The important thing about urban parks is not just the obviously comforting look of them — green, open spaces amid the crush of grey buildings in a crowded city — but also the way they sound and feel.
“Paris gardens are secret gardens: though famous, they hide mysterious corners, unknown to the general public, the shared secrets of the local residents,” writes Alain Baraton, the head gardener of Versailles, in his book on Paris parks (Mes Jardins de Paris, Grasset). “When I enter one, I open my eyes, but above all my ears. After the aggressive hurly-burly of the city, nothing is so agreeable as the music of the parks: a quiet made magical by birdsong and the shouts of children playing.”
Four centuries old, the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th arrondissement on the left bank of the Seine, is neither the biggest Paris park (that honour goes to the Parc de la Villette, or to the Bois de Boulogne and the Bois de Vincennes at the city’s western and eastern ends if you venture beyond the Boulevard Périphérique), nor the grandest (the Tuileries). Nor is it one of the secluded little public gardens scattered through Paris.
But even with the weekend crowds it does have that soothing hubbub: the murmur of lovers on one of the green benches along the alleés, the grunts of the old men playing pétanque (muffled by face masks in these pandemic days), the chatter of French or foreign students eating takeaway lunches, the thwock-thwock of tennis from the courts in the centre of the park, and the squeals of delight from children riding miniature ponies or guiding model sailing boats across the octagonal pond in front of the French Senate building.
It has songbirds too — blackbirds and robins — though their music is sometimes drowned out by the screeching of rose-ringed parakeets, the bright green alien species that has now occupied European capitals from London to Madrid.
There are Lycra-clad morning joggers crunching over the gravel around the inside perimeter of the park and, on weekdays at least, the occasional physical trainer working with a client, or a boxing coach sparring in the gazebo. There’s an art gallery (the Musée du Luxembourg, currently closed by Covid-19 but usually home to big international exhibitions), an open-air photographic exhibition space along the outside of the railings at the eastern end, an orangery, a collection of hundreds of well-pruned apple- and pear-tree varieties in rows in the south-west corner (the names of the fruit almost as delicious as the taste: Framboise d’Oberland, Codlin Hollandais, Reinette de France, Calville Blanc d’Eté — I could go on) and beehives and a beekeeping school that have been there since 1856. Honey is sold each year in the orangery during its autumn exhibition.
Take note also of the signs forbidding you to walk on the grass, the absence of dogs (banned from all but a small corner) and the elegantly geometric lines of sight down the tree-lined avenues through to the Panthéon, the Senate and the Paris Observatory, and you have the quintessential Paris park.
It was the queen mother Marie de Médicis who created its beginnings in 1612 when she tired of the Palais du Louvre and bought the hôtel particulier belonging to the Duke of Piney-Luxembourg, along with eight hectares of land in the spot where her young son Louis XIII was learning to hunt wild boar.
She acquired neighbouring plots of land in the years that followed (the area is now 23 hectares), and Jacques Boyceau de la Barauderie, one of the godfathers of formal French-garden design, took charge of the grounds as manager of the royal gardens. He and Tommaso Francini conceived the terrace and water features — including the famous fountain now under repair — for Marie de Médicis, using the Florentine Boboli Gardens as a template. Baraton says the Jardin du Luxembourg has managed harmoniously to combine different styles, “marrying Italian influences with a park that has features of both the French and English traditions”.
The Luxembourg Gardens, celebrated in numerous poems, novels, films and songs, have shared the travails of the French capital through history. They were used as a prison and execution ground at the time of the Revolution and in the Paris Commune of 1871. During the German occupation of Paris in the second world war, the park was the site of an anti-aircraft battery; the stonework on some of the nearby buildings still bears the scars of machinegun bullets and shrapnel.
Even if conversation flags as you stroll through the park, it’s impossible to be bored when confronted in the different seasons with so many trees (more than 3,000), and with the perennial display of over 100 statues ancient and modern — tributes to artists, composers, liberated slaves, classical heroes and villains, former queens of France and noble beasts such as the stag or the lion — and including some of the finest 19th-century works of art in Paris. Among them is a replica of Auguste Bartholdi’s original model for the Statue of Liberty in New York, La Liberté éclairant le monde.
Everyone will have their favourites. Mine include Zacharie Astruc’s 1883 bronze Le marchand de masques (the boy hawking masks is holding up one of Victor Hugo in his left hand, but the statue has sadly lost the three that were hanging from his right) and the beautiful 1843 statue of the druidess Velléda by Etienne Hippolyte Maindron. During the reign of the Emperor Vespasian (AD69-79), this virgin prophetess, representing Gaulish resistance against the Romans, is said to have fallen for her Roman enemy Eudore, and the statue shows her leaning against a tree and contemplating his house before committing suicide. But that’s just two of the statues. There are 104 more in this most rewarding of Paris parks.
Photography by Alex Cretey Systermans
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