It's summertime, and we spend a lot of time outdoors. How better to spend that time, but in a beautiful garden. This article appears in the NY Times. If you click on the title of this post, you'll be directed to the full article, which includes a slide show.
Hidden Gardens of Paris
NEXT to the Palais de la Découverte, just off the Champs-Élysées, is a flight-of-fancy sculpture of the 19th-century poet Alfred de Musset daydreaming about his former lovers. As art goes, the expanse of white marble is pretty mediocre, and its sculptor, Alphonse de Moncel, little-remembered. For me, however, it is a crucial marker. To its right is a path with broken stone steps that lead down into one of my favorite places in Paris, a tiny stage-set called Jardin de la Vallée Suisse.
Part of the Champs-Élysées’ gardens, this “Swiss Valley” was built from scratch in the late 19th century by the park designer Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand. It is a lovely illusion, where nothing is quite what it appears at first sight. The rocks that form the pond and waterfall are sculptured from cement; so is the “wooden” footbridge. But the space — 1.7 acres of semitamed wilderness in one of the most urban swaths of Paris — has lured me, over and over again. My only companions are the occasional dog walker and the police woman making her rounds.
On a park bench there, I am enveloped by evergreens, maples, bamboo, lilacs and ivy. There are lemon trees; a Mexican orange; a bush called a wavyleaf silktassel, with drooping flowers, that belongs in an Art Nouveau painting; and another whose leaves smell of caramel in the fall. A 100-year-old weeping beech shades a pond whose waterfall pushes away the noise of the streets above. The pond, fed by the Seine, can turn murky, but the slow-moving carp don’t seem to mind, nor does the otter that surfaces from time to time.
The Swiss Valley is one of the most unusual of Paris’s more than 400 gardens and parks, woods and squares. Much grander showcases include wooded spaces like the Bois de Vincennes on the east of the city and the Bois de Boulogne on the west, and celebrations of symmetry in the heart of Paris like the Tuileries and the Luxembourg.
But I prefer the squares and parks in quiet corners and out-of-the-way neighborhoods. Many are the legacy of former President Jacques Chirac. In the 18 years he served as mayor of Paris, he put his personal stamp on his city by painting its hidden corners green.
“He took some of the pathetic, shabby squares and gardens and transformed and adorned them,” said Claude Bureau, one of the city’s great garden historians who was chief gardener of the Jardin des Plantes for more than two decades. “He appreciated beauty — of women, of nature.”
Paris’s current mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, has taken over the task. In his seven years in the job, he has created 79 acres of what City Hall calls “new green spaces.” Just this month, he transformed the open space in front of City Hall into an “ephemeral garden,” a nearly 31,000-square-foot temporary installation of 6,000 plants and trees, and even a mini-lake.
Intimate, lightly trafficked and often quirky, the small gardens of Paris can be ideal places to rest and to read. The trick is to find them. You can consult “Paris: 100 Jardins Insolites” (“Paris: 100 Unusual Gardens”), a guide by Martine Dumond whose color photos make discovery for the non-French speaker a pleasure, or explore various Web sites like www.paris-walking-tours.com/parisgardens.html. Or you can simply wander on foot, confident that around the next corner there will be something new.
You’ll find spaces for listening to a concert or watching a puppet show (like the Parc de Bagatelle in the 16th Arrondissement); church gardens (like the one enclosing the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Seventh Arrondissement); gardens with vegetable patches (like the Jardin Catherine-Labouré in the Seventh Arrondissement); oriental gardens (like the one at Unesco headquarters in the Seventh Arrondissement that was a gift of the Japanese government). There are gardens with beehives, bird preserves, out-of-fashion roses, chessboards, playgrounds, menageries, panoramic views, even a rain forest and a farm. Green spaces adjoin cemeteries, embassies, movie theaters and hotels.
I doubt that most visitors to Notre-Dame Cathedral know that inside the nearby Hôtel-Dieu complex, which is still a working hospital, is a formal garden-courtyard with sculptured 30-year-old boxwoods. The hospital’s gardener replants much of the space every May — with fuchsias, sage, impatiens and Indian roses.
From the top of the flight of steps that cuts across the garden, you can find yourself all alone, looking out through the hospital’s windows to the tourist hordes outside. Every few months, the hospital’s interns choose a different costume for the male statue at the back — at the moment, he is Snow White.
(It was Mr. Bureau who told me that some of the most peaceful gardens belong to hospitals. Gardens help cure patients more quickly, he said).
The Square René Viviani on the Left Bank across from Notre-Dame is another spot that is easy to miss. But this tranquil square features what is said to be the oldest tree in Paris — a false acacia brought to France from Virginia in 1601, and now shored up with concrete posts. Sitting on a park bench in one corner yields one of the best views in Paris — Notre-Dame on the right and St.-Julien-le-Pauvre, a tiny church built in the same era on the left.
And then there are the gardens that are the back or front yards of museums. For instance, at the cafe-garden of the Petit-Palais— with its palm and banana trees and sculptures and mosaic floors lit from below — a half dozen marble tables and metal chairs offer the ideal setting to watch the museum’s stone walls change from buff to tawny yellow as the sun moves.