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garden tales from a Brit abroad

Square Louis XVI

Square Louis XVIThe little park around the Chapelle Expiatoire on boulevard Haussman is traditionally planted with white flowers, in memory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. So it was somehow fitting to visit yesterday during a major snowstorm in Paris. Everything was rapidly being engulfed in deep, soft whiteness.

This place was once the cemetery of La Madeleine, and became a dumping ground for as many as 3,000 guillotined corpses during the terrors of the French Revolution. In 1793 the bodies of the king and (some months later) his queen were hastily buried here in a pit. Later a royalist, Pierre Desclozeaux, acquired the site and quietly marked what he believed to be the royal burial spot with a planting of willows, cypress and hornbeam.

After the restoration of the monarchy, Louis XVIII had the purported remains of the former king (his brother) and queen re-interred in the royal selpulchre at Saint Denis, and commissioned Pierre-François Léonard Fontaine to build a chapel on the spot where their bodies had first lain. It seems the plants of Monsieur Desclozeaux were not enough of a memorial.

The small domed chapel is a splendid, Neoclassical edifice, currently in the process of being cleaned and restored after suffering storm damage last year. The small park which surrounds it, known as Square Louis XVI, is pleasantly planted with scented white-flowering shrubs and perennials, including roses, viburnum and lilacs. They grow in the shade of a mixture of trees (horse chestnuts, sycamores, cherries, maples, hawthorns, clipped yews), chosen to reflect the wide range of people killed during the Revolution. There are also lots of benches and a small toddlers’ playground.

The Square is tucked away behind railings near the grands magasins in the 9th, and the dramatic pale curves of the chapel always somehow take me by surprise when I glimpse them among the traffic and shoppers and dense surrounding buildings. If this were a more populist blog, I would mention that Marie Antoinette’s ghost is said to haunt the place. But instead I will just point out that the chapel is open to visitors (see the website for details) and that the little park is a splendid place to sit quietly and ponder.

Square Louis XVI

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5 comments on “Square Louis XVI

  1. Adam
    December 9, 2010

    Another odd thing about this park is that there are often ducks waddling around on the grass, looking for bits of the office workers’ lunch-time sandwiches!

  2. marose
    March 29, 2011

    We were there two weeks ago, and the chapel has been fenced and is now off-limits to visitors. Is there a reason?

    • landscapelover
      March 30, 2011

      Hmm, not sure. The chapel is only open three afternoons a week, so it could be that you went on a day that it is closed to the public. But I know that there has been major renovation work going on (following storm damage a few years ago) so maybe that is continuing?
      I live nearby, so will check next time I am passing, and report back…

  3. Malcolm Compton
    September 16, 2011

    We’ve just returned from a visit to Paris, and we spent two lunchtimes in the gardens to soak up the tranquililty – what a delight it was to just be away from the hustle and bustle for a while

    • landscapelover
      September 16, 2011

      Malcolm,
      Thanks for the comment. I agree it is a great place just to draw breath. We are no longer in Paris and I never managed to check whether the chapel itself is open now or not. But the garden is worth a visit on its own.

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