People have often asked me, “What is your favorite place in Paris?” I’m hard pressed to answer, because in my quest to uncover information for my travel planning service, I am constantly in search of new places and experiences and seldom revisit old ones, no matter how pleasurable.
But today, I am taking a stand and stating emphatically that my favorite place in Paris is the Luxembourg Garden.
There are many elements that contribute to this declaration. The garden is a splendid oasis of calm and greenery in the center of the hustle and bustle of the city. It doesn’t have the feel of the ornamental French garden, where every shrub, flower and tree has been geometrically arranged and sculpted or trained to flaunt human dominance over the plant kingdom. A more subtle order reigns here, and one has the feeling of communing with nature rather than lording over it.
The Jardin de Luxembourg is not far from my home, and my various excursions into the upper Sixth Arrondissement often take me past its gates. For the past several years, Paris has been treated to glorious photography exhibits that grace the wrought iron fence that encloses the garden. Aerial shots of the splendors of the earth, extraordinary photographs of most memorable sports events of the 20th century and photos of the volcanoes of the world are among the exhibits that have made Luxembourg the perfect outdoor photography museum. The photos are illuminated at night so that the public can enjoy them well after the time that a traditional museum would close.
Entering through the garden gates at Place Edmond Rostand, I usually head immediately to the grand vista that stretches between the Palais de Luxembourg (now the home of the French Sénat, or Senate) and the Paris Observatory. Here, the formal arrangement of statuary and the octagonal boat basin create a sense of majesty that befits the royal history of the garden.
To the right of the boat basin, the Luxembourg Palace dominates the clearing. Commissioned by Marie de Médicis in 1615, this edifice served as her royal residence and museum. In fact, Ruben’s 24 enormous paintings depicting the life of the queen were displayed in the palace for almost 200 years before being definitively transferred to the Louvre. The palace remained in royal and aristocratic hands until the French Revolution, when it was seized by the state. It was made into a prison for a time before being transformed into the seat of government under the Directoire. The many permutations of the French Senate have utilized the facility since 1799, with some absences due to domestic political upheavals and war (notably World War II, when the Nazis occupied it).
Under the spreading chestnuts
After admiring the scene, I move on to visit other areas of the garden that make it so attractive to Parisians and tourists alike. Just west of the palace, there was a thickly planted shady area where clusters of people practiced Tai-Chi. But the hurricane-like storm of 1999 severely damaged most of the trees here, and they were subsequently removed. The area has since been replanted with dozens of young chestnut trees, and they are fenced off for their protection. The barriers are scheduled to be removed in the spring of 2005. Only small patches of the original trees remain.
Farther along, past the monument to Delacroix, lies the Orangerie, an elegant greenhouse that was once used by the Musée de Luxembourg as an exhibition space. From October to May, it houses over 180 types of trees that are placed in the garden in the spring. Nearby, but outside the gates, lies the Musée de Luxembourg. Dating from 1886, it presents only temporary exhibits.
An apiary is nestled in the southwestern corner of the garden. I am convinced that its bees are the ones that visit my balcony garden every spring and summer. Conveniently (for the bees), the garden’s extraordinary orchard of espaliered apple and pear trees is immediately adjacent. The paths are winding in this section of the garden, giving it a more intimate air.
North of the apiary is an area for playing pétanque and a playground for children. The clunks and thuds of the boules and the squeals of children as they run and tumble under their parents’ watchful eyes always make me smile. Would-be Yannick Noahs bound around the tennis courts located to the east and north of here.The unmistakable odor of pony greets my nostrils as I head back toward the boat basin. From the western side of the terrace above the esplanade, I stop to marvel at the view of the dome of the Pantheon perched atop Mont Sainte-Geneviève. I then make a detour to the Fontaine de Médicis, a little grove of intense greenery that never ceases to delight me, before taking my leave.
The garden’s sculptures
Recently, I returned to the garden with the intent to view the statuary there. Over 100 sculptures punctuate the lawns and terraces, and until this time I had ignored most of them. The only work that I had ever found interesting was Le Poète or Homage to Paul Eluard by Ossip Zadkine. I first noticed it because it is a Cubist work. Zadkine inscribed the words to Paul Eluard’s poem Liberty on the sculpted body of a man whose right side seems to metamorphose into a tree.
On this day, I forsook my usual route and headed left off the pathway from the entrance at place Rostand. A short distance from the main path, I found François-Léon Sicard’s statue of George Sand, whose bicentennial is being celebrated in France this year. Then I made my way over to the Médicis fountain to view Polyphemus Surprising Acis and Galatea by Auguste-Louis-Marie Ottin. Following around the perimeter of the esplanade, I walked by the chalk-like figures of prominent wmen from French history, sculpted by various artists. Louis-Philippe ordered these to be erected in the 19th century.
I took my favorite route to the apiary, passing statues of animal life as well as busts and full figures that seemed to lurk under the trees. Coming upon Zadkine’s Le Poete, I stopped to admire this work once again, and reflected that no other sculptures in the garden had come close to inspiring me. I am not an art critic, or even an aficionado. But aside from Le Poète, none of the sculpture had moved me, or even aroused my curiosity.
Moving on to the westernmost section of the garden near rue Guynemer, I finally found several statues that held my interest. I liked the bronze replica of the Statue of Liberty by Auguste Bartholdi because it is small enough to allow you to approach it and view it in detail. The Triumph of Silenus by Aimé-Jules Dalou is such a tangle of bodies that I had to scrutinize it to ascertain exactly who was doing what to Silenus. L’Effort by Fernand Massignon (aka Pierre Roche) embodies the human struggle, inspired by the myth of the fifth labor of Hercules in which he cleans the Augean stables in a single day. And Antoine Bourdelle’s Beethoven is strangely morbid – with eyes closed, brow slightly furrowed and corners of the mouth turned downward into a frown, this head is reminiscent of a death mask.
After this new look at the Luxembourg, I left it briefly to buy a delicious savory tart and a bottle of water at a nearby eatery. Bringing the food back to the garden, I did something that I have always longed to do – I had a leisurely lunch under the trees, watched people go by, and let my mind wander. It was a delightful experience!
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