Text and photos by Lisa Molle Troyer
When I went for a walk in the park last Sunday, it was eerily quiet – not jammed with the usual Parisians enjoying family time. I figured everyone was off skiing during the school vacation, but it turns out I was wrong: they were all at the Salon de l'Agriculture.
The Salon is big news here, from Jacques Chirac petting the cows to Nicolas Sarkozy's now infamous "Casse-toi, pauvre con." Star power aside, it's the one time of year there are herds of animals actually inside Paris, and you'd better believe that's a draw, especially for families with children. That's why, when we got off the tram, lines were snaking out of sight around both sides of the ticket windows. You can avoid them by buying your tickets ahead of time. Since it was our first trip, we didn't know any better – but we did discover the totally unmarked secret back entrance, which is located at the corner of Boulevard Victor and Rue de la Porte d'Issy: if you need tickets and the front gate is too crowded, head west down Boulevard Victor past the dome, along a fence, past the gas station with its 8 à Huit grocery (last stop for cheap provisions), and enjoy a much shorter line and direct access to the cow pavilion.
Sprawling across the entire exhibition grounds, the Salon offers the usual selection of regional French foods (foodie blogs had me hoping for some unique finds (all you can eat tartiflette pictured left), but I mostly saw cheese, wine and sausages on my admittedly quick stroll through) plus another pavilion featuring international foods (tangent: if you've never tried okonomiyaki, do yourself a favor and head to the Japanese stand – kimono-clad ladies were frying them up them fresh for only a euro, which is a tenth the price of anywhere else you can sample them in Paris, and they were so popular there were none left by 1:00 pm when I got there). There's also a hall showcasing vegetable crops and one focusing on eco-friendly housing.
But the main attraction, of course, is the two huge pavilions full of a bewildering number of animals and an even more staggering number of people trying to pet them. Nobody was paying much attention to the signs saying "Ne pas toucher les animaux / Respectez-les" – I'm not sure if that's because they only apply to certain animals, or because it's just too hard to resist. Besides, Chirac does it, right?
If you've never been to the Salon de l'Agriculture, it's definitely worth seeing once. It's a huge cultural phenomenon, a chance to learn a bit about agriculture in France and, what with all the hands-on cooking and yogurt-making stations and the dancing vegetable characters, probably a lot of fun for kids (but you might want to label them or else physically hold onto them at all times).
I wouldn't visit every year, though, just because it's so vast and crowded. I love going to fairs and seeing a few different species of cows, sheep and chickens, and maybe the prize-winning melon. But 600 cows? Sure, it's interesting to see that some are furry, some have stubby little heads and some look almost like deer (the Jersey cows, oddly enough – I always thought those were your classic Bessie variety), but after a while I just see Cows. Plus, anywhere there are baby animals, dogs or cats, the crowds are so deep that you're lucky if you even get a glimpse.
The more specific your interests, the more you're likely to enjoy a fair this big. It's a perfect place to just go sample all of the cheese, for example, or just go compare the 610 different rabbits. So pick out a few things, prepare yourself for throngs of people and have fun. If you're not sure what to see, I'd suggest stopping for lunch in the regional or international specialties pavilion and otherwise focusing on the animals. Try spending a few minutes watching at each of the smaller show rings; you'll have a clear view and get to watch a limited selection of animals go sample all the cheese, for example, oractually moving (sometimes even running and jumping!). Then, go find a few of your favorites to visit and spend some time up close and personal with them.
Pet them if you must, but you didn't hear it from me.
Salon de l'Agriculture
Open through March 1, 9:00 am to 7:00 pm
Full price: €12
Child (6 to 12): €6, under 6 are free
Late night Friday "Nuit de l’Agriculture" €6 only at the door, valid from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm
Porte de Versailles Exhibition Grounds
1 place de la Porte de Versailles, 15th
Tram/M° Porte de Versailles