In the 7th century, Dagobert, King of the Francs, used to go hunting in the woods that we now know as the Bois de Boulogne; it remained a hunting domain for the kings of France up until Louis XVI, who finally opened it up to the public. That was mighty grand of him, and we thank him for it—this lovely natural haven is just what stressed-out Parisians need. Thick stands of trees, broken up by grassy knolls, manicured gardens, and even a lake or two plus several posh restaurants are tucked into this verdant spread. There is even a nice spot for tiny urbanites to unwind: The Jardin d’Acclimatation, a large children’s garden/amusement park, is a delight for kids of all ages.
What you see today, however, is not what Dagobert saw. Once Louis XVI was beheaded, and the Revolution got underway, the park was ravaged. What was left of it was completely demolished during subsequent military campaigns: In 1814, it was occupied and pillaged by some 40,000 English and Russian soldiers. It wasn’t until Napoleon III decided to remodel the entire city in the mid-1800s that the Bois de Boulogne was attended to. Inspired by the English public parks that he had visited during his years of exile, the Emperor gave the command to rebuild the park. Over 400,000 trees were planted, and dozens of chalets, pavilions, snack stands, and restaurants were built. A network of roads and trails was laid down totaling 95km (59 miles). Finally, the park was ready for the public, and the public was definitely ready for the park. Here are a few of its most popular areas:
* The Parc de Bagatelle is a park-within-a-park, with a lush garden, a small château that hosts concerts in the summer (check listing magazines for details), and a rose garden with over 1,000 varieties. New varieties are introduced every year in June, during an international rose competition. The version of the garden you see today was designed by Forestier, a friend of Monet, who was inspired by Impressionism, which is evident in the artfully placed clusters of flowers and plants.
* The Pré Catelan is most famous for its elegant and extremely pricey restaurant, but there are plenty of other reasons to come here. This green enclave includes lush lawns, playgrounds, and flowerbeds, as well as the Jardin Shakespeare, which attempts to re-create settings from the Bard’s plays. Here you’ll find the heaths of Macbeth, the Forest of Arden, and the pond where Ophelia meets her watery death.
* The Jardin d’Acclimatation is an old-fashioned amusement park, with lots of grassy areas and nifty playgrounds.
In addition to walking, rollerblading, and cycling (bike rentals at the edge of the Lac Inferieur and at the Jardin d’Acclimatation), you can rent a boat on the lake, go fishing in some of the ponds, or take in a horse race at the Longchamp and Auteuil hippodromes (www.france-galop.com). The spectacular Fondation Louis Vuitton is in the park, right next to the Jardin d’Acclimatation.
- Anna Brooke