A Guide to the Beautiful Gardens Hidden Among The Streets of Paris
Paris is already known as the city of light and love, but a well kept secret is sure to make any trip to the French capital that much more romantic and beautiful. A few steps past tourist hotspots, hidden in valleys, and tucked in building courtyards are some of the most breathtaking gardens.
Away from the noise and crowds of the city, these serene oasises are great places to chat with friends and lovers, or have a moment of peaceful thought to yourself. These gardens are truly a hidden treasure of Paris.
The book Hidden Gardens of Paris by Susan Cahill is a guide to where and when to visit these Parisien gardens.
Filled with photographs by Marion Ranoux, you won’t want to take you eyes off the pages as you picture yourself surrounded by such beauty, unless of course you are there!
THE HIDDEN GARDENS OF PARIS: A Guide to the Parks, Squares and Woodlands of the City of Light
L’ École Normale Supérieure (The Students’ Garden)
Entrance: 45, rue d’Ulm
Métro: Censier Daubenton; Place Monge
Hours: weekdays during school hours; some weekends
The students’ garden opens into a circular retreat around a splashing fountain under tall trees, boughs spread wide and low over benches and flower beds. It’s and idyllic place, the undertone of conversation, serious and animated, an on-going background thrum. The branches of the robust holly tree reach toward the sky. Above the graceful windows recessed under the roof of the school’s surrounding walls are the stone heads of French genius: Foucault, Aragon, Lavoisier, Descartes, Pascal, Cornielle, Molière, Racine, La Fountain, Bossuet, Voltaire, Rousseau, Chateaubriand – a pantheon of secular gods high in the serious air.
The historian Tony Judt visited her in 1970 when he was an undergraduate at Cambridge. Probing “the mystery of French intellectuality” in his memoir Paris Was Yesterday, he asserted that to achieve clarity one must begin here, at the École Normale: “Founded in 1794 to train secondary school teachers, it became the forcing house of the republican elite. Between 1850 and 1970, virtually every Frenchman of intellectual distinction (women were not admitted until recently) graduated from it.”*
*Tony Just, “Historian’s Progress,” New York Review of Books, March 11, 2010.
La Vallée Suisse
Entrance: the corner of avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt and Cours la Riene
Métro: Invalides, Franklin D. Roosevelt
Hours: daily, 24 hours
Thanks to Sciolino, the former correspondent for the Paris bureau of The New York Times, who wrote about her adopted city’s out-of-the-way green spaces, you can now find your way to the Swiss Valley. It’s easy to miss.
Immediately to the right of the melodramatic sculpture of romantic poet Alfred Musset – his “male gaze’ resting upon an assortment of his swooning naked lovers and muses (George Sand, the best known) – some narrow, cracked stone stairs lead down into the hidden “valley.”
What you find at the bottom comes as a surprise and delight: utter quiet and simple beauty to the accompaniment of the sound of water flowing from a small waterfall into a pond shaped by the rocks and shaded by an old weeping beech tree. There’s a surround of tall evergreens and maples rising toward the sky, bushes thick with lilacs and jasmine, roses in bloom in late October. The wooden footbridge has the look of a set design. It’s an enchanting and comforting place, a sanctuary that’s part of the larger and more public Champs-Élysées gardens where you can be completely alone – or not – in the middle of a great metropolis.
Returning to the streets above, you encounter some humor on the corner of the intersection of avenue Franklin Roosevelt and Cours la Riene: the sternly heroic sculptures of Jacques Cartier and Samuel Champlain, seventeenth-century explorers in the New World, who appear just next to the swoony lyricism of the nineteenth-century Musset tableau.
Square Jean – XXIII
Entrance: the riverside and east end of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame of Paris
Until 1831, when it was destroyed in a riot, the palace of the archbishop of Paris occupied the land between Notre-Dame and the Siene. Both the palace gardens and the cathedral had long been revered sites in the quartier of religious associations dating back to the fourth century when Emperor Julian presided in a temple dedicated to Jupiter. These Roman ruins became the foundation of the basilica of Saint- Étienne (Saint Stephen) in 528 an the first Notre-Dame.
The new Notre-Dame, begun in the 1163, stands today, after centuries of renovations and the fanatical rampages of the Terror, as one of the crown jewels of Gothic architecture not only in Paris but all over Europe.
The new cathedral gardens are dedicated to the memory of Pope John XXIII, born Angelo Roncalli (1881-1963), in Lombardy, the papal nuncio in Paris from 1944 to 1953 who went on to become the “good pope” and the progenitor of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
Flowering cherry trees, in luxuriant bloom along the south porches in April, screen but do not hide the original medallion that bear images of student life. Beds of daffodils and tulips run the length of the cathedral’s southern flank as far as the eastern end, where flying buttresses rise above a small square generous with flowers, benches, and travelers taking their ease.
The mood here often feels more peaceful then Notre-Dame’s interior, where getting stuck behind a crush of tourists aiming cameras at the stained glass is almost as inevitable.
Susan Cahill has published many travel books on Italy and Ireland. The editor of the bestseller Women and Fiction series and Author of the novel Earth Angels, she takes a few months a year and lives in Paris.
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