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The Circus Thing to Do in a Paris Winter

 Phenomenal at the Cirque d'HiverLe Cirque d'Hiver, Paris Le Cirque d’HiverArchitect of the Le Cirque d'Hiver, Jacques HittorffArchitect Jacques HittorffAcrobat Jules LéotardAcrobat Jules LéotardThe Fratellini brothersThe Fratellini brothersInside the Cirque d'HiverInside the Cirque d’HiverInside the Cirque d'HiverInside the Cirque d'Hiver

The circular Cirque d’Hiver building on rue Amelot (number 110) is a neighborhood fixture — so much so that we don’t give it much thought…although from time to time, we notice the Métro station just in front of it may suddenly have an unusual number of kids waiting for the train along with their parents. That’s the sign that the circus is in town.

Actually, the circus is ‘in town’ most all weekends — at least it has been starting from this past October through March 2nd of this year with the latest show they call “Phénoménal.”

My daughter wondered why I had never taken her to the Cirque d’Hiver with it just a block or two away from our apartment. I wondered, too. It seemed silly — like the Parisians who have lived here all their lives but never climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It’s the first thing we tourists run to do, while the natives pay little attention to it. I even have a drawing of the Cirque d’Hiver that was done at the turn of the 20th-century that a friend found by chance at a “bookiniste” along the Seine. The building looks much the same today, although it’s undergone major renovation within the past few years.

Inaugurated December 11, 1852, the architect of the unusual building was German-born French architect Jacques Hittorff, the same one who designed the fountains at Place de la Concorde. He was known to have combined structurally advanced use of new materials, particularly cast iron, in a style of beaux-arts classicism. He also designed the Gare du Nord and many cafés along the Champs-Eysées as well as the facades forming the circle around the Arc de Triomphe.

The Cirque d’Hiver is the world’s oldest existing circus building and the oldest circus still in activity. Opened as the “Cirque Napoléon,” its 20-sided polygon shape around an oval central ring or stage has steeply tiered seating for 1,650 people. The roof is polygonal and there is no central post to mar the views. In effect, there isn’t a bad seat in the house!

The history of the circus itself is fascinating enough. It was here that the first flying trapeze was invented by Jules Léotard, a young gymnast from Toulouse — and yes, it was he who made famous a skin-tight one-piece garment that we now call a “leotard!”

In 1934, the four Bouglione brothers paid cash in gold coins to buy the circus. It was because of the Bougliones that the first animal tamer was presented and some of the most renowned clowns of the era performed, notably the Fratellini brothers. Then, a new generation of Bougliones took over in 1999 with a host of different shows, the latest being the one we saw on Saturday afternoon, a result of a last-minute scramble to get tickets…so now Erica can’t accuse me of depriving her of this special Paris ‘thing to do.’

No, there’s not a bad seat in the house, regardless of the price of the tickets, but beware if you sit front row as you might get blasted with water from a clown’s water pistol or other side affects! The circus is classic European — good solid entertainment from professional gymnasts and performers in magnificent costumes, punctuated by clowns clowning around, a host of beautiful exotic animals, great dancers backdropped by an accomplished live orchestra. We watched with amazement how the crew could assemble and disassemble massive structures within minutes before our very eyes and we loved the performances of these very special circus show people who come from all over the globe.

When asked what were our favorite acts, it was tough to decide. The tigers were beautiful! The woman with a dozen Hula Hoops ended with a spiral bang! The couple on the white ropes with no safety net was a stunning performance of strength and agility! We loved the muscular man on the parallel bars and the amazement and amusement wents on and on…

So, if you thought that your first ‘thing to do’ in Paris is head to the top of the Eiffel Tower, think again. Maybe you should put the Cirque d’Hiver up at the top of the list with the Musée du Louvre and the Moulin Rouge! We’re sorry we hadn’t done just that all these years!

For more information about the Cirque d’Hiver, visit And if you’d like a detailed historical account, I found this wonderful write-up at’Hiver.

A la prochaine…

Adrian Leeds, The Adrian Leeds Group LLCAdrian Leeds

Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC


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