Archive for the ‘Secret Paris’ Category

The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale on the edge of the Bois de Vincennes is a curious relic of France’s colonial past. Yesterday I joined Adam of Invisible Paris for a guided tour of the garden in springtime, and it struck me that it raises some fascinating issues about landscape conservation.

Obscura DayObscura DayCreated in 1899 to test and redistribute plants from the country’s territories abroad, the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was the site of a Colonial Fair in 1907 which used displays of plants and buildings to provide a sense of the French colonies for well-to-do Parisian visitors. Elephants and camels were brought in and, extraordinarily, so were des indigènes – people literally shipped in from the colonies to live in huts and tents in the garden and be gawped at by visitors. Adam showed us some wonderful 1907 photographs of the Fair’s buildings, with elephants careering down a specially created water slide, and the indigènes wrapped in blankets against the Northern European chill, staring stoically at the camera.

Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale

The entrance to the 1907 Colonial Fair. Image from http://www.expositions-universelles.fr

The human attractions disappeared after six months (sadly no records remain of their experiences or their ultimate fate) but the buildings and the plants were left in situ after the Fair ended. The site became a hospital during the First World War and home to memorials for colonial soldiers morts pour la France (killed in the service of France).

Madagascar war memorialCambodian war memorial

Some of the buildings were co-opted for other uses, but over the decades that followed most of the site fell into disuse and neglect. Some structures burnt down or were destroyed by weather or time. The exotic plant species gradually died out, to be replaced by volunteer trees and vegetation. The only remaining original plantings are some persimmon, lots of bamboo and a single eucommia ulmoides, or Chinese rubber tree.

Obscura DayObscura dayObscura Day

Then in 2003 the city of Paris took over the site. It trumpeted its wish to restore the garden and its listed colonial structures, and run it as a model of sustainability. A beautifully illustrated book was published about the garden and its history, the Indochina pavilion was expensively restored, and signs of sustainability – such as a mass of beehives – started to appear on site.

Indochina pavilion

But the management of this garden raises some difficult questions. Without an obvious new use for the buildings, why invest the large sums needed to restore and maintain them? The story of French colonisation is undoubtedly important, but it is an awkward – sometimes shameful – part of the country’s history, and so is it likely to provide a popular visitor attraction? In any event, what value do these buildings have historically, as quickly constructed French interpretations of vernacular architecture in Asia and Africa? The garden may be owned by the city of Paris, but it is located in the leafy suburb of Nogent-sur-Marne; how far should Parisian tax revenue be spent restoring a site away from the city?

But if the city does not restore the garden, then its options are limited. Some might argue that the garden should simply be left to continue to decay and eventually disappear, remembered only through old photographs and stories. Such abandon has a certain romantic appeal, while dilapidated structures and wilderness could be a suitable metaphor for the bygone values and beliefs of colonisation.

At the moment, the city seems to be trying to find a middle way between these two approaches. Its staff are trying to stabilise decaying structures and to keep the garden accessible and safe for visitors, by clearing paths, putting up warning signs and fences, and cordoning off dangerous areas. Save for planting the odd new tree, little is being done to change the existing vegetation. Instead the city argues that it is preserving both the mysterious charm and the biodiversity of the site.

To be honest, it feels to me like an uneasy compromise – essentially trying to conserve the sense of history and neglect, while keeping the space safe and useable. The garden is no longer abandoned, but is being managed to appear as if it is. But I have no easy solutions for what else could be done.

With thanks to Adam for a fascinating tour of this little-known garden, and for allowing us to to ponder on the many issues it raises.

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If you’re interested in exploring hidden treasures, curiosities, and esoterica, you may want to join in the second international “Obscura Day.” On April 9th, a host of tours and events are being organised around the world to encourage us to poke around in fascinating by-ways and neglected corners.

Here in the French capital, I am delighted to be joining a tour organised by Adam from the award-winning blog Invisible Paris. He will be introducing us to the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, an abandoned Victorian plant nursery in the Bois de Vincennes. Other planned events include a candlelit tour of a shell grotto in Margate, a visit to the catacombs in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood cemetery, a tour of an underground temple in Turin, and a visit to a mad topiary garden in South Carolina.

