August in Paris is traditionally the time when residents head off for their month-long annual vacations. However, the city is by no means empty. For millions of residents and tourists, life goes on as usual, but there’s still that seasonal urge to spread out a towel on the sand and soak up some sun. Paris is nearly 125 miles (200km) from the coast, but every summer since 2002, a full-blown beach has appeared right in the center of town, courtesy of the city government and corporate sponsors.
Paris Plages is the collective name of a series of sites set up around the city for summertime activities; they’re in operation for roughly a month each year from late July to late August. The idea was the brainchild of Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë, who has taken numerous steps to make the city more accessible to pedestrians and cyclists. The original and best-known Paris Plage is constructed along the right bank of the Seine River, running almost 2 miles (3km) from the Louvre to Pont Sully (the Sully Bridge). What is normally the Georges Pompidou Expressway is closed to traffic (much to the dismay of commuters) and turned into a pedestrian walkway. Along the side of the road farthest from the river the actual beaches are installed—3000 tons of sand trucked in and trucked back out every year. In between sections of faux beach are areas devoted to other activities for both adults and children, such as rock climbing, rollerblading, and even t’ai chi. There are also restrooms, showers, first aid and police stations, and several mist zones where people can stand in a constant fine spray of water to cool off.
Mostly, though, people do what they normally do on beaches: lie on the sand or in hammocks in their swimsuits and get sunburned. The crowds are often dense, and those who arrive late in the day, especially on weekends, may have trouble finding a spot. Unlike other crowded beaches, though, the one thing you will not see is people going in the water. Apart from the fact that the beach is separated from the river by a wall and a road, it’s not the sort of place you would want to swim, wade, or simply get your toes wet even if you could. It would be easier, safer, and probably more hygienic to take a dip directly in the sewers.
However, if you go down the river a bit farther, you’ll find another Paris Plage location that features La Piscine Joséphine Baker, a huge swimming pool that actually floats in a barge on the river. So you can swim in the river, in a manner of speaking, without risking your health. At other spots in the city you can enjoy everything from beach volleyball or rugby (in front of the Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall, just steps from the central Paris Plage) to canoeing and kayaking (at the Bassin de la Villette).
Another thing you can do at any of the Paris Plage locations is, appropriately enough, surf—on the internet, that is. That’s right: the whole area has free Wi-Fi service. Which, I’m sure, was a very thoughtful and modern and generous notion on behalf of the organizers, but…seriously? I walked the entire length of the Paris Plage along the Seine and didn’t see a single laptop in use. Apart from the obvious fact that electronics don’t tend to get along well with sand, water, and bright sunlight, people really do go to the beach to relax. I’m teasing a bit: Wi-Fi is useful for numerous gadgets that are more beach-friendly, and there are certainly some dry, shady, and sand-free spots near the beach that would make a lovely spot to sit and type for a while if that’s your thing. But I know I wouldn’t choose a beach based on its internet connectivity.
Well, for that matter, I pretty much wouldn’t choose a beach at all. My personal preference is to enjoy those nice sunny days and the beautiful scenery from the comfort of a cool, dark, and uncrowded room somewhere. The Catacombs are lovely this time of year. —Joe Kissell