Over a century ago – in 1907 to be exact – the French opened an attraction at the far eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes forest that brought curious onlookers flocking.
It was the Exposition Coloniale in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale and appears to have been the exhibition of the decade.
At this exhibition, there were buildings in the style of at least six former French colonies such as Morocco and Madagascar, and they housed people from the respective colonies who had been plucked from their homelands and paraded in front of the visitors.
These people were made to dress, eat, and live like they supposedly did back at home, all as a kind of live art exhibition so Parisians could get a glimpse into life in the colonies.
And the Parisians loved it. One historian says that up to a million people came to see the spectacle in the single summer that it was open
The “zoo”, as some refer to it today, was closed down at the end of the season and left to ruin. And it stayed this way for almost 100 years, way out at the edge of the woods getting slowly swallowed by the undergrowth and the shame.
That is, until 2006 when it was quietly reopened to the public. There was little fanfare then just as there is little fanfare now. But the story continues to fascinate, and I’d heard about the site several times in recent years. I even tried to find it once but had no luck.
But it’s actually open and it’s free to go in. And when I visited this summer, I found a slightly different version to the place that other people have described online in recent years.
Various reports on the internet suggest that this place largely remains forgotten (or ignored) by the Paris City Hall – but that’s not true.
When I arrived I was greeted by a friendly city worker who was raking the ground by the Chinese-style portico at the entrance. And except for him and one of his colleagues on the other side of the gardens, it was absolutely empty. Not a tourist in sight.
And that’s not a surprise – this isn’t exactly the kind of place that Paris is going to be bragging about. Nor are the Paris officials going to just knock it all down. You can’t just edit history like that.
So what’s left is rather fascinating indeed. Most of the buildings have been well and truly left to the elements. The trees and grass surrounding them have taken over. Squatters have come and gone from the insides of the buildings, and graffiti artists have left their marks on every inner wall. One building was torched.
And the place is kinda scary. It’s the combination of the bizarre history, the abandoned buildings, and the fact that the whole place was empty of people. If anything in Paris is haunted, it’s this place. When a huge leaf fell beside me among the bamboo trees I screamed. Well, nearly.
But what’s additionally weird is that the paths between each old colonial building have been perfectly groomed, gravelled, and mown. It’s neat and tidy at the entrance and along the entire walkway. And two or three of the buildings appear to have been kept in excellent shape (see below).
I’ve read reports that one of them might be turned into a museum.
It’s almost as if the site is ready to welcome the hundreds of thousands of tourists who walked the same paths 110 years ago – but no one has any plans of inviting visitors.
So – at least for now – this Paris attraction remains a ghost site for the tourists of today.
Enjoy it while you can.
How to find it: As I said before, this place isn’t easy to find. I suppose the main reason for this is that it’s way out of the city centre, and all the way on the other side of the Bois de Vincennes. It’s definitely not a stop on the Open Bus Tours either, so don’t expect to come across it by chance.
Your best bet is to take your car, bike, or scooter to 45 bis Avenue de la Belle Gabrielle, 75012. The train station Nogent sur Marne isn’t too far either.