Paris is more and more a green city. The current mayor, Bernard Delanoe, has added more than 100 new acres to its more than 400 existing green spaces. He's also re-choreographed traffic, provided free bicycles (the velos are everywhere), turned more streets into pedestrian walkways. Getting around is now easier and healthier than the old tourist hell of long lines at bistros, shops, and museums, the clots of cameras (and people) blocking sidewalks. My book, Hidden Gardens of Paris, helps you navigate smoothly as you search out about 75 of the city's loveliest and most tucked away squares, gardens, and parks. The popular Luxembourg and the Tuileries in the city center, crowded in summer, also appear. How could they not? But most of the green and shady retreats in this guide are off-the-beaten-track, away from the great boulevards. My friends and family in Paris confess to never having set foot in a lot of them. When in 2003 I first started visiting Paris a few times every year, in all seasons, I never dreamed that off the busy streets of the working-class onzieme, for example, I'd come upon a gem like Square Maurice-Gardette. Or that above the noisy commercial hub of Belleville we'd sit and picnic in a rose garden to rival the Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne.
Once you move around the city with a hidden garden as your destination, you'll have the same pleasure that was mine as I walked or metro-ed and then found the idyllic Vallee Suisse (Swiss Valley). Or any of the other "paradisial" places listed in the table of contents and the "Nearby" sections of the book. The tall old chestnut trees, the weeping beeches, the bright playful flower beds - as if designed by Matisse - fountains spraying light, ponds with goldfish and diving birds, thick plantings of roses and jasmine, all under the high surround of architectural elegance and, in the words of Colette, "the great ceiling of the Parisian sky." These are quiet places where you can suit yourself. The soft-spoken Parisians on the park benches offer models of a kind. They talk to friends, read, sleep, eat a salad, relish the sun or the embraces of a lover, watch the children. Most gardens have a playground, in good working order. It's hard to get up and walk away from these sanctuaries. But there's always the surprises along the nearby streets to look forward to, the cafes and boulangeries, the bookstores well-stocked in French and English titles, another tiny square up a mysterious flight of stairs, an ancient church and its cemetery, sheltered by cherry trees, over an old stone wall the voices from a nearby vegetable market.
Tracking down the cultural associations of these places yields fragments of the city's dramatic history, its past so rich in genius, characters, and a complex and bloody politics. Some squares and gardens have been the beloved hideaways of Chopin, George Sand, Delacroix, Rodin, Zadkine, Balzac, Colette, Flaubert and his lover Louise Colet, others the hideouts of rebels. The hero of the French Resistance, Jean Moulin, is commemorated in his old neighborhood of Montparnasse, in the Jardin Atlantique on top of the Gare Montparnasse, the train station in southern Paris whose trains go west to the Atlantic coast.
This mixed historical legacy lives up to the historian Richard Cobb's description: "Paris is the abode of love, as well as of violence," but despite the dark side . . . "love is there all the time."
Descend the steps behind the equestrian statue of Henri IV on the Pont Neuf to the small triangular square on the banks of the Seine. Paris loves the memory of <em>le galant Henri</em>, a Protestant who turned Catholic to end the religious wars. "Paris is worth a Mass," he supposedly said. His energetic love life - two wives, 56 mistresses, households full of bastards - also endeared him to the city he vowed to make "a wonder of the world." Place des Vosges, Place Dauphine, and the Pont Neuf are his architectural designs. He survived hundreds of assassination attempts, most of them by Jesuits, but was in the end stabbed to death by a fanatical Catholic who despised an agenda of religious tolerance. "Those who honestly follow their conscience are of my religion," Henri declared. "Kindness and mercy are the primary virtues of the good prince."
