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No False Modesty

photo: paris plage

First day, 'Paris Plage!' Sold out except for everything free.

For Paris Plage

Paris:- Sunday, 20. July:- This morning radio France-Info said Parisians and visitors 'assaulted' the beach as soon at it opened right after breakfast. 'Typical hyperbole,' I thought, 'because anybody who didn't leave town last weekend has left on this one.'

But the morning weather is certainly right for the first day of 'Paris Plage.' I had a look at the right bank from the Pont de Sully and the Pont Saint-Louis on Friday, and it didn't look like much. The speedway - known as the Voie Georges Pompidou - was open to the usual furiously racing traffic, and the few beach structures looked like gypsy construction tents.

Yet over the past week there has been intense nighttime activity to bring in 3000 tons of fine sand, kiosks, stripedphoto: big screen, tour de france bath houses, lighting, parasols, banner-like sails, palm trees, and set up all the other material necessary - lots of hydraulic sprays, and toilets - for transforming a speedway into a riverside beach in the middle of Paris.

This is the second year of the event, so it is not the unknown and radical experiment it was in 2002. This year promises more, better, of everything, and - until now - Paris is having tropical weather to match the massive installation.

Free Tour de France on screen in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

Despite having been at the press conference for 'Paris Plage' on the 4th of July - 'more, better, free beach!' - I have a new invitation at the Hôtel de Ville for today, for the official opening, with a 'promenade.'

The emailed invitation needed to be printed and I asked Dennis to do it in color. He carried it around for half a week, and it got a bit wrinkled, after being sat on during two Marx Brothers' movies.

Since it was for two, I invited fellow Paris journalist and Café Metropole Club member Heather Stimmler to come along to see the inside of the people's palace. At first she agreed - then decided to take a hike all day instead. But a car alarm that howled off all night made her miss her train, so she's 'on' again.

On the way to the right bank, the first métro train has no passengers. But it doesn't stop to let me on, and the second train is medium-full and very warm. Getting out at Cité is a relief. The flower and bird marché in the Place Lépine is being renovated and it takes a while to get past it.

Both the Pont Notre-Dame and the Pont au Change are lined elbow-to-elbow with spectators. The spectacle is on the opposite side of the Seine, where it looks like about 17-times the marathon is walking, lounging, climbing, playing, or hanging flat-out.

I can't see the whole three kilometres of beach from the Pont Notre-Dame but when I cross the bridge and look both ways, it looks like tens of thousands of beach fans are headed for either end, withoutphoto: beach volleyball, hot de ville much hope of finding a deckchair.

Actually, today is exactly the same as last year. The first-day crowd is enormous. It's probably about a fourth of last year's entire attendance over three weeks, but there's an extra week this year.

More sports, again in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

Since I am not an automobilista these days, it is pretty stunning to see their speedway covered with people strolling along - there's little room for rollers or bikers today - and all the lucky ones who have captured deckchairs, or are otherwise parked on the sands.

In just the small part beneath the Pont Notre-Dame, it looks like more, and better. Getting along the Quai de Gesvres to the place in front of the Hôtel de Ville is a struggle. I think there may be a quarter-million hard-core of Parisian gawkers who come out for every occasion like this.

I wonder if the amount of new sand hasn't been short-counted. Almost the entire place in front of the Hôtel de Ville is covered with it. For some reason, there is pole-vaulting on the Avenue Victoria side. The Tour de France is playing 'live' on a big screen in front of the city hall.

There is one sandy area where nothing is happening, so I don't know what its purpose might be. Beyond, there is another where there are two beach volley-ball courts, with players vollying. Overlooking it there is a long panel with black and white photographs of athletes.

Heather shows up right on time, with a wrong-time watch, and after a brawl with a couple of taxi drivers who werephoto: mayor delanoe, tony parker not Hôtel-de-Ville fans. We go around by the Rue de Rivoli to the city hall's Rue Lobau side and join the line of the other invitees to the 'ouverture.'

Then in we go inside and through a courtyard and up some wide marble stairs, to one of the grander 'salles,' with chandeliers and windows shining on the parquet floor, overlooking the beach below the traffic on the quay.

Mayor Bertrand Delanoë presents NBA star Tony Parker with the city's 'Médaille Vermeille' at the Hôtel de Ville on Sunday.

While not even water was served two weeks ago here, there are bars set up at either end of the large reception room. A small brass band is playing very loudly, even without amplification. It is very warm. Heather wonders why the Hôtel de Ville is not air-conditioned. Ladies fan themselves with the invitations.

When the band begins to play the Harlem Globetrotters' theme, the mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, jumps onstage. He is not easy to see because the TV cameramen are hogging the front line again. They are sweating under the weight of their huge broadcast-grade video cameras.