If you can’t make any of the events, the Atlas Obscura compendium is worth checking out for curious places to visit at any time of the year. It recommends several in Paris that I do not know, as well as some old favourites, including the abandoned railway La Petite Ceinture and the cemetery at Père Lachaise.

La Petite Ceinture

La Petite Ceinture

Père Lachaise

Père Lachaise cemetery

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Google image

Image from Google maps

In the 8th arrondissement is a street called rue de la Pépinière, literally the street of the plant nursery. Today it is a busy commercial thoroughfare, with a dedicated Hello Kitty store and a big Starbucks. But that name suggests its previous history.

rue de la pépinièreFor centuries this area to the northeast of Paris was open land outside the city walls. Between 1640 and 1720, a Royal Nursery (la pépinière du roi) was established near the hamlet of Roule, to provide trees, shrubs and flowers for the king’s gardens, which were being laid out by Le Nôtre and others at the Tuileries and Versailles. The grand new nursery was popular with visitors, including English doctor Martin Lister, who came to France in 1698 and wrote in his Journey to Paris that:

I was to see the Pipinerie, or Royal Nursery of Plants, in the Fauxbourgh of St. Honorie; where I met the Master or Controuler of it, Monsieur Morley, one of the Ushers of the Bed-Chamber to the King….

This Ground inclosed with high Walls, is vastly big, as it ought to be, to supply the King’s Gardens; Here are several acres of young pines, Cypresses, Vues, &c. also vast Beds of Stock July-Flowers, of all sorts of Bulbes, as Tulips, Daffadills, Crocus’s, &c. and therefore I could easily believe him, when he told me, he had sent from hence to Marli alone, in four years time, eighteen Millions of Tulips, and other Bulbous Flowers…. He further told me, that the furnishing the Trianon (a peculiar House of Pleasure, with its Parterres at the end of the Gardens at Versailles) with Flower-Pots in season, every 14 days in the Summer, took up no less than 92 000 Pots from hence. Also from hence he could plant and furnish in 14 days time, any new Garden the King should cause to be made….

In this Ground are several Houses to lodge the tender Winter Greens; amongst the rest there is one very large, which I may call the Infirmary of sick Orange-Trees.

As well as acclimatising and tending exotic species, the royal nursery was known for its training of trees and shrubs, including espalier peaches and apricots; it was also the home of one of the first two cedars of Lebanon introduced into France.

Jardin des Plantes 'twin'

One of the first cedars of Lebanon to be grown in France, at the Jardin des Plantes. Its ‘twin’ was planted in the Pépinière du Roi. Image from http://www.paris-pittoresque.com/jardins/2.htm

Rue de la Pépinière ran to the nursery and along its eastern edge as far as Roule. The other nursery borders were formed by rue du Faubourg St Honoré to the north, the Champs Elysées to the south, and the present-day rue du Berri to the west.

The original nursery was closed down in 1720, to make way for a proposed Mint, and the land was subsequently sold to the duc d’Artois (later Charles X) who planned ‘costly fantasies’ on the site, including a grand stable block (les écuries du roi), built  in 1781. The stables were demolished in the 1860s to make way for the hotel de Talhouët-Roy.

Ecuries d'Artois

A 1929 image of the écuries du roi, built on the site of the pépiniere and long-since demolished, by Paul Signac, from Christies.com

The royal gardens still needed vast quantities of plants, and so a new royal nursery (la pépinière du roule) was established further along rue de la Pépinière to the northeast. From the 1760s, the director of the nursery lived in a purpose-built house just across rue de Clichi (the present-day rue de Courcelles), and his team of gardeners made up much of the local population.

The role of the second royal nursery in supplying plants for the king ended with the Revolution and, despite desperate campaigning for its retention by the nursery director, it had disappeared completely by 1826.

The location of both nurseries can be seen on this detail from a wonderful 1761 map by Jean De La Grive, which is available along with many other old maps of Paris here.

1761 map of Paris (detail)

Most of the original rue de la Pépinière is today called rue la Boëtie. Only the little strip from St Augustin to St Lazare retains the original name.

Today it is almost impossible to imagine this busy part of Paris as a vast royal plant nursery, but that street name remains as the clue.