Dedicated to the memory of Angelo Roncalli, the papal nuncio in Paris (1944 - 1953) who went on to become the "good pope" John XXIII, who convened the Second Vatican Council and filled its advisory committees with liberal French theologians who had been silenced by his predecessor, Pius XII. When he was re-called from Paris, Roncalli told a friend, "I love France and I love Paris and I'd hoped to stay a little longer. I can't really see myself in Rome." The flowering cherry trees, in bloom along the south porches of the cathedral in April, and the flower gardens beneath the flying buttresses make a fitting memorial to this genial man.
Enter at 45, rue d'Ulm, and walk straight through the large front hall into the garden, a retreat in the round, a splashing fountain in the center under tall trees, a gorgeous holly tree reaching toward the sky. The "sense of energetic quiet," (Jeanette Winterson's description of Oxford) is seductive and makes the students - <em>les normaliens</em> - seem almost monkish. "The mystery of French intellectuality" starts here at the Ecole Normale, wrote Tony Judt. Almost every important French intellectual of distinction graduated from here. Famous women grads include Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Weil (1909 - 1943), philosopher, political activist, and mystic, author of <em>The Need for Roots, Waiting for God</em>, and other books, who was important to Albert Camus - "the only great spirit of our time," he said of her. The day Camus got word he'd won the Nobel Prize, he went directly to visit Weil's mother.
Enter from the lovely Place de Furstemberg, off rue de l'Abbaye which runs along the north porch of the church of St Germain-des-Pres. Delacroix loved his small shaded garden, a delightful place to sit and read <em>The Journal of Eugene Delacroix </em>(on sale in the museum's gift shop), called the greatest literary testament any painter has left. Delacroix sat here planning his final three masterpieces for the Chapel of the Holy Angels in the church of Saint Sulpice. (The first chapel on the right side of the church.) He was lonely after the death of his close friend Chopin but, as he wrote to George Sands, he loved his new solitary life, "getting up at dawn and hurrying off to this enchanting work as though I were rushing to throw myself at the feet of a beloved mistress." After a day's work in Saint Sulpice, he strolled in the Luxembourg Gardens to study the shapes of leaves and in the Jardins des Plantes to watch the animals in the Natural History museum.
At the intersection of boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg and rue Grenelle, this tiny triangle of a square is surrounded by the lawns of the Esplanade of Les Invalides. From its benches, across the luxuriant beds of tulips, you see the gleaming Eglise du Dome. On a bright summer morning, the traffic of the nearby boulevards hardly registers: this is an oasis of peace. Even without consulting a map, you can feel you're close to the Seine. The bust of Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 - 1944) in the center of the garden, backed by hedges and trees, honors the French pilot and writer (<em>Wind, Sand, and Stars;The Little Prince</em>) who lived nearby. As Stacy Schiff tells it in her biography, Saint-Exupery was a visionary for whom the interior life, private, mysterious, inexhaustible, was the most significant of all human experiences.
The genius of French engineering stuns you as you walk up a stairway from the hectic Gare Montparnasse and come into this green oasis with a maritime theme. On the roof of the train station, you can sit and take time off in a forest of 500 trees, willows, pines, oaks, evergreens, and plantings of holly and ferns, or watch the tall wild grasses moving in the wind, just as you'd find on the French Atlantic coast, the destination of the trains out of Gare Montparnasse. At the north end is the moving memorial museum of Jean Moulin (1899 - 1943), the greatest hero of the French Resistance to the German Occupation ( 1940 -1944). He was captured and tortured to death by Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyon. "He who knew everything betrayed nothing," as Moulin's sister Laure said. Andre Malraux's speech upon the transfer of Moulin's ashes to the Pantheon in 1964 is one of the most moving and powerful in French history.
