Meridians and Paris Time

Did you know that for a while, official Paris time was 9 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT)? Let me tell you how that happened.

First of all, I assume you know a meridian is a line that runs from the North Pole to the South Pole. It is used to indicate the longitude of a location.

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich

The Royal Observatory, Greenwich (a town just outside London), is the reference point for both the Prime Meridian, putting Greenwich at 0° longitude, and Greenwich Mean Time. Both these references were progressively adopted around the world over the second half of the 19th century, some international conferences helping the process along.

The Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich

Paris is in the GMT+1 time zone and at a longitude of ~2°20’E. New York is in the GMT-5 time zone and at ~74’W.

Back in the 17th century, Sun King Louis XIV authorized the building of the royal observatory of Paris (today the Paris Observatory). On Midsummer’s Day 1667, scientists traced the outline of the building in such a way that the Paris Meridian bisected the site from north to south. Meridians were really important in that time as scientists attempted to determine the size and the figure of the earth.

The Paris Observatory

So we now have the Paris Meridian. What about Paris time?

Once upon a time and ironically long before the Sun King came along, people told time by the sun. Later, church bells calling to prayer marked time during the day. Each village, each town lived by the time of their local clocks.

It was only with the arrival of the train that France started to feel the need to unify time across its territory. In order to assure a regular train service, the train companies used Paris time. Progressively, over the second half of the 19th century, French towns adopted double display, local time and Paris time, and in 1891, Paris time was enforced by law across the country.

However, in the meantime, the Greenwich Meridian and GMT had been widely adopted around the world, first by navies, then by train companies and then (nearly) everyone else.

Finally, with the law of March 9, 1911, France adopted the time of the Greenwich Meridian and the division of the day into 24 hours instead of two times 12 hours. However, the text of the law never mentioned Greenwich. Indeed, the reference time remained “Paris time” which is 9 minutes and 21 seconds ahead of GMT. This corresponds to the distance between the Paris Meridian and the Greenwich Meridian.

La Mire du Sud – a sight that originally stood on the Paris Meridian in the gardens of the Paris Observatory, allowing to focus on the Meridian (today it can be found in the public Parc Montsouris)
Paris Observatory and Paris Meridian

In Paris, the Meridian is materialized both inside and outside the Observatory, as well as across town by the Arago medallions, named for Astronomer François Arago (1786-1853) whose statue near the observatory was destroyed by the Vichy Regime in 1942.

Many of the Arago medallions have gone missing since their installation in 1994, not least due to the Da Vinci Code, which has their location all wrong, so don’t go looking for one at the Louvre Pyramid! (Please don’t take any of the remaining medallions. Eiffel Tower key chains only cost 0.50€.)

And if you go to Villers-sur-Mer  in Normandy, you will find a marker materializing the Greenwich Meridian on the beach wall. That’s how much 2°20’ are in distance!

Location of the Paris Observatory on a map of Paris
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Métro 4 – from north to south

Line 4 is one of the oldest métro lines in Paris. Its construction began in 1905. In 1908, the first section was opened, running from Porte de Clignancourt (which is still its northern terminus today) in the 18th arrondissement to Châtelet in the center of Paris (1st and 4th arrondissement). A year and a half later, a second section was opened on the south bank, running from Raspail in the 14th arrondissement to Porte d’Orleans on the southern city limits.
In 1910, the line 4 became the first métro line to cross the river via a tunnel when the section linking Châtelet and Raspail was opened.

For over a century, the line 4 did not pass the city limits. Only in 2013 was it extended to the southern suburbs with the opening of the new terminus Mairie de Montrouge.

Métro 4 at Châtelet before full automation (the platforms are still open and the terminus is still Montrouge)

This station didn’t remain the terminus for long however, as in 2022 two more stations were opened to reach the current terminus Bagneux – Lucie Aubrac. (Both Montrouge and Bagneux are located in the département 92 Hauts-de-Seine.)

new terminus: Bagneux

The line is frequently used by tourists as it calls at Saint Michel-Notre Dame as well as three of the six Paris train stations: Gare du Nord, Gare de l’Est and Gare Montparnasse.