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Recently I wrote an article for Gardens and People on Bernard Lassus and his extraordinary (and never-realised) proposals for the Jardins des Tuileries. I struggle to describe the range and depth of Lassus’s design interests, from suburban cottage gardens and motorway landscapes to historic restoration, reinvented housing estates and contemporary parks. Now in his eighties, Lassus is lecturing in Paris later this month, although sadly I shall be elsewhere.


But most weeks I walk through one of his designs, at Rond Point on the Champs-Elysées. Deceptively simple, Lassus’s idea was to construct raised banks of flower beds on the six separate sections of the traffic circle. This allowed motorists to grasp the geometric form of the junction from inside the circle, while also creating a private space for pedestrians on the outside, in the shade of the horse chestnut trees, between the rear of the banks and the surrounding buildings.

He proposed the design in 1981 (almost 30 years ago) and it is still maintained by the City of Paris. At the moment it is planted attractively with grasses and autumnal chrysanthemums on the inner slope, with pansies for the pedestrians on the outside.


It is a pleasure to experience Lassus, with his grand schemes and challenging philosophies, somehow encapsulated in this simple reshaping of the terrain at a busy traffic junction.



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Tomorrow, October 2nd, is Nuit Blanche in Paris, a city-wide contemporary arts festival that takes place over the course of a single night. Installations, performances and videos will spring up around the city, often outdoors, from Saturday evening, and all will be gone by early Sunday morning. Organised by the mayor’s office, the entire event is free to the public.

For me, the most memorable installation was in 2007, when the artists collective Compagnie Carabosse lit the Jardin des Tuileries in an event they called Nuit ardente aux Tuileries (literally, a burning night…).

As you can see from my photographs, this was far from a traditional candlelit display: two thousand fat wax tapers and torches swung crazily in the air and hunkered together on the ground to turn Le Nôtre’s gardens into an unsettling, hallucinogenic world of red and black, flame and darkness.       

It was magical, although us Brits couldn’t help muttering about health and safety laws – I am not sure the Mayor of London would be persuaded of the merits of suspending a massive ball of flame over St James’s Park from a crane, or allowing kids to dance round pots of burning wax…

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Jardin Atlantique 1The City of Paris has just completed a customer satisfaction survey, which showed that 98% of visitors to the city’s parks were happy with their experience. The top reason given was ease of access. Ironically, I read these results on a noticeboard in the Jardin Atlantique, which must be the hardest park in the city to find.

Designed in 1994, it sits atop the station at Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Even knowing that, it took me fifteen minutes from first glimpsing the park while at street-level to actually stepping foot in it. There are signs, but they point to two elegant lifts in a neighbouring street, both of which were out-of-order. In their absence, the easiest access is probably from the station itself: there is a stairway from the second level, near the waiting room, but it is far from clearly marked.

Jardin Atlantique 3jardin Atlantic 2So, is it worth the hunt? Its location certainly makes it impressive: few other railway stations have fully-fledged 3.4 hectare parks laid out on their roofs. The design process – needing to take account of weight limits, plant access, root runs and the provision of daylight and ventilation for the platforms below – must have been the stuff of nightmares. There are lots of features, from a large sun deck, central promenade, themed garden areas with water features, and oversized weather instruments used as sculpture, through to a children’s playground, tennis courts and ping-pong tables.

The trees are mature and provide some welcome shade, and many are labelled. Some of the planting is lovely.

Jardin Atlantique 4

At lunchtime, it’s packed with office workers enjoying their baguettes in the fresh air. It is splendid just to think that the city could be bothered to create and maintain a green space in such an improbable location; and there is a pleasing reminder of the station below, as the train announcements are clearly audible from most areas of the park.

Jardin Atlantique 8

It could yet provide a model for one of the big ideas of le Grand Pari(s) – the debate over the future development of the metropolis – which is to create linear parks over the main train lines that enter Paris.

Jardin Atlantique 5So, it’s a splendid notion, but my sense at the Jardin Atlantique was that there was simply too much going on. As the station takes passengers to France’s Atlantic coast, its designers (architects François Brun and Christine Schnitzler, with landscape architect Michel Pena) introduced all sorts of seaside motifs, from pine trees and wafting grasses to rather too many wave patterns. It’s all a bit busy. Plus, the park has lots of big, odd structures, some of them now roped or barricaded off for undefined safety reasons.

Jardin Atlantique 7Jardin Atlantique 6

I guess in the current economic climate, and with such a complicated design, maintenance is simply proving too expensive.

