One thing that will never be said about Paris is that it is a green city. Surprisingly small, everything is crammed in, leaving barely any space for an expanse of grass, let alone a sprawling public park.
The Jardin du Luxembourg, a few steps from the Sorbonne, is an exception, an oasis teeming with people seeking respite from the clamor of city life.
The centerpiece is the boating pond, which is approached through terraced formal gardens. That it is called a garden rather than a park is a deliberate statement, the emphasis being on magnificent floral displays rather than vast expanses of lawn. The octagonal pool is surrounded by pots filled with vivid blooms which could pierce through the grayest of days. It's a scene to make you fall in love with the city instantly, particularly when you start looking at the detail.
On the pool’s surface are little wooden boats, colorful and simplistic. They seem to be moving of their own accord, until you see the children with sticks at the water's edge. In an age of Playstations and hundreds of television channels on demand, the joy that comes from simply pushing a toy boat around with a wooden pole is a tribute to the imagination of childhood. From the looks on faces, these kids are fearless navigators, sailing the seven seas to unknown lands.
As you begin to walk round, you realize that this is a paradise for the youthful as well as the nosy people-watchers. As elderly couples remain parked in deck chairs, there is the constant birdsong of juvenile energy twittering through the trees.
Every little stretch is taken up with a different activity. There are tennis courts and areas set aside for boules (lawn bowling). Next door is a small strip devoted to tricycle racing. Girls are mounted on tricycles with wooden horses’ heads slapped onto the front, furiously pedaling around traffic cones – but to all intents and purposes, it's their mini re-enactment of Ben Hur. Most of the noise is coming from opposite the boules arena, though. It's a wonder that the group of middle-aged men (and one “mature” woman) are not being driven to distraction as they solemnly pace, analyze and lob. They are playing out their deadly serious, if somewhat sedate, spectacle to the backdrop of a huge adventure playground.
Just to wander from sector to sector, swigging from a bottle of water, is a delightfully affirmative experience. It's like a scene from 50 years ago, done up with modern costumes, and for the people-watcher, there's just so much to see. So many people, so many activities, so many expressions.
And those expressions extend to the marionnette theatre. This is puppeteering of the strictly old-school variety – an art form, not cheap entertainment – with the carefully carved mannequins treated as characters rather than tools of the trade. Every movement is handled with the love you'd expect from a family business that has been going for 75 years, and the audience laps it up.
There may not be any guns, explosions or cool special effects in Les Adventures De Minouchet, but judging by the reactions, that's the misjudgment of Hollywood rather than puppet-master Francis-Claude Desarthis.
Emerging from the theatre and traveling a few yards, you realize that even sitting outside those famous Parisian cafes, you'd be hard pushed to find a better arena than this. A basketball game getting overly competitive, boys showing off to impress girls, football with chairs for goal posts, a couple throwing a frisbee in lieu of striking up conversation. It's magical in the most simplistic way, and if you can't fall under the charm of Paris here, watching happy children rubbing the manes of their donkeys as they ride around the premises, then heaven help.
David Whitley – The Sun Herald
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Luxembourg Gardens is the most popular park in Paris, sixty acres of refuge from the noise and bustle of city life in the 6th arrondissement. Here people come to play tennis, boules (lawn bowling) and chess, walk their dogs, sail toy boats in the great octagonal pool and pursue amorous pastimes. There are hundreds of benches and chairs amongst the statuary, flower beds and fountains that spread southward from the palace that now serves the French Senate. In the northwest quadrant there’s a puppet theatre and a bandstand, and the café is a delight. There is an extension to the south that leads to fruit orchards and the adjacent Observatory, built in 1667.
Marie de Médicis, the wife of King Henri IV, ordered the Palais du Luxembourg built on this site in 1612, shortly after she was widowed. A Florentine by birth, she wanted to create another Pitti Palace. Alas, the queen didn't get to enjoy the palace, as her son, Louis XIII, forced her into exile when he discovered she was plotting to overthrow him.
Summer hours 7:30 a.m. until 9:00 p.m. Entry from Pl. Edmond Rostand at Blvd. St-Michel, three blocks west of the Panthéon.
Language lesson: Why are all those magnificent mansions all over Paris called “hotels?” Well, the French word hôtel (coming from “hôte,” meaning “guest”) originally referred to a city house that usually saw frequent visitors, not a place offering public accommodation. In contemporary usage, hôtel has the meaning of our English word “hotel,” and hôtel particulier is used for the old meaning. The French spelling, with the circumflex atop the “o,” was once also used in English, but is now rare. The circumflex replaces the “s” once preceding the “t” in the earlier "hostel" spelling, which over time received a new, but closely related meaning.
The Marquis de Sade was baptized here; so, too, French poet Charles Baudelaire. Victor Hugo was married here. Widor’s Toccata in F was written for the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ here. The Rose Line, a narrow brass strip in the floor, made familiar to millions in The DaVinci Code, bisects the nave. Jules Massenet set an act of his opera, Manon, at this oh-so-fashionable church.
We could be only at Saint-Sulpice, the huge Italianate edifice in the 6th arrondissement, just a couple of blocks north of the Luxembourg Gardens. It was constructed from 1646 through the 1770s and is the second largest church in Paris after Notre-Dame. Artistically, St-Sulpice is distinguished by the extraordinary frescoes painted by Eugène Delacroix.
A 19th-century watercolor of St-Sulpice by François-Étienne Villeret
Those of you who read The DaVinci Code will recall that Silas the monk used the Rose Line as a reference point in his quest for the Holy Grail. You can retrace his path north across the nave and transept to an obelisk next to the statue of St Peter. The astronomical gnomen (Rose Line) of Saint-Sulpice was commissioned in 1727 in order to determine the exact date of Easter along with the winter and summer equinoxes; Easter is always the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox – but you knew that, right? Note – a gnomon is the part of a sundial that casts the shadow (gnomon is a Greek word meaning "indicator"). In the south transept window a small opening with a lens was set up, so that a ray of sunlight shines onto the brass line. At noon on the winter solstice (December 21), the ray of light touches the brass line on the obelisk. At noon on the equinoxes (March 21 and September 21), the ray touches an oval plate of copper in the floor near the altar. Constructed by the English clock-maker and astronomer Henry Sully, the gnomon was also used for various scientific measurements. This secular use may have protected Saint-Sulpice from being destroyed during the French Revolution.
Oh, and not only do the two spires not match architecturally, they are of different heights. The one on the left is a bell tower. Weird.
And be sure to check out the two large shells (holy water receptacles) given to King François I by the Republic of Venice. These two shells rest on rock-like bases, sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, who had the unfortunate distinction of lending his name to the infamous red-light district near Montmartre.