Métro 4 and some other lines at Gare du Nord station

Here are some fun facts about the line 4:

  • It’s the only line with correspondence to all other métro lines (except the very short 3bis and 7bis).
  • It’s the only métro line that has two stops at Châtelet-Les Halles, one of the largest underground stations in the world: At Châtelet, you can change to 1. 7, 11, and 14, at Les Halles to the RER A, B, and D.
  • It’s the second-most frequented lien after line 1.
  • It is one of currently 3 fully automated métro lines, after line 14 (which was automated from the start) and line 1.
  • It is the only métro line with a stop on one of the Seine islands, Cité, a stone’s throw from Notre Dame cathedral.
  • The stations Cité (on Cité Island) and Saint-Michel Notre Dame (right next to the river) were built in caissons assembled on the surface and then lowered into the ground.
  • Due to its proximity to the river, the middle section of the line is temporarily closed again shortly after its opening when the Great Flood of Paris leads to leaks inside the tunnel and stations.
  • As a fully automatic métro, is it much appreciated by commuters during transport strikes.

Come along for a ride from Mairie de Montrouge to the former terminus station Porte d’Orléans:

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Reading with Kings in Paris

In 1537, King François 1er issued the Ordonnance de Montpellier, by which one copy of each published book had to be deposited in the king’s library.

Today, the French National Library (Bibliothèque Nationale de France – BnF) consists of seven sites, and receives 70,000 books, 250,000 magazines and thousands of specialized documents every year.

The oldest site of the BnF is the Richelieu site. It was home to the king’s library since 1721. Located in the heart of the 2nd arrondissement, the former palace of Cardinal Mazarin (not to be confused with Mazarin’s library La Mazarine) was built in the 17th century and subsequently enlarged up until the 20th century.

The new BnF museum on the Richelieu site showcases exceptional objects from the BnF collections, among them the throne of King Dagobert (King of the Franks in the 7th century), Charlemagne’s chessboard or the largest gold piece ever found.

The Richelieu site of the Bnf is open to the public. The salle Ovale reading room has free access, for the museum you need to purchase a ticket. Guided tours are available. For access to the research libraries (of which Richelieu is only one site), you need to sign up advance.

The Salle Ovale is a reading room with over 20,000 volumes for reference, among which 9,000 comic books and mangas.

The Labrouste reading room was created for the Imperial Library. Today it hosts the library of the national institute for art history.

The location of the BnF-Richelieu on a map of Paris
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Where am I calling?

French phone numbers are composed of ten digits, except for the emergency numbers—as a visitor, all you need to remember is 112, it’s a centralized number for all emergencies, you can call it from a mobile phone, and they will be able to help you even if you don’t speak French.

But back to regular French phone numbers. In France, there are no regional area codes any longer, they were ditched during the great phone number reform in 1996. So how do you know where in France you’re calling?

Easy-peasy. Just look at the first two digits of the number. Landline numbers start with 01, 02, 03, 04, or 05. We’ll get to that in a minute.

a restaurant with a landline number

If you’re calling a number in 06 or 07, it’s a cell phone, and then your guess is as good as mine as to where you’re calling.
A number starting with 08 is a value-added service number which might be free (“Do you have any comments about our product? Let us know!”) or cost up to 3 € per call or 0.80 € per minute. So check the source of your number which should indicate the fee.
Number starting with 09 are new, VoIP numbers that can be anywhere in France.

And when you dial a number starting with 00, you’re calling abroad. (The next few digits will indicate the country you’re calling.)

So lots of numbers where we can’t tell where you’re calling, and since the recent opening of landline portability, thing swill slowly get even more confusing. But while people still have their landline numbers (this is decreasing too), here’s what you need to know.

If your French ten-digit number starts with 01, you’re calling somewhere in the Paris area. Let’s say you want to reserve a table at Fouquet’s, for example, you dial 01 40 69 60 50.

If your number starts with 02, you’re calling the northwest of France, such as Brittany and Normandy, but also the overseas departments La Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean.

an excellent crêperie in Brittany, to book a table call 02 97 52 35 50

Should your number begin with 03, you’re calling the northeast, think along the Belgian, German, and Swiss borders.

If you dial 04, you’re in the southeast, such as Marseille and Nice, but also the island of Corsica.

Finally, with the 05, you’ll reach the southwest, as well as the Atlantic Ocean départements, régions and collectivités, that is Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, French Guyana, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the other French Caribbean islands.

Sometimes, you still find old phone numbers:

This place still shows the 8-digit number pre-1996 reform
The sign on this youth hostel must be from before 1985, when the 7 digits gave way to the 8 digits

So now you can easily tell where in France (hint: it’s on the mainland) I found this hairdresser.

