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Destination: France

Where to Park in Paris : At four compass points of the busy capital are soothing spaces that break with tradition

May 05, 1996|BARBARA SHORTT | Shortt, who divides her time between New York and Paris, writes frequently about landscape architecture

PARIS — One of the glories of French civilization is the parks and gardens that seem to grace every corner of France. In Paris alone there are 400 parks (if you count the ones that double as neighborhood squares), and they are a never-ending source of delight to the world-weary, locals and travelers alike.

Most visitors know of the two most famous Paris parks, the centrally located Tuileries and Luxembourg gardens. Both are crowded in summer, but many visitors are unaware of other lush parks that are within easy reach and offer quiet glades in which to sit and gaze across green lawns, colorful flowers, and refreshing fountains and lakes. And since, after all, this is France, they also offer beautiful environments in which to eat delicious food.

For beleaguered Americans, whose urban parks too often contain an element of danger, it's liberating to be able to wander freely in these vast, verdant spaces without fear. (The parks close at nightfall.) I spend several months a year in Paris, and among this embarrassment of riches, I have a handful of favorites, three old and two new.

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The grand Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the Parc Montsouris were both created under the reign of Napoleon III in the mid-19th century. At the time, western Paris had the Bois de Boulogne and the east had the Bois de Vincennes. But the city's newly developed north and south sectors were deprived of great open spaces.

Alphonse Alphand, a well-known engineer of his day who worked under Paris master-planner Baron George Haussmann, laid out these two parks in the 1860s and 1870s, respectively, following the then-fashionable naturalistic principles of the "wild" English landscape style. Americans may feel more at home in these than in most French parks that are organized around the formal French style of famed 17th century landscaper Andre Le No^tre. Yet in both these parks, the Gallic tendency toward perfectly manicured lawns and flower beds is still at work.

The Buttes-Chaumont, 55 acres in the northern reaches of the 19th arrondissement (sector), was for many years an unsavory area of slaughterhouses and dumps. Its steep cliffs were the site of quarries for gypsum that was made into what became known as plaster of Paris.

Chalky escarpments still dominate this very dramatic and romantic park, with its classical "folly," a decorative little pavilion perched high above a lake with swans. The pavilion has the most lovely view of Montmartre in all of Paris. But be forewarned: With its stairways, steep paths and hilly topography, the Buttes is for the athletically inclined.

There are two fine bridges. One is a high, stone-and-brick arch called Suicide Bridge that stretches over a chasm (a mesh barrier now inhibits jumpers). The other is a long suspension bridge that gracefully spans the green lake. There are many rushing rivulets over wading stones, and waterfalls in little glades and grottoes, as well as drifts of carefully arranged wildflowers. It is filled with many remarkable botanical specimens, some more than a century old.

The Buttes also has playgrounds, donkey rides and boats for hire. There are two restaurants with terraces under chestnut trees (marronniers).

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The 40-acre Parc Montsouris at the southern end of Paris in the 14th arrondissement, is a politer version of the Buttes, with waterfalls, streams, a grotto and a lake. Also like the Buttes-Chaumont, it attracts wedding parties. During a visit on a Saturday last June, two white-gowned brides crossed my path.

Montsouris has some of the most beautiful flower-beds in Paris, and its lake has a story attached to it: On the day of the park's inauguration, it dried up, and Alphand, the engineer, committed suicide in shame. Montsouris has 1,400 trees and many statues, including one of American patriot Thomas Paine.

The site was originally dotted with windmills, where much of Paris' grain was milled. As a result, it was overrun with mice. Its original name, in fact, was Moquesouris, meaning "taunting the mice." It's somewhat shocking to know that underneath this sunny, joyful place are catacombs formed by old stone quarries, where the bones of 5 or 6 million former Parisians rest. (Perpetual graves are not the rule in France, and when plot leases expire, remains are moved here).

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In a different vein is the Jardin de Bagatelle, set within the massive Bois de Boulogne on Paris' western outskirts. The Bagatelle has one of the world's greatest rose gardens, as well as a lovely park with formal parterres, or formal flower beds, as well as the de rigueur lake, grotto and botanical specimen trees.

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