garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
The Bois de Boulogne, once an ancient oak forest, was for centuries a royal hunting ground. In the 1850s, it became the first of many public parks created by the Emperor Napoleon III. His team of engineers, designers and horticulturalists produced what they saw as an English-style landscape, with sinuous paths, rock features, clumps of trees, and moving water. Originally Napoleon had wanted an artificial river, inspired by the Serpentine that he had seen in London’s Hyde Park, but a miscalculation by his landscape architect meant that the planned river had to be converted into the two adjoining lakes that remain today as a central feature of the park.
Located just to the west of Paris, and a short bus or metro journey from the city centre, the lakes retain something of their mid-nineteenth century feel.
There are small island flower beds, planted with colourful annuals; a ferry which takes just a couple of minutes to transport people from the pelouse de la Muette across to a genuine Swiss chalet – now a restaurant – on one of the islands in the lake; and a fine iron bridge providing access between the two islands.
There is also the Kiosque de l’Empereur, designed by Gabriel Davioud in 1857, on the southerly tip of the second island.
It is a charming little pavilion, created for the Emperor’s personal use. In early photographs the pavilion can be seen standing in open ground, but today it is largely hidden by volunteer trees and brushwood. Partly restored by the city of Paris, it was sadly closed to the public when we visited yesterday.
Row boats are available for hire at the northern edge of the lake, and are a lovely way to explore this park of which Napoleon III remained so fond.