The mayor, who looks like he has already been on holiday someplace sunny, tells us that 'the city believes in sports.'

Then he introduces Tony Parker, who recently led the San Antonio Spurs to the NBA Championship. Tony is introduced as a 'Parisian' - he is French and he played for PSG and Paris-Racing before moving on to a higher plane in the top US basketball league.

Excerpts from the final matches were shown on TV-news here. In them, Tony did not seem all that tall compared to his follow American players, but he towers over the mayor.

Bertrand Delanoë honors Tony Parker with the city's 'Médaille Vermeille.' Tony says he supports the Ville de Paris' bid for the Olympic Games in 2012, and all the talk of 'sports' suddenly has a purpose.

Mais, oui. 'Paris Plage' is nothing less than a ten-year promotion for the city's Olympic bid.

The press here has pointed out that 'city beaches' are to be found this year in Tourcoing, Toulouse, Budapest, Berlin, and even in the small town of Wissous in Essonne. Only Toulouse comes close to Paris for volume of sand.

The mayor says, about 'Paris Plage,' "We don't export it - we're sharing it."

According to Libération, even if 'Paris Plage 2002' received a good press worldwide, foreign journalists mocked the operation's lack of modesty. But like New York, Paris doesn't thrive on modesty.

'Paris Plage' does have its detractors, some of whom prefer the bucolic charms of the Canal Saint-Martin - which they have to avoid on weekends because it becomes too much like 'Paris Plage.'

Others park themselves on the quays of the Ile Saint-Louis or camp out in the Square du Vert Galant, and there arephoto: quai ile st louis other areas along the Seine such as the Parc André Citroën, the island called the Allée des Cygnes, the Porte de la Bordonnais, the Quai Saint-Bernard and the Quai de la Gare in the 13th, and the canals in the 19th arrondissement by La Villette.

The quiet quay of the Ile Saint-Louis, right across from Paris Plage.

If avoiding 'Paris Plage' is a goal, Paris also has 426 public gardens, plus 20 cemeteries that function as gardens too. If 'Paris Plage' is not suitable for swimming - the Seine isn't polluted, but drinking its water is dubious - there are 34 public pools in all arrondissements other than the 3rd and the 8th, although not all are open in summer.

For all kinds of sports, there are about 360 locales within the city. Also, there is the three-hour Friday Night Roller Rando and an easier one on Sundays too.

Measured against the permanent leisure and sporting infrastructure, 'Paris Plage' is modest because it is temporary. On Monday, 18. August it has to fold its tents so its three kilometres of prime beach space can be returned to the automobilistas.

At the earlier press conference, Mayor Delanoë said, in reply to a question about access to the Seine, that traffic would continue to flow along the river for 'four years at least, but less than ten.'

The speeches in the Hôtel de Ville today are shorter than I imply. With his immodest ambitions for the city stated, the mayor says 'follow me' and leaves the reception with Tony Parker and other VIPs, including the mayor of the 14th, Pierre Castagnou, for the promenade part of the program.

Heather and I remain behind to finish off our cocktails, as do some other hard-core fans of freebies. We even do a bit of sightseeing on the way out - which has had a shortcut added so that we come out on the place in front of the Hôtel de Ville.

There are mobs all over and traffic is stalled, so we zip across the Quai de l'Hôtel de Ville between the cars and look over the stone wall at the hordes beach people below.

All of a sudden we are pushed against the stone wall as the mayor's bodyguards clear the way for the small army of promenaders with the mayor hustling along, facephoto: playa romana full of fuzzy microphones and camera lenses, with the sweaty video cameramen gamely trying to keep up.

When the dust clears, we cross the Pont d'Arcole to the Ile de la Cité and wander west to the plant and bird market. The renovation of the roofs of the permanent buildings is going to take 10 months, but temporary huts are already in place nearby.

Columns from sister city Rome, lent to Paris for a 'Playa Romana.'

The last animal we see before diving into the deep métro, is an immodest French - or is it Parisian? - rooster.

Paris Plage 2003 - continues until Sunday, 17. August. On the right bank, from the Quai des Tuileries to the Pont Henri IV, plus the place in front of the Hôtel de Ville. More everything, mostly free, with more moderate prices for what isn't. Beer and wine are available at the buvettes.

Souvenirs for 'Paris Plage' itself are on sale at the BHV, across from the Hôtel de Ville. Includes picnic areas, library, a guinguette, and a 'Scène Flottante' from Wednesday to Friday, near the Pont Marie. Bike rentals from Roue Libre, with guided tours available. Map of 'Paris Plage' available from the RATP. Program of events changes daily. Siesta area, open from 11:00 to 21:00, if it is all too much. And finally, overall art direction by Jean-Christophe Choblet.

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