It reminds me of a team project I once did as a design student, when we all chose our favourite parts of our own designs and stuck them together into a profoundly unsatisfying whole.

Somehow the Jardin Atlantique feels the same, overall rather less than the sum of its many parts.

It’s a great idea, but in practice maybe not quite worth the hunt.

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British Ambassador's ResidenceBritish Ambassador's Residence The hôtel de Charost in the 8th arrondissement of Paris was built in the 1720s and was subsequently the home for 11 years of Pauline Borghese, favourite sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, who lavishly decorated it in the Empire style.

In 1804 it was bought by the Duke of Wellington and remains today the home of the British Ambassador to France.

The house and its one acre garden were open last Saturday as part of the Journées du Patrimoine (Heritage Open Days), and I acted as a guide to the gardens for much of the afternoon. While not historically significant like the house, the gardens are beautifully maintained and in a decidedly English style.

British Ambassador's ResidenceThere are some lovely old trees, and a good mix of perennials, including lots of scented roses. French visitors commented time and time again on the lawn, which is strikingly green and plush. People laid on it, stroked it, took close-up photos of it. It was as if they doubted it was real. They hovered on the edge, not quite believing they were allowed to walk on it (in most Paris parks there are pelouse interdite signs – the French equivalent of “keep off the grass”). I was asked many questions about its maintenance; one visitor even requested the contact details for the gardener, to learn his secrets.

It felt to everyone like a little piece of England transported behind a fine Parisian house.

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Square du Vert GalantTucked away in the heart of Paris, the Square du Vert Galant sits on the western tip of the Ile de la Cité. Its name – which my dictionary amusingly translates as ‘gay old spark’ – is a reference to the raffish king Henri IV, who used to cavort on this spot with some of his many mistresses.

It was Henri who created the Ile de la Cité by joining together three smaller islands and building the Pont Neuf, which joined the two banks of the Seine.

Turned into a public park in 1884, the little green triangle is visible from both sides of the river, and from the Pont Neuf, but it is difficult to work out how to get there (in fact, you follow the signs for the tourist boats Les Vedettes du Pont Neuf down the steps in the centre of the bridge).

Once there, you will find a pleasantly shady little spot, with great views of Paris either side, some mature trees, an odd lump of Canadian rock and some even more oddly-planted flower beds.

It is ideal for a picnic, with a water fountain near the entrance, lots of benches and some lawn. You are so close to the river on the path that surrounds the park, it is almost possible to dangle your feet in the water.

Square du Vert Galant

There is a well-known photo by Robert Doisneau of the park in 1950 as a slice of Parisian life.

Since its creation, a large equestrian statue of Henri IV has looked approvingly over the green spot that bears his name, which is still known as a place for romantic assignations and marriage proposals.

Square du Vert Galant

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Hotel Biron planting 1

The gardens of the Hotel Biron are currently a sea of creamy hydrangeas and soft green foliage.

A few weeks ago I posted on the lush roses and paeonies that filled the grounds in June. It appeared to be the peak of the summer.

But now everywhere is a mass of lacecaps and mopheads, all planted in generous drifts.

Hotel Biron planting 2

Hotel Biron planting 3This seems to me thoughtful, confident design, planting for leaf form and colour, and using big swathes of a limited range of species.

Shown in these four photos, taken last weekend, are the oak-leafed hydrangea, H. quercifolia “Snowflake”, and the popular H.aborescens “Annabelle”, with a lilacky splash of H. macrophylla “Blue Wave.”

These are not fancy or fashionable plants, but the whole thing feels tranquil and unflustered, just right for the heat of midsummer.

Hotel Biron planting 4

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rainbows and daisesrainbows and daisiesAt one of the side entrances to l’Eglise Saint Germain des Prés in the 6th arrondissement are four little box-edged flower beds. This summer, one of them is thickly planted with rainbow-stemmed swiss chard, pink cosmos and dahlias. (There are also some rather unnecessary, straggly standard roses.)

My daughter and I stood for a few moments on Saturday to admire the planting. The chard was translucent in the sunshine. Even in the short time we were there, several other people also stopped and commented on the display, noting admiringly that the leaves were edible as well as beautiful.

It was a tiny space, a few annuals, and a delightful moment.

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