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Pavillons de Bercy-Musée des Arts Forains, or the Museum of Fairground Arts, proves you are never too old to ride a carousel. However, you may be too young. Back in the late 1800s, when bicycles were more expensive than horses, adults would line up to ride bicycle carousels which could reach speeds of up to 60kph. No children were allowed unless they sat on a seat behind their parents, safely out of reach of the whirling pedals.

The bicycle carousel is just one of many historic rides and attractions at Musée des Arts Forains, one of the world’s largest collections of antique amusement rides, which can be found in the 12th arrondissement. The privately owned collection belonged to Jean-Paul Favand who always wanted to be an actor but made his money as an art dealer. His private collection opened to the public in 1996 and celebrates the elegance of the Belle Époque era and the sense of theatre which fun fairs brought to towns throughout Europe.

Over a dozen historic amusement rides, original fun fair games and whimsical historical works are spread between four rooms where visitors can experience the wonder of amusement attractions from 1850 to 1950 first-hand. Tours run for two hours and include the chance to see (and hear) a rare Hooghuys fairground organ playing, ride different carousels, play original amusement games and learn about life in Europe in the 1800s.

Rare Hooghuys fairground organ
Hooghuys fairground organ

While it is a joy to experience all the fun of the fair, the collection has an innocence and ornate beauty that is captivating from the moment you enter the first room. The Chamber of Curiosities houses an eclectic collection ranging from an automated ballroom organ which took the place of 12 musicians to a spinning top parlour game typically found in wealthy society homes during the 1800s.

However, it is the game of chance featuring horses competing in the famous Italian race known as the Palio di Siena which our group clamours to play. Excited shouts fill the room as people try their luck, rolling billiard balls into holes which make the gallant wooden horses and their riders advance at different rates, depending on the individual score for each hole.

Palio di Sienna fun fair game

We move to the ornate Venetian Room where we are treated to an automaton opera performance which is spectacular given its age but also a little spooky in the darkened space which once housed barrels of wine. Next we ride gondolas on a Venetian-themed carousel from the early 1900s. Hand carved carriages decorated in rich red and burnished gold have been worn smooth by the many riders who have stroked the ornate woodwork. As the tinkling fairground music plays, it feels as if we are spinning back in time, surrounded by the splendour and whimsical charm of a bygone era.

Disclosure: The writer and her family paid for their visit to the Museum of Fairground Arts and loved every minute of it. 

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Dr Tiana Templeman is an award-winning food and travel journalist, travel author and media industry academic. She is the creator of The Travel Temple, writes for Australian and international media outlets and appears on radio talking about where to go, what to see and travel industry trends.