Beyond the Eiffel Tower
The most-visited capital in the world also has the most stunning gardens. Spend a day in these picturesque gardens and parks that show you a whole new side to the French city
When it was built in 1889, Parisians considered the Eiffel Tower to be a monstrosity. They hold the same views about the Tour Montparnasse office building now, but do not be surprised if in a 100 years’ time that becomes the city’s prime attraction. For, there is something beguilingly ephemeral about buildings.
Architecture comes into fashion, and then goes out. What one generation considers ugly is hailed as a major landmark by the next. It is not merely by virtue of stone or concrete that the capital of the French Republic is the most visited city in the world. One often overlooked feature of this city by the Seine is its gardens.
Being a Parisian, I discovered that almost every evening of the week you can walk into some inconspicuous green space by a metro station and be enchanted by a hitherto undiscovered pleasure grotto. From 19th century canals to Roman-inspired marble sculptures, from gabled cottages to the geometric designs of the jardin a la française (a very small park is called a square in French, a reasonable sized enclosure a jardin, and a large space, parc) — you can spend a year inthese protected paradises and still be unsatisfied.
Another advantage of loitering about the charming woods rather than queuing up to climb 600 steps (Tour Eiffel) and losing your breath in the process, is that one almost never pays for parks in France. Why not save the money and sip café au lait on the Boulevard St Germain instead? Here’s a list of Parisian green spaces that should definitely be on your itinerary.
Jardin de Luxembourg
Probably the one most frequented by tourists, Jardin de Luxembourg is centrally located at a convenient distance from the sumptuous dome of the Panthéon building. Contrary to a popular misconception, it is a private garden that belongs to the French Senate which is housed in the Palais du Luxembourg on the same property. Developed first under the auspices of the queen-regent Marie de Medicis (the one who commissioned multiple works by Rubens) in the early 17th century, the garden has witnessed numerous spectacular reverses and intrigues of the royal courts and as you step in, you are immediately accosted by the reverberating murmurs of history. Done mostly in the French style, with striking geometrical patterns, inside there is something for every member of the family. The kids ply their toy boats (available on rent) in the massive central bassin (pool) while the senior citizens lounge on easy chairs that are available aplenty. Lovers kiss on the public benches while young students throng the marble sculptures with their sketchbooks to master anatomy in the Greco-Roman register. In between, everyone heads to the hot chestnut vendors to have something to nibble on, and to continue making most of the sun while it lasts.
Closest station: Luxembourg (RER B) metro station
Jardin de Plantes
This is a tree-lover’s paradise. Inside are hundreds of species, both native and exotic, properly labelled and planted at harmonious intervals. There are a number of Jardin de Plantes all across the territory of France, but the one in Paris is situated in the 5th arrondissement (borough) and belongs to the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle. For serious enthusiasts, there is a well-stocked greenhouse, but casual visitors need not be disappointed either. In summer, the student crowd from the 5th and the 6th arrondissements (the former comprises the Sorbonne, for instance) congregate to spend evenings sprawled on the lush green turf, while in winter the bare trees are more imposing since the symmetry is highlighted in the absence of foliage. Children need not be bored since it possesses a labyrinth from the 18th century in addition to a zoo, which once housed the entire royal menagerie, and the intricately designed Mosquee de Paris (Paris Mosque) with its garden at walking distance. You can also shop in the plush St Hilaire district.
Closest station: Jussieu (Line 7) metro station
Jardin des Tuileries
It is an irony that this enclosure was first designed as the lawns of the Palais des Tuileries (Tuileries Palace) that got destroyed in the second half of the 19th century. Located between the Palais du Louvre and the Place de la Concorde, it is not hard to see why Catherine de Médicis, wife of King Henry II, employed her star gardeners to add value to this piece of land. It is said that given how Paris is designed, on a clear day, you can look right from the Cour Carrée of the Louvre (the oldest part) to the l’Arche at La Defense proceeding along Champs-Elysées and the Arc de Triomphe through this sculpted terrace. The Seine flows to the south and to the north you have the Rue de Rivoli and some of the most fashionable districts. Inside the garden, you can feed pigeons, which descend in hundreds. On a clear day, the sun highlights the marble statues and Parisians come in the evenings with wine and sweet biscuits. If you are lucky, you might just be treated to the most beautiful sunset of your life.
Closest station: Tuileries (Line 1) metro station
Parc des Buttes Chaumont
Often overlooked since it’s not on the tourist circuit, you will rarely come across such solitude in the middle of a metropolis. Chauve means bald in French and mont refers to a mountain or a hill, so the name stuck because apparently nothing grew in this clay-packed area. For locals, this is the destination of choice for spending a quiet Sunday, or to have a drink in a bar located inside the property. Inside is a man-made lake, which hosts an island with an edifice in the form of a Roman temple. Dedicated to Goddess Sybille, from here you can gaze at the whole skyline of North Paris. At the horizon to the West, on another hilltop, the Basilique de Sacre Coeur glows magnificently over the rest of the buildings. This Basilica, located in the Montmarte district, is an almost iconic image of Paris (along with the Eiffel Tower). However, but it was not in towering buildings or historical ruins, but in sinuous gardens that I found my Paris.
Closest station: Buttes-Chaumont (Line 7 bis) metro station
>> Most Indians arrive at Charles de Gaulle (CDG) airport to visit Paris. From CDG, either take a RER B and change at Châtelet, or take a RoissyBus (€10) to Opera. Both journeys take around half an hour.
>> It is better to purchase a three-day metro pass available at any of the Tube stations to cover Paris properly. It costs €22,70, and is valid on all public transport in Zones 1 and 2.
>> For other schemes, and traffic information log on to www.ratp.fr
>> Since you do not have to pay to access the parks, a three day Paris ‘green-trip’ for two with hotel stay, metro passes, meals at inexpensive bistros, and the occasional evening out should require a minimum budget of €600.