It’s not too often you enter a museum and re-emerge feeling like you’ve had the time of your life at a carnival. But that’s more or less the raison d’être of the Musée des Arts Forains (Fairground Arts), a vast space formerly one of Paris’ oldest, largest wine warehouses. It still has a bacchanalian feel about it, a sense of glee and discovery hanging in the air along with strings of fairy lights in the long, cobblestoned courtyard (le Théâtre de Verdure) intersected by a disused tram track.
This eight-hectare, leafy pavilion in Bercy is little known even to Parisians: a private museum founded by eccentric actor and collector Jean-Paul Favand. It can usually only be visited for functions and guided tours reserved in advance. But over Christmas and New Years’ the doors (and even the old rides) are open to some 70,000 members of the public, so that this magical menagerie from the Belle Époque comes alive during the museum’s Festival du Merveilleux.
It lives up to its name all right, somewhere between a tour of Willy Wonka’s factory (there is actually a preserved shop-front from an old candy store) and trip to a Coney Island funhouse. This is the place to take a fellow traveller complaining that they don’t like museums. As you walk around the exterior towards the entrance, dozens of plaster caricature busts grin down at you — mostly legendary old actors who give new meaning to the concept of ‘celebrity heads’. Once inside, you won’t know quite where to look first. I took in the original Mortier organ piping away in one corner, the piano-playing unicorn in the other and the elephant ready for liftoff in the ornate hot air balloon of the Théâtre de Merveilleux. ‘Am I in a David Lynch movie?’ I pinched myself, passing a row of distorted mirrors — like I needed to appear shorter than I already am.
Surely this is the only museum in the world where the sound of shrieking children on the loose couldn’t bother me — where it even adds to the magic of the place. (There were collective squeals of delight as a magician showed off his tricks.) Woody Allen discovered his inner child here in a scene from Midnight in Paris, during which his wide-eyed American protagonist had travelled back in time. And sure enough, it feels like we’ve turned back the clock to this era between 1850 and 1930, when carnivals thrived and from which date most of these theatre props and costumes, cabaret curios and Music Hall intrigue.
Not least because every inch of the place is covered in old-timey frescoes or draped in brocade. You can actually feed the open-mouthed clowns and take a spin on the ancient, creaking rides, all painstakingly restored. (One ‘attraction’ is included in the price of admission.) Try the Manège vélocipédique, a bike-powered carousel created in 1897 back when bicycles were still a novelty. Or opt for the smoother gondola ride in the opulent Salons Vénitiens. Perhaps the most titillating diversion is La Course de Garçons de Café, where you get to race wine-toting Parisian waiters — something I’ve always wanted to try out with live waiters in Paris.
I wandered outside and noted approvingly that a group of street performers had disguised themselves as a giant Gollem that lurched around the courtyard trying to eat children, with acrobats and accordionists joining the fray. I had my photo taken in the old painted head-through-the-hole booths, cherishing the one of me on the toilet. There was no magician on hand to wave a wand at the typically French system of purchasing meal coupons to exchange for some barbe à papa and vin chaud and turn three queues into one.