gets awkward (don’t ask!).

Curious fact: you know you’re in France when they grow wine grapes on the roundabout.

Two kinds of roads
There are just two kinds of road in France. There are toll roads – about ten lanes wide and traverse the country from top to bottom and every way across – mostly following the old Roman roads. Everyone travels the same direction and the speed limits are a sensible 130kph or 110kph if raining. Under every speed sign is the word ‘RAPPEL’ – it translates roughly as ‘just a suggestion’. At least that’s how the French drivers translate it.

The second type of road is a secondary road. In Australia we call these alleys. They are about 1.5 car widths with a deep ditch on either side – they must get some great monsoon rains to justify those small canals they call drains…

secondary road, Lyon

secondary road, Lyon

Thus begins a continuous game of chicken – which the French invariably win because they are fearless. The oncoming traffic which I estimate at double the 50kph speed limit holds their line close to the centre of the road. I try not to flinch as they approach. “Be French” I tell myself – and grip the wheel a little tighter – somehow they miss as they pass just millimetres from my wing mirror. I learn the trick – never show fear, and don’t be British! Luckily my motorcycle training kicks in and soon I can sit comfortably in my lane – just to the left of the black oil strip in the centre of the lane. That seems to work, and within hours I am starting to relax and enjoy the drive.

But you do have to watch out for the British drivers in France as they constantly veer off to the right, or straddle two lanes of the tollway.

The French are great communicators – whether texting while driving or using their horn as an extension of their voice – they are happily doing everything but concentrate on driving.

And so to navigation. Rule number one – get a GPS. We didn’t have one and while most major centres are clearly signposted, they will often route you through 2 or 3 small medieval towns without any signposting at all and usually that is where a crucial turn should have been made. Take Google Maps’ time and double it.

In the narrow streets of the old towns – full of charm and narrow streets and blind corners and maniac scooters and dogs and chickens – most countries would position a convex mirror to protect the blind corners. In France they replace these with statues of the Virgin Mary… protector of travellers, set into a niche on the wall. Despite my atheist tendencies, I say a quick ‘Hail Mary’ and enjoy the drive.

Actually it is rather fun once you get used to it and I quickly learned to love the quirky little car 🙂

If you enjoyed this – you can have these posts delivered to your in-box by hitting the ‘subscribe button to your left 🙂