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Magic Roundabouts
Magic Roundabouts

From the centre of Paris to rural Burgundy, you’re never far from a rond-point. Paul Shearer discovers France’s most interesting quirks of town planning...

Drivers can usually recall two car moments with absolute clarity. There’s the first time they sat behind the steering wheel and peered out through the windscreen in fear and wonder at the sheer impossibility of holding a straight line. Then there’s the day they passed their test, with the accompanying thrill and panic as they took the motor out for a spin entirely alone for the first time. Then, for some drivers, there’s a third defining moment in their motoring history; the first time they experienced the sheer, unbridled terror of circumnavigating the Arc de Triomphe.


It may be an iconic symbol of Paris, commissioned in 1806 to celebrate Napoléon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. Perhaps the foundations did take two years to build and, yes, you can fly a biplane through the middle of it. But it’s also the monument at the centre of a ten-lane stock car racing circuit. It’s a deadly roundabout that even Ben Hur would think twice about tackling. They tried to stem the flow of cars with traffic lights to regulate the mad, metal infusions from the 12 roads that lead up to the Place de l’Étoile (now called Place Charles de Gaulle), but when they turn green you’re on your own.


The basic rule is foot down and pretend there are no other cars on the road. If you do happen to glance over and make eye contact with another driver, nonchalance is the mot juste. Your expression should convey the absolute conviction that you have more right to be on the road than them, otherwise they’ll sense weakness and it’ll be the worse for you. You are just going to ignore the other driver, and if they hold their course and cause an accident then that’s their own stupid fault. Historically there may have been a whole priorité à droite thing going on, but really that’s far too bourgeois a concern for you. This is Paris. When in Paris do as the Parisians do. Needless to say, all pedestrians – especially the uniformed gendarme variety – are to be mercilessly mown down.


This is the mother of all roundabouts. Perhaps its position in the heart of the French capital has radiated out along the Champs-Élysées and the Avenue de la Grande-Armée, the avenues Hoche and Foch, Victor-Hugo and Camot, spreading out along all four points of the compass so that the whole of France can join in and elevate the humble roundabout to a thing of joy and wonder.


Eagle-eyed drivers may have noticed on recent trips across the Channel, the awesome displays sprouting at the centre of ronds-points in every département in the land. There’s the set of concrete cows munching away at the grass on the roundabout near Rouen. To the south of Pons, in Charente-Maritime, you may have spotted a group of bronze medieval pilgrims strolling across a roundabout on the Route de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle.

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Or perhaps in La Haye-Fouassière in the Loire-Atlantique, you spotted the three astronauts and their spaceship, apparently about to take off with a precious cargo of local wine, butter and cake. There are statues ancient and modern, jets of water, ponds and fountains, all manner of sculpted figures peeking out from all kinds of foliage. You can drive round a full classical fountain complete with ornamental statuary in Aix-en-Provence, or you could circumnavigate some annually reinvented box topiary in Chaumont in the Haute-Marne. Last year’s floral wonder, including a farmer and his horse-drawn plough, were all made out of clipped greenery.


Why have a boring rond-point when you can vive la différence with a celebration of local produce or industry? It’s also a perfect excuse for a bit of mayoral patronage and the distribution of ready funds to the commissioned sculptor or artist.


In Jonzac, in Poitou-Charentes, the town decided to celebrate its municipal successes. There were already several stone quarries in the district when in 1979 the town drilled its way into hot water at a depth of 1,862 metres, uncovering an abundant geothermal source beneath the ground. This water’s healing properties led to the town becoming a station thermale, or spa town, in 1986. Not only that, the hot water provides a lot of the town’s heating, plus it has been pressed into service in an indoor swimming pool complex. What better way to celebrate this bounty, than by creating a theme for your urban roundabouts around water and stone? The junction of the D28 and the D134 sports a complete bassin (lake) with fountains in the middle, all in the shade of a copse of tall trees.


Crowning glory


 For some this is a new art form, for others the art is the form. In the centre of Mont-de-Marsan in the Landes, can be seen the resin buttocks of a naked man who is wrestling a bull to the ground in La Place Stanislas Baron. It’s a statue called La Force by artist Raoul Lamourdedieu, and is part of the town’s commitment to displaying works of art. For a 360-degree, all-round view, what could be a better pedestal than a roundabout?


But possibly the crowning glory has to be the biggest chicken in the world’, created in honour of the Poulet de Bresse. This 20-metre high, almost four-and-a-half-tonne fowl is made from 190 metres of stainless steel tubing and roosts on a roundabout at the Aire du Poulet de Bresse on the A39 near Dommartin-lès-Cuiseaux in Saône-et-Loire.


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Perhaps, if I ever get the chance to drive round it, my admiration could be switched to a roundabout in Mâcon, also in Saône-et-Loire. It seems to be themed around the contents of a pencil case. Why there are several upright crayons and a protractor in the middle of the road I have no idea. I could find out by phoning the Mairie and asking, but two things strike me: First, some mysteries are best left unsolved; and second, I don’t want to deprive you, the reader, of making your own voyage of discovery into this fascinating and quintessentially French subject. You can even join the growing internet community of bloggers and photo-posters who meet online to discuss this divertissement... in a roundabout way, of course.

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