Questions? Call me!

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On the Road with Smart Bison

The French love going on holidays in their own country. Annual leave stands at five weeks and school holidays in the summer at two months, so there’s plenty of time to choose from and many lovely places to go to. Mer ou montagne? (Sea or mountains?) you will hear, or Mer ou campagne? (Sea or countryside?) In the end, lots and lots of French holiday-makers will head for the Mediterranean or the Atlantic coast in July or August. As holiday rentals start and end on Saturdays in high season, I’ll let you guess on which day traffic volume is highest.

Queuing for cheap gas at the start of summer holidays

Back when autoroutes were built and expanded and more and more people got cars, a traffic information system slowly developed. It got a big boost after tragedy struck during an August Saturday in 1975 when a combination of heat wave and traffic accidents killed almost 150 people.

Authorities realized they needed to work on three main points:

  • Spreading the traffic over a larger time period
  • Reinforcing alternative itineraries
  • Communicating with the travelers
The Saint Arnoult toll station, with 39 toll gates one of the biggest in Europe, a dreaded congestion point on holiday weekends

It was in this context that Bison Futé (Smart Bison) was created, a character who’d tell people the smart time to travel to avoid traffic congestion, and the alternative routes to take.
You’ll have guessed given the time (1970s) and the name, what this character was. Fortunately, French authorities have gone with the times, and the present logo of Smart Bison is the outline of a bison head made to look like an itinerary. The Smart Bison has become an icon that couldn’t simply be removed.

The Smart Bison website is run by the Transport Ministry, and both website and the Smart Bison Twitter feed will also warn of adverse weather conditions, like heavy thunderstorms.
But its main focus is traffic. Smart Bison will tell you if it’s a green, orange, red, or black day for departures and for returns.

  • Green means normal traffic (including rush hour traffic in urban areas)
  • Orange means heavy traffic with difficult driving conditions locally or generally
  • Red means very heavy traffic with very difficult driving conditions locally or generally
  • Black means traffic is extremely heavy and driving conditions are extremely difficult on the entire road network

For example, on July 12, 2023,  a Wednesday preceding the weekend with the national holiday July 14 falling on the Friday, and school holidays having started the previous weekend, Smart Bison predicted the following traffic conditions for the weekend:

Orange everywhere but red in the greater Paris area
Green everywhere

Friday (national holiday)
Orange in the north and northwest, including the greater Paris area
Green for the rest of the country
Green everywhere

Red for the entire country
Green for the entire country

Orange for the entire country
Orange for the entire country
Red for the greater Paris area

The pattern here is easy to spot:
It clearly was a weekend of departures, not returns, with a peak on Saturday (remember those holiday rentals?). The Red for the greater Paris area and Thursday for departures and Sunday for returns indicates many Parisians going away for the long weekend.

Not all that hard to read, is it? So next time you plan to drive in France, consult Smart Bison!

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School’s out

Summer is here, and that means school’s out in France. Summer holidays (les vacances d’été) start around the beginning of July (or earlier, when younger students are sent home while older students take exams in the school building), and last until the end of August. La rentrée (back to school) is at the beginning of September.

But French students have several shorter breaks (les petites vacances) over the year:

  • All Saints holidays (les vacances de la Toussaint) around All Saints Day (November 1st)
  • Christmas holidays (les vacances de Noël) at, well, Christmas
  • Winter holidays (les vacances d’hiver) in February
  • Spring holidays (les vacances de printemps) around or at least sometime near Easter

Each of these is two weeks long, and though the first two are usually at the same time for everyone, the winter and spring breaks are staggered by region (“zone”) as shown in the map below:

For example, in the upcoming school year 2023-24, the first region to start winter break is Region C, which includes the Paris area. After one week, it is joined by region A. And when Parisians and other Region C residents go back to school, those in Region B start their holidays.
Spring holidays have the same order so that all students have the same amount of weeks between the breaks.
Let’s go one year back: in the school year 2022-23, the first region to start into winter break was Region A, followed by Region B with Region C going last.
There is a regular rotation to ensure all three regions are treated equally, because it can be a long stretch between Christmas break and winter break if you’re in the last group, and a long stretch between spring break and summer holidays if you’re in the first group.

This information might be helpful if you’re visiting France and trying to figure out opening hours of places that say “pendant les vacances de la zone A”.

Enjoy your holidays!

