Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 20, 2021
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Stroll à Porter

When is a park more than a park?
When it's in Paris, of course

Paris parks are refuges. They're places to sit without having to order a cup of coffee from a surly waiter. Like cafés, the city's gardens also offer an afternoon of solid viewing -- a good seat to watch daily life unfold in one of the world's most beguiling cities. Every day until dusk, when most parks are locked for the night, you can watch children float toy boats, spin around on a wooden turn-of-the-century ménagerie or be mesmerized by an old-fashioned puppet show, their glee and open-mouthed shock once captured by the likes of Henri Cartier-Bresson and François Truffaut. You can spy on gossiping old ladies with stern accents, eccentric mustached poodle-walkers, randy Frenchmen preying on tourists or followers of what Victor Hugo called "L'école buissonnière (loosely translated as playing hooky), that school for lovers under the sky which will endure as long as there are trees."

In true French fashion, all of Paris' 400 parks have been designed right down to the last blade of grass. Over a decade ago under François Mitterrand, Paris decided to make itself the cleanest city in the world. It wasn't interested in American-style urban renewal (this was tried unsuccessfully in the '60s and '70s), nor did it want to renovate deteriorated neighbourhoods into touristy historical districts. The idea was to keep Paris the same -- only cleaner.

This vision extended to the city's gardens. As a result, Paris is now one of Europe's greenest cities with roughly 3000 hectares of park land. It also has one of the greatest selections of garden styles. There are parks for lovers, for thinkers, for green thumbs, for writers, for art buffs, for joggers -- you name it. Here are four you won't find anywhere else but Paris.

Romance in the Quartier Latin
Jardin de Luxembourg has all the particularities that make a French garden French: swarms of dirty pigeons, pristine cookie-cutter trees, gravel walkways that could have been ironed and pressed the night before and immaculate lawns meant strictly to be seen and not touched.

A Canadian may find it odd, but grass that is forbidden (interdit -- there's one word to remember) is the essence of what makes parks like Luxembourg so attractive. For us, parks are green spaces: you show up in the afternoon wearing sweats, let the dog off the leash and spend a couple of hours throwing around a frisbee. They are designed for recreation. In Paris, they're intended for daily use -- people walk across them to and from work or rush through them on an end-of-the-day baguette run.

Parisians use gardens to write treaties, read papers, discuss politics and push prams to air their occupants. Couples often mistake benches for beds -- and Luxembourg is no exception. While park standards are upheld by watchmen who ban everything from excessive drinking to bikini-clad sunbathing and all attempts to walk on the grass, they do nothing to prohibit the wide-open procreation of the species.

This is, after all, the French way. Stroll through Luxembourg's eastern half and you'll see everything from kissing students straight out of a Doisneau photograph to couples mimicking one of

Picasso's racier prints. Luckily, there's a tacit agreement which reserves the western half of the garden for children and pensive types and the eastern half for smoochers and students. With more than 20 of its 26 hectares open to the public, there's enough space for all.

Many common and not-so-common visitors have enjoyed daily constitutionals along Luxembourg's allées. George Sand, Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Sainte-Beuve, Oscar Wilde and André Gide spent their afternoons here, less in search of inspiration than fellow socialites. An impoverished Ernest Hemingway often used his son's stroller as a coverup to catch Luxembourg pigeons for dinner. He waited until the watchman turned his back, then captured and killed an unsuspecting pigeon and tucked it under his son's blanket. Here Hemingway met Gertrude Stein; here also Isadora Duncan was known to dance alone at sunrise just after the gardens opened.

Today, you can still spot glitterati among the 19th-century statues. The pool and fountain are popular places to rest or rent a toy boat and "sail" it across the fountain. You're even provided a stick so you can push your boat along if the wind isn't cooperating. In the western end of the park, you'll find one of two tiny models of the Statue of Liberty, a likeness of sculptor Frédéric Bartholdi's mother (the other is in the middle of the Seine between the 15th and 16th arrondissements on the Pont de Grenelle).

Perhaps the nicest day to see Luxembourg is on Sunday when most of the residents of the fifth and sixth arrondissements visit the park at some point during the day. Many bring their children for the Thé"tre des Marionnettes (22 francs, showtimes at 3pm and 4pm), which features a classic marionette show -- one of the park's most popular attractions.

If you yearn for Canadian green expanses, Luxembourg now has a jogging trail that runs around its parameter. It takes an average jogger about 20 minutes to go around. Water fountains are strategically placed along the route. Men of varying ages also lounge around the trail to impose dubious compliments on female runners. Annoying, it's true; but with a Walkman on, you can ignore it.


Rodin's Roses
Jean Cocteau called the garden of the Musée Rodin a fairy-tale realm. "Did Paris really live, walk, drive and work around such a pool of silence?" he wrote during a stay on the property. He had a point -- it's easy to mistake this quiet sanctuary for another 18th-century estate typical of the well-heeled seventh arrondissement.

Sheltered by a high wall from the bustling boulevard des Invalides, the garden of the Musée Rodin is the most peaceful spot in all of central Paris. It's also a perfect place to bring the kids -- in fact, adults accompanied by young children are admitted free (otherwise it's five francs). Two adults can take turns visiting the exhibition pavilion and the Hôtel Biron where Rodin established his museum. There's a popular sandbox at the back of the garden and a well-stocked cafeteria if you want to make an afternoon of it.

The garden itself spreads over three hectares. It's divided into a rose garden to the north and a vast parterre in the south, which was re-landscaped in 1993. A good number of sculptures are now in this renovated setting: Adam, Eve, Meditation and the Spirit of Eternal Rest harmoniously surround the pool, while the number of bronzes here have also multiplied.

