When it comes to political tools, gardens and green spaces don’t usually rank highly.
But this is Paris, and city politicians have been using gardens to gain a political advantage for centuries.
In 2014, incumbent mayor Anne Hidalgo opened her Hôtel de Ville gardens – complete with a henhouse and rabbit hutch – to the public, calling on gardeners, urban farmers, architects and artists to become Paris-culteurs in her mission to create 100 hectares of green roofs and walls by 2020.
It’s all part of a move towards a cleaner, healthier living environment in Paris with urban vegetable gardens, vertical gardens, solar panels and recycling – but it’s also a way to use green space to pacify disgruntled residents.
Hidalgo is not the first to use community gardens and window boxes to win support. In recent decades many of Paris’ mayors, including Jacques Chirac and Bertrand Delanoë, have fuelled a growing interest in creating and improving gardens throughout Paris’ 20 arrondissements – and not just the huge manicured ones.
This incentive goes back centuries, according to Amy Kupec-Larue, who moved to Paris from New York in 1989 to study French at the Sorbonne and now shows visitors around some of Paris’ most special gardens – most of which you won’t have heard of.
‘Before the French Revolution, gardens were for the nobles and aristocrats,’ she says. ‘Following this event and the arrival of the first public gardens in the 19th century under Louis Philippe I and Napoleon III, the embellishment, expansion and modernisation of Paris happened alongside the development of its gardens – they actually went hand in hand.’
As well as garden tours Kupec-Larue creates floral decorations for the likes of bakery Maison Ladurée and the US ambassador. She lives near her favourite garden, the Parc de Bagatelle rose garden in the Bois de Boulogne on the outskirts of Paris.
Historically, French gardening styles during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries tended towards the straight and rectilinear, she notes – as part of a wider European trend to ‘organise and dominate’ nature. It brought a kind of formality that was the opposite of what was happening in Asia.
‘You don’t have to be a gardening expert or enthusiast to seek out and enjoy gardens,’ Kupec-Larue says. ‘Many are part of, or near, popular destinations, like the serene Jardin Anne Frank just behind the Centre Georges Pompidou in the Marais.’
This secluded 4,000-square-metre garden, dedicated to the Jewish diarist, is made up of three sections. The first, with a cobblestone entrance and a permanent chess table amid blood red camellias and hydrangeas, features a small horse chestnut tree taken from a graft of the tree that Anne recorded observing from her secret annexe in Amsterdam.
Inside is a classical 17th century-style garden with curved trelliswork facing the restored Hôtel de Saint Aignan (originally built in 1650 and now home to the Museum of Jewish Art and History). The final section of the park has a charming play area for children resembling an orchard with a small butterfly and bird garden amid delicately flowering cherry, whitebeam and lilac trees.
Smaller but just as seductive is the Square du Vert-Galant on the western tip of Île de la Cité, an island in the River Seine, where Parisians watch the sunset by weeping willow trees. The triangular patch of green is named after Henry IV of France – his numerous affairs earned him the nickname Le Vert-Galant (‘the go-getter’) – whose statue stands near the centre of the 400-year-old Pont Neuf bridge. The island is still acknowledged as the ancient centre of Paris, with all road distances in France calculated from a point located in the nearby Place du Parvis de Notre-Dame.
Across town the Musée de Montmartre, housed in the 17th century Hôtel Dermarne, offers an escape from the crowds circling the nearby Sacré-Coeur. Once home to numerous influential artists, the newly renovated museum combines a collection of paintings, posters and drawings that recount the history of the area with a restored studio of the artist Suzanne Valadon and her son Maurice Utrillo. The impressionist painter Auguste Renoir also lived here and painted some of his most famous works, including the Bal du moulin de la Galette.
Credit: Jean-Pierre Delagarde
The garden has three sections, with the first directly in front of the 17th century mansion featuring boxwood-edged alleyways, colourful irises and climbing roses spilling over arches. The second has been restored to reflect Renoir’s works and features a replica of the swing from his painting La Balançoire. It is also home to the chic Renoir Café that, in summer, extends to tables and chairs out on the lawn. The third part of the garden on the other side of the museum overlooks two additional green spaces: Saint Vincent’s Jardin Sauvage – ‘wild garden’ – on the right, with spectacular views over the city; and on the left, Clos Montmartre, one of Paris’ few working vineyards. Dating from 1933 and measuring 1,556 square metres, the steep hill produces a small quantity of gamay and pinot noir wines. Bottled with labels designed by local artists, the wine is auctioned for local charities during the annual five-day Fête des Vendanges grape harvest festival.
‘Many gardens in Paris have started to reflect a conscious move towards a more natural, biological form of gardening,’ Kupec-Larue says. A good example of this naturalistic aesthetic is the jungle-like setting created by French master gardener Gilles Clément at the Jean Nouvel-designed Musée du Quai Branly near the Eiffel Tower.
The 18,000-square-metre garden’s adventurous multilayered landscape – of trails, small hills and streams planted with 150 species of flowers, trees and wild grasses from Asia, the US and Europe – reflects the cultural diversity of the museum’s collection of exotic indigenous art and artefacts from Africa, Asia and Oceania. A walk through the garden is an integral part of the museum experience, including a stop to see the extraordinary 12-metre-high, 200-metre-long vertical garden by contemporary landscape designer Patrick Blanc.
The Musée de Cluny is another of Kupec-Larue’s favourites, with its rare example of a medieval garden adjacent to the Thermes Gallo-Romains de Lutèce, the ruins of the Gallo-Roman baths built in the first century AD, and the 15th century Hôtel des Abbés de Cluny. The art collection contains an eclectic mix of works from antiquity through to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The green space also includes a vegetable garden planted with food typical of the time, a celestial garden dedicated to the Virgin Mary with flowers to decorate the altar every month of the year and a romantic Love Garden planted with roses. ‘When you see a garden like this, you forget that you are in a city,’ says Kupec-Larue.
Credit: Roberto Lo Savio / Shutterstock
Even the Palace of Versailles, famous for its meticulously manicured gardens designed by the legendary royal landscaper André Le Nôtre in 1661 for King Louis XIV, has been refreshed. The long-dormant Water Theatre Grove, a favourite of the Sun King, was brought back to life by French landscape designer Louis Benech, the first new construction in Versailles’ garden for centuries. Along with a wooded grove of Irish yew, beech and oak trees and shrubs is a garden pool featuring artist Jean-Michel Othoniel’s striking sculptural fountain made from 1,751 golden Murano glass beads.
The fountain, with its choreographed swirl of jets of water inspired by baroque dance, is dramatic. Thanks to Benech’s exacting demand that the height of the trees not exceed the 17 metres intended by the original designer, it remains a hidden grove, invisible from view.
‘The funny thing about Paris is that with all its magnificent perspectives at the Louvre, Place de la Concorde, Arc de Triomphe and Versailles you can’t take it all in,’ Kupec-Larue says. ‘Just like these hidden gardens, you have to walk along and through them to really appreciate their true richness and splendour.’
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