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Park With Walls Once Marshland

July 19, 1987|ROBERT RAGAINI | Ragaini is a New York City free-lance writer.

PARIS — A park here is encompassed by buildings of exactly the same height so that it seems like a huge, ceilingless room with red-brick, windowed walls.

The streets leading to the park are narrow and run through a poor neighborhood, like hallways in a tired, sad house. The park has six entrances, one at each corner and two through thick, arched stone gates.

Prepared only by guidebook descriptions, one has a feeling of expectancy approaching a corner of the square. To the left the buildings continue. On the opposing side they stop abruptly, yet the park is hidden from sight until the entrance is reached.

Walking through it is stepping from darkness into light. Here are trees where there were none. Where there was closeness there is space. It is a conjurer's trick, dazzling with illusion so that reality is forgotten. It is a trick that has been played for 370 years.

What is now a park was once marshland, owned in the Middle Ages by the church and occupied by its monks. And though it was drained hundreds of years ago by the Knights Templar and inhabited in their turn by the nobility and the workers of Paris, the district is still known as Le Marais (swamp or marsh).

The Place des Vosges, the park, is large and grassy, with carefully positioned, well-pruned trees, and a playground to the side with children riding seesaws under the canopy of a tall tree.

Along the edges are many benches, comfortable and attractive, places to sit quietly insulated from the working quarter outside. Behind are arched brick roofs of the arcade that traces the perimeter of the square, and above, the pink facades and tall slate roofs of old mansions. It is very civilized.

Age of Chivalry

It was not always so. In the late 1400s, before the place existed, civilization meant something very different. It was the age of chivalry, and jousting was a favorite recreation. The object of the sport was to shatter one's lance on an adversary's chest, the knight with the most lances broken proclaimed champion of the tourney.

Early in the summer of 1559, not far from today's children's park, King Henry II, a formidable athlete and avid sportsman, was host at a day of feasting and games. He had jousted twice with the captain of his Scottish Guards, and twice won. He insisted on yet another contest. This time the captain prevailed. The king's visor was pushed up and his eye pierced by the shattered lance.

For 10 days he lay wounded. Four criminals were decapitated so the court physicians could study their cranial anatomy. But the king died, and his wife, Catherine de Medici, had his palace destroyed. Those ruins were to be the site of the Place des Vosges.

The weather in the park, protected as it is, is mild even in winter, and elderly people of the neighborhood like to sit on the benches, talking and feeding the pigeons. In the afternoon, children spill out of the schools that occupy some of the old mansions and race noisily about.

At No. 2 and No. 25, the place's elegant restaurants, Coconnas and La Guirlande de Julie, serve fine, expensive meals. One will more likely find the tradesmen and shopkeepers of the Marais in the brasseries outside the gates.

Sense of Timelessness

A visitor might choose to eat outdoors, picnicking on a bench and enjoying the almost tangible sense of timelessness. All the noise and violence of the past, the jousts and parades and festivals, have given way to this, one of the most gentle and peaceful spots in Paris.

Until the end of the 16th Century the ruins of the king's palace were used for trading horses, a kind of medieval used car lot and place that attracted unsavory characters. Then at the turn of that century Henry IV chose the site for one of his urban renewal schemes.

Paris, in those days, had the unfortunate reputation of being, in the words of a contemporary, a "stinking sewer," but this Henry had a vision that was to transform the city.

It was his idea that buildings should be the same height and have similar facades, that avenues should run straight and lead the eye to vistas at either end, and that formal parks should relieve the congestion of residential quarters.

Near the place where his grandfather had been killed he planned the construction of 38 connected mansions around an open square, unornamented except for intersecting paths cut into the lawns.

Two years after his death the Place Royale was inaugurated with a three-day "carrousel," and the square was crammed with innumerable horses, 10,000 observers and participants, some dressed as American Indians, and two rhinoceroses.

The Place Royale became the showplace of Paris, awing visitors with its size and grandeur, and was soon the most desirable address in the city.

Old patterns gave way to new; chivalry was dead, replaced by strict codes of honor, and the armored joust evolved into the gentlemanly duel. Encouraged by their ladies, the cream of French youth seemed bent on theatrical self-extermination, and the Place Royale was their stage.

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