Sun, sand, and summer on the streets of Paris

Our Paris bureau chief takes her family to the city's famous artificial, temporary beach.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters
People enjoy the sun next to Pont Neuf bridge as 'Paris Plage' (Paris Beach) opens along the banks of River Seine in Paris on July 20.

Paris Plage,” the annual transformation of urban concrete into faux beach in Paris, was begun more than a decade ago as an experiment of equalization. The French are famous for taking off the entire month of July or August – but of course not everyone can afford such summer rituals. For those who cannot, the thinking went, why not bring the beach to them? It’s been such a hit that it’s been copied the world over.

This year, it might be more popular than ever.

We recently finished a Focus story on global vacation patterns. (The story will go up on the website on Wednesday.) For my part, as Europe correspondent, I have written about how the French, more than others in debt-stricken Europe, are planning on carrying on with their summer respite, with 62 percent saying they plan to go away, compared to an average of 54 percent in the European countries surveyed.

But that number, while higher than the average, still represents an 8-point drop in vacation-goers from the previous year. And I suspect many of them might be heading to the Seine and nearby Parisian canals for at least part of this summer.

I’ve never been to one of these urban beaches, even after one was created in Mexico City where I lived for seven years. Frankly, nothing seemed less appealing to me: hot sun beating on trucked-in sand, in stinky summer streets, with no option for cooling off in the water. But I’ve heard so much about “Paris Plage,” I wanted to see it for myself, so the Llana family packed up and set off – preparing to catch a quick glimpse and go.

It turns out we could hardly peel ourselves away.

In deciding where exactly to head, I relied on the reporting of my Monitor predecessor in Paris, Robert Marquand, who visited not the posher, tourist-infested beachfront of the Seine but the Canal de l’Ourcq in La Villete in the 19th arrondissement. He described the gathering as “a multiethnic romp for kids, and a place where locals do tai chi and play petanque, a kind of horseshoes with heavy balls. In an expensive city, drinks are supermarket prices.”  

Not interested in seeing or being seen, that seemed the place for us.

It was blisteringly hot but we found two seats under umbrellas, also shielded by palm trees, and plopped down with our two-year-old and her buckets and shovels. As she usually does, our tomboy immediately gravitated to a boy with cars, cranes, and buses.

One challenge I’ve had as a mother in Paris is how hard it is to meet other moms, even at the parks. But the vibe was far friendlier “on the beach.” Cecelia and her friend Victor immediately hit it off. He shared his fruit snacks; she her raisins. There was a breeze. His grandmother was lovely. We actually did feel like we were on vacation.

“It feels like summer,” my husband said, a lemonade in hand.

There are also boat rides, go-karts, ice-cream stands, and anything else you might find at a beach boardwalk. When it got too hot, we found a sprinkler system, which Cecelia ran back and forth through for a full 45 minutes without stop – which, as any parent knows, is better than a vacation. (She slept for 3 hours when we got home.)

These beaches are always depicted as a consolation prize for those not fortunate enough to go away. But I left feeling lucky that I live in a city where there is so much offered – whether one is going away or not. The vibe was certainly not one of runner-up.

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