Of course, the park's permanent tenants are still around -- the man in deep flex and thought, the gargantuan Thinker, is here. So are the Gates of Hell, the Burghers of Calais and Balzac. A few marble works, like the monument to Victor Hugo, also decorate the grounds, although they're now under protective glass.

Here and there, huge torsos of nude men and women, Roman or modern copies of Greek originals -- including Rodin's favourite, a Headless Hercules -- are displayed the way the artist wanted to see them, against a natural setting and by the light of day.

Looking at all these vibrating muscles and phallic figures scattered around the park, it's easy to see why virtually all of Rodin's bronzes and marbles were met with controversy. Critics said the sheer physicality of his statues were the devil's work, a few accused him of sticking live boy models in plaster and one even tried to chisel away at a sculpture before it could be mounted.

In the end, Rodin obviously had the last word: he convinced the French government to purchase and renovate the property and dedicate a museum to his work. Today, the museum receives about 500,000 visitors a year, making it one of the most popular in the country. While this reflects Rodin's renown, it's also due to the charm of the quiet garden and its lack of the maddening tourist crowd. Most of all, French and foreigners love this place because it comes from Rodin himself -- the fountains, the roses, the sculptures, even the armchairs and sofas where visitors are free to sit.

(77 rue de Varenne, 75007; tel: 01-44-18-61-10; Métro Varenne. There's some parking available on blvd. des Invalides. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 5 francs for the grounds only, 28 francs for the museum, 18 francs on Sundays.)

A Garden's Light and Dark Forces
With the Gare d'Austerlitz next door, the botanical Jardin des Plantes is a welcome diversion for anyone who has a long wait for a train. Though much of the vegetation is recent, you can't help but feel the weight of five centuries of history. Created in 1635 as the royal medicinal garden for Louis XIII, the area was essentially a research area for botanists, doctors and pharmacists. Though it was opened to the public in 1640, the garden really came into its own in 1739 when naturalist Georges Buffons was appointed director. His vision was to gather all forms of nature in one spot; as a result, he created a huge laboratory where most big-name French naturalists flocked (many of whom are honoured with street names nearby).

The garden houses two hothouses. The Australian House contains Mediterranean and Australian plants, while the Mexican House includes several thousand species of cacti and succulents as well as tropical plants from Africa and Madagascar.

To the north lies an 18th-century labyrinth which leads to a bronze gazebo called the Gloriette de Buffons, the oldest metallic structure in Paris (1786). A great cedar planted in 1734, one of the oldest trees in Paris, stands on the slope of the labyrinth. Nearby is the Alpine Garden (closed between October and February). This discreet area -- buried almost three metres lower than the rest of the Jardin des Plantes -- is home to a meticulously crafted microclimate of small valleys and hills, where the temperature varies as much as 35oF from one spot to another.

But this is a park with a dark side. During the Revolution, animals were brought into the Ménagerie (zoo) next door and the garden quicky became a fashionable place for gawking onlookers wanting to catch a glimpse of the world's most exotic creatures. The Ménagerie became so popular that the arrival of the first giraffe in 1827 brought out 600,000 Parisians. Today, the Ménagerie is really nothing more than a creaky and dilapidated skeleton. Unfortunately, it's somehow still operating. Regulations on renovations impede the zoo from modernizing even the facilities for the animals, so the few sad beasts that remain live in 19th-century conditions.

Colour-Coded Postmodern
The André Citroën Gardens, on the edge of the 15th arrondissement is a strange concoction of tradition -- it's located on the grounds of an old Citroën car factory -- and high technology, of highly attuned aesthetics and the downright bizarre.

It opened in 1993 and is certainly the most ambitious project of its kind to have been undertaken since the Second Empire. But while architects will have you believe the André Citroën is the leisure space of the third millennium, like the Centre Pompidou it's become oddly passé without ever seeming part of the present.

This is not a park you simply stroll through on your way to a museum. For one, there's little else to visit in the area and anyway the park is simply too vast. To get an idea of the ambition behind this grand traveau, visitors can take a 10-minute ride in a hot-air balloon. From a height of 150 metres, you can look over the park's 14 hectares and see most of Paris while you're at it.

Like the Champ de Mars and the Trocadéro, André Citroën is designed perpendicular to the Seine. Everything -- right down to the last speck of pollen -- plays a role in the garden's overall dramatic effect. There are greenhouses, lots of miniature fountains and shallow waterways, carpet-like lawns you can play on (without getting fined) and trees arranged in precise lines.

The park is divided into smaller gardens, each different in layout. There's the tree-lined Jardin Blanc, with all-white flowers (possibly a homage to the area where eau de Javel, or bleach, was invented.) The Jardin Noir (a homage to life before Javel) is highly shaded with dense and dark vegetation and terraces which give on to a small square, almost like an enclosed labyrinth.

Perhaps in memory of France's auto king, the dominant colour of the vegetation in each garden is symbolically associated with a metal: gold, silver, iron, mercury, pewter and copper. To further mix the metaphor, each garden is devoted to one of the five senses -- the silver garden celebrates sight, the red garden taste, the orange garden represents touch, the green garden symbolizes hearing and the blue one smell. The golden garden? Why, the sixth sense, of course. Would you expect anything less from the French?

Hot-air balloon rides run every 10 minutes from 9am to 9pm, conditions permitting. For more information, go to www. or call 01-44-26-20-01. For tours in French and English, call 01-40-71-75-60.


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