A few blocks north of the Louvre, on the Right Bank, the Palais-Royal, a masterpiece of landscape and architecture, has the feeling of a neighborhood, residents of the square's apartments reading and chatting on the benches surrounding the fountain. This was the last address of Colette (1873 -1954) who lived above the gardens and described her earthly paradise in <em>Places</em>. Under "the great ceiling of the Parisian sky," she could see "the tree trunks of the arbor, the quivering of whipped-up water in the great fountain," the clipped lime trees at dawn and sunset. The details haven't changed much since Colette died and was given the first state funeral that France ever gave a woman. Her bier rested in the Palais-Royal's Cour d'Honneur in front of Cardinal Richelieu's original palace. The Palais-Royal was once the center of Parisian hedonism and then of radical politics where in the taverns beneath the arcades journalists argued the case that led to the Revolution. Colette, the anti-puritan, liked to remember the "ladies of pleasure" who once, like her, enjoyed the view of the yellow and white tulips and the profusion of magnolia and lime trees, fragrant beneath her windows at 9, rue du Beaujolais.
The most hidden of all the hidden gardens. If you didn't know it was there, down a small cracked flight of stairs, you could easily miss it. Look for the melodramatic sculpture of the romantic poet Alfred Musset, gazing at an assortment of his swooning naked lovers, just south of the Palais de la Decouverte in the Grand Palais at the intersection of avenue Franklin Roosevelt and Cours la Reine. The Seine is next to you (and the stern sculptures of Jacques Cartier and Samuel Champlain on corner). At the bottom of the narrow stairs you enter an enchantment - a "stage set," wrote Elaine Sciolino - utter quiet broken only by the sound of flowing water from a small waterfall emptying into a pond shaped by rocks and shaded by huge beech trees. A small footbridge takes you past the dense plantings of jasmine, roses, quince, and rhododendrons. The valley is the city's secret sanctuary where I've never seen or heard another soul.
Some Parisians consider this square in the 11th arrondissement of northeastern Paris - historically, the poorest, most populated, and most insurrectionary area of the city - the loveliest neighborhood park in town. Weekends, you see local families gathering around the music kiosk, the playground, and the Ping Pong tables, strolling the gravel paths, taking for granted the over two thousand varieties of plantings, the tall healthy sycamores, magnolias, orange trees, black pine, palms, catalpa, and chestnuts, a massive canopy rising over the lilies, irises, roses and asters. The bronze sculpture of Le Botteleur, a worker bending over in a field to tie the straw into bunches, is an icon of the quartier. The square's namesake was a <em>resistant</em>, a metal-worker and a member of the French Communist party and the city council who was arrested by the gestapo for his anti-fascist activism and shot at Chateaubriant in 1941. His death is commemorated in the square every October by the mayor, the surviving <em>resistants</em>, and other neighbors who sing and speechify and then march to Pere Lachaise where Maurice Gardette and the other Fusilles de Chateaubriant are buried. Nearby, check out the cafes and bistros on rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud (named for another resistant). L'Autre Cafe and Le Cannibale are best. Astier boasts "one of the best cheese trays in the city," according to Mark Bittman.
Since <em>les evenements</em>, or "the events" of 1968, this old area of rebellion - the plebeian northeast - has had a makeover. After years of demolition and gentrification, the mixed population has returned. In the streets around the beautiful square, the Paris proletariat of immigrants, artists, students, working families, and "an intellectual but non-university youth" energizes a vibrant quartier. They gather along the winding paths of the square, lined in early spring with hyacinths, pansies, daffodils, daisies, snowdrops, beneath the eucalyptus and palm trees. The "History of Paris" plaque at the entrance on rue de la Roquette tells the macabre story of Roquette's past. This <em>butte</em> - the square is built on a hill - was for centuries the setting of a prison for women and incorrigible girls ages six to twenty, and during the Occupation, for 4,000 resistantes. Across the street was the men's prison of death row inmates and the guillotine, only demolished in 1974. These days, around the high cascading fountain at the square's entrance, the locals chatting on benches, you'd never imagine the legacy of pain and injustice layered under the new flower beds. Nearby are Pere Lachaise, bookstores, good restaurants - La Boulangerie - the legendary Bistro Melac, and the church of Notre-Dame de la Croix, its high front steps the setting of Brian De Palma's "Femme Fatale."