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Don’t be alarmed at noon

If you happen to be in France on the first Wednesday of the month, any month, a word of warning: Don’t be alarmed when the alarm sounds.

Depending on the region, at 11.45, noon sharp or 12.15, the wail of the sirens will cut through city noise as part of the SAIP (système d’alerte et d’information des populations), to make sure the sirens are working properly and people recognize the signal.

sirens on the roof of a townhall

The origins go back to the Middle Ages, when the tocsin, or alarm bell, rang to alert the population to a danger. After World War II, church bells have been replaced by the sirens sitting proudly atop the fire stations or town halls. As recently as 2019, they alerted the population of the Normandy city of Rouen and the surrounding area as a chemical products plant caught fire.

Even more recently, in 2022, these alert measures were completed by an alarm system called “cell broadcast” that will send alert messages to the cellphones in an area affected by a threat.

So don’t be alarmed by the alarm, as long as it’s sirens and not your cellphone wailing.

Paris firefighters at the Bastille Day parade

Postscript: While we’re on the subject of alarms, firefighters and emergencies, do you know what number to dial for an emergency in France? There’s a bunch of two-digit numbers to call depending on what your emergency is, but thanks to the European Union, all you need to remember is one three-digit number that will work no matter in which EU country you are, and even in many other European countries, and get you an operator speaking English:

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Places des Vosges

The Place des Vosges is one of the five Royal Squares in Paris. Inaugurated in 1612, it was initially named Place Royale after kings Henri IV and Louis XIII. Its name was changed to Place des Vosges in 1792 for the département Vosges in eastern France which was the first to pay its taxes under the French Revolution.

This royal square for once is a square, 140m to each side, with identical façades all along, two stories high, built of red bricks with strips of stone quoins. On the ground level, vaulted arcades allow pedestrians to go around the entire square shielded from the elements.

Only at the center of the north and south sides, the pavilions of the Queen and the King rise above the regular roofline. Despite all those names, the only royal who ever lived on the Place des Vosges was Anne of Austria, and even her residence in the Pavillon de la Reine was short-lived.

At the center of the square stands the equestrian statue of Louis XIII. The original statue, built in 1639 was destroyed during the revolution.
Up until the revolution, the square served as a meeting place for the nobility. Today, when the weather is fine, it becomes a meeting place for families, friends, students, and kids’ birthday parties.

Over time, the square has seen many famous residents come and go. The most well-known is probably Victor Hugo who lived at number 6, house which is now the Victor Hugo museum. Other writers who lived on the square include Colette, Alphonse Daudet and Georges Simenon. It was also home to contemporary French politicians like Jack Lang and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. It is said that even Cardinal Richelieu lived at number 21 for a while.

The numbering begins at the rue de Birague at the south side of the square with the Pavillon du Roi being number 1. From there, it’s rising even numbers to the right-hand side and rising uneven numbers to the left-hand side, making the Place des Vosges an exception to the systematic street numbering in Paris.

rue de Birague and the Pavillon du Roi

The square can be accessed via the rue de Birague on the south side, which connects the Place des Vosges to the rue Saint Antoine, the rue des Francs Bourgeois from the Marais on the northwest corner, the rue du Pas de la Mule at the northeast corner from the boulevard Beaumarchais, and through a door in the southwest corner leading into the gardens of the Hôtel de Sully.

exit from the Place des Vosges in the southwest corner

If you leave the Place des Vosges this way, you can cross the courtyard of the Hôtel de Sully and emerge onto the busy rue Saint Antoine which a little further becomes the rue de Rivoli, a main east-west axis of the city.

Hôtel de Sully on the rue Saint Antoine
The location of the Place des Vosges on a map of Paris
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Market Day in Paris

Have you ever been to a French market? I don’t remember my first experience which dates back to a school exchange in 9th grade, but I do remember first venturing by myself to what I think is the biggest market in Lille, the city in northern France where I began my studies. It was a little disorienting at first, all those marketers advertising their wares in loud voices, sometimes trying to shout one over the other. This is a staple of every French market I’ve visited so far.

And the sheer quantity of food on offer! There are fruit I’ve never seen before but fortunately a little sign will give me the name. There are many kinds of fish (all much fresher than those on offer in a certain Gaulish village), including shellfish, and don’t get me started on the cheeses!

