August is vacation month in France. Parisians flock to the Cote d'Azur or to Provence or perhaps to the less-crowded North Coast. Paris is usually sweltering during the second half of the summer, and the beach seems like the perfect place to go for some relief — and to escape the urban grind.
In 2002, the mayor of Paris decided to do something to keep people in the city during this time of the year and to give those who couldn't leave some relief from the summer heat and tourist hordes.
Bringing the beaches to the people
Instead of having people travel to the seaside, an artificial beach, known as Paris-plage, was built on the Right Bank of the Seine. Four years later, a second beach was added, and the name of the scheme was pluralized to its current form, Paris-plages.
More than a decade later, the idea seems to have been a success. Millions of visitors come to the beaches each year, and each year more features are added as more sponsors get involved. In addition to the centrally located areas in the heart of the city, a beach is also constructed along the Bassin de la Villette, an artificial lake in northern Paris.
A summer celebration in the heart of Paris
The most popular beach area is set up between the bridge nearest City Hall and the famous Pont Neuf. The stretch is about two miles (three kilometers). The riverside streets are closed to traffic, and people can choose between sand and grass beaches, including areas for lounge chairs and parasols.
The City Hall-Pont Neuf stretch is the Paris-plage that offers the most-classic experience. It's location in the center of the city means beachgoers can see the legendary bridges and the historic architecture that runs right up to the edge of the river.
There's a lot to do along the Seine during this late-summer fest, but one major beach activity is absent: There's no swimming in the river for safety and sanitary reasons. Visitors will find fountains and wading pools where they can cool off.
Part of an authentic summer trip to Paris
You can even try water sports at the Bassin de la Villette plage. Canoes and kayaks are available, or you can hire a paddle boat — with instructors available for those unfamiliar with these watercraft. The drawback: this is a more-modern part of Paris, so the classic scenes are absent. (That can be a good thing if you want to get away from the touristy part of the city).
Actually, it's not realistic to compare these beaches to those on the Riviera. No matter how popular the idea, you can't say that temporary city beaches are a viable alternative to one of the world's best seaside destinations.
That said, the Paris-plages are an event in and of themselves. In true Parisian fashion, the beaches are open later in the morning (9 a.m.) and don't close until midnight. Concerts are an almost nightly occurrence, so the party runs up until 12 a.m. when revelers move on to other parts of the city to continue the fun.
The beaches have a boardwalk-style feel. Since the roadways are closed to traffic, people can stroll along freely (a welcome experience in traffic-prone Paris). Sidewalk cafes and vendors line the promenade — and you won't walk very far without encountering someone selling ice cream.
On the main beach area near City Hall, there are basketball courts and volleyball nets. Other happenings include art installations, fitness classes and events, and plenty of other sports opportunities.
A second beach is located nearby. The beach along the Voie Pompidou area has a more family-friendly appeal. With kid-centered sands, a free public library, a learn-to-ride bicycle area and story-tellers, this is a popular spot for Parisians with children.
Then, of course, there are the paddle boats and kayaks of la Villette. La Villette also has courts where one of the most well-known French sports, boules, can be played.
More than anything, the Paris-plages are places where tourists can partake in a Paris institution, right alongside the locals. It's a break from the usual — whether you live in Paris or you're on a visit.
Related on MNN: