Paris: Free water at historic fountains (just bring a bottle!)
“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water, my friend,” quipped famed Francophile and frugality fan Ben Franklin.
Fortunately, in Paris there are 108 “fontaines Wallace“ and three functional “puits artésien” (artesian wells). Situated around the city’s busiest squares and at intersections in each arrondissement, the water is free for sipping; all you will need is an empty bottle.
The “puits artésien,” with their over-sized faucets made of chrome, certainly possess that sleek French chic we associate with marvels like the TGV, but my heart belongs to Wallace.
“Les fontaines Wallace” were named after the British philanthropist and art collector Sir Richard Wallace, who generously financed the installation of 50 fountains throughout Paris after the Franco-Prussian War left the city with almost no clean drinking water. Designed by Charles Auguste Lebourg, these cast iron fountains in four versions remain iconic darlings of the Paris streetscape. They are uniformly painted a deep emerald green.
The largest model, nicknamed the “Brasserie des quatre femmes” (brewery of the four women), sports four fetching caryatides, each symbolizing kindness, simplicity, charity, and sobriety. The figures are draped in sinuous tunics that are pinned just-so to reveal a handsome knee. Ooh la la!
Grab your bottle and follow me to my favorite “puits artésien” in Paris. In the 13th arrondissement, in the quaint little village of Butte-aux-Cailles (Quail Hill), at Place Paul-Verlaine, an historic well has been in operation since 1866.
Many locals, like actress Nausicaa Giavarra—with whom I spoke on a recent trip to Butte-aux-Cailles, count their lucky stars to live nearby one of the old fountains. Each day, Giavarra fills a dozen water bottles along with a small plastic atomizer.
“I mist my face throughout the day. This place is my fountain of youth!” she told me.
Across the street from the fountain is one of the oldest Parisian public “piscines” (swimming pools) fed by the pressurized well water. Both are worth a look.
To visit this delightful watering spot, take the Metro to “Corvisart” or “Place d’Italie.”
Tip: After topping off your bottle, check out the surrounding hilly, cobblestoned neighborhood. Once an infamous red light district (prostitute=quail), Butte-aux-Cailles now offers an impressive number of cheap eats, bars, and shops, but few tourists. You’ll feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Finally, I can’t resist leaving you with a cinematic tidbit: In the 2001 film “The fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain,” Amélie’s concierge was named “Madeleine Wallace” because she cried like a Wallace fountain.
About the author and photographer: Theadora Brack is a writer working in Paris. Her fiction has appeared in more than 30 literary publications, including 3AM International, The Smoking Poet, Beloit Fiction Journal, Mid-American Review, and the Haight-Ashbury Literary Journal.