A huge advantage of a market over a supermarket is that when you want to buy fresh fruit such as, say a melon de Charente, the market seller will ask you when you plan to eat it (Tonight? During the next few days?) and find you one with the matching degree of maturity. Another highlight of markets for me are the local farmers selling their yogurts and other fresh milk products that you would have a hard time finding on supermarket shelves. Finally, and that’s my husband’s go-to place, the chicken-roaster. Go to the Sunday market, buy your groceries, and get home with a chicken fresh from the spit (or half a chicken, or chicken legs) for Sunday lunch.

But let’s go back and look at Paris markets. According to the City of Paris website, the first market was located  on the Île de la Cité in the heart of Lutetia in the 5th century.

Though not in Paris, this is an old French market hall

Fast forward to 1860, when there were already 51 markets. One of them is the oldest existing covered market, dating back to 1615 under King Louis XIII, the Marché des Enfants Rouges. It is located in the 3rd arrondissement and open every day except Mondays from 8h30 till 20h30, (closing later on Thursdays but earlier on Sundays).

Place d’Aligre market in the 12th arrondissement

As of today, Paris has a total of 95 markets, with around 9,000 marketers. This number includes food markets, flea markets, and specialized markets. The City of Paris website gives these details: 72 open-air food markets (including 3 organic markets), 10 covered markets, plus the specialized markets such as flower market, bird market, clothes market, flea markets and 2 creative markets where artist show their original art.

Generally, the food markets are open from 7am to 2.30pm on weekdays and from 7am to 3pm on weekends. Due to customer demand, five markets were created that are open in the afternoon once or twice a week.

For outdoor markets, the market team of the City of Paris sets up the “skeleton” of the market stalls. Indoor markets have it easier, everything is already in place.

If you travel across France, you will find old market halls that are basically wooden roofs open on the sides, or open-air markets in small villages or mid-sized towns. Every town in France has a market, just check their website or ask at the tourist office about market day. And don’t be afraid if you don’t speak French, you can always point at the items and hold up a few fingers.


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Cows cows cows

The International Agricultural Show (Salon International de l’Agriculture, or SIA) is a huge annual event, one of the world’s largest and most important, dubbed “the biggest farm in France”.

It lasts nine days at the end of February/beginning of March, and is open to the public for all of those, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors each year (2019: 672 568 visitors according to the official website, four of which were me).

The show is held on the Porte de Versailles fairgrounds, where it occupies most of the halls, only the one where the Concours Général Agricole is held is closed to the public.

Agriculture is written large in France, as one of the main economic activities in the country. “Don’t anger the farmers” is advice any French politician knows well to heed, or face the consequences.

So it is no surprise that the show is opened by the French president himself. Jacques Chirac (president from 1995 to 2007) was a big fan of agriculture, and his memory is honoured today with a collection of photos in the main hall.

A number of elected officials, and in election years, candidates, parade through the show during the week, and it is not unusual to run into a crowd of journalists and bodyguards around, say, the prime minister.

The main attractions of the show, according to who you ask, are either the food (two entire halls are reserved for delicacies from the different regions of France, French overseas territories, and a number of guest countries) or the animals – over 4,000 of them in the 2022 edition, representing 360 different breeds of cows, sheep, goats, horses, ponies, donkeys, bunnies, pigs, dogs, cats, and various poultry.

The stars of the show are unquestionably the cows. Since 2000, a cow has featured on the official posters, entry tickets and other promotional material. Every year, one bovine breed is in the spotlight, and for the past few years, an individual cow of that breed occupies the place of honor and becomes the star of the show. The 2022 cow, for example, was a 4-year-old cow of the Abondance breed from the Savoy Alps named Neige (Snow).

But it’s not all about the animals and the food, a major part of the show is also reserved for the presentation of technologies, companies, equipment, research, linked in some way or other to agriculture, from veterinarians to high-tech tractors to hunting outfitters.

Another important aspect of the show is educating the public. Here kids (and adults) can see up close how cows are milked, chicks hatch, and win prizes in various activities and quizzes.

Speaking of prizes, all week long, the different breeds are presented in the ring, and proud farmers return home with medals and plaques. Food also gets prizes, at the prestigious Concours Général Agricole, and the gold, silver, or bronze medal will feature prominently on the products when they hit store shelves.

My favorite part? Hugging cows, winning a useful prize (like an eggplant screen wipe or a lunch box) or adding another cow-themed object to my collection. Occasionally I get interviewed for the radio or TV, and I’ve made friends with the owner of the 2016 poster cow Cerise (a Bazadaise from the Landes, in southwestern France).

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