Monday, August 31, 2009

August in Paris: Parc de St. Cloud

Our final August in Paris, 2009, adventure took us to the 460-hectare (1136.68 acre) park of St. Cloud [san cloo], situated 10 kms (6 miles) southwest of Paris. The park, once punctuated by a glorious royal château, is perched atop a steep escarpment overlooking the River Seine. It offers magnificent views of the French capitol - a fitting location, indeed, for a place that loomed large over the political landscape of France for centuries.

The Château de Saint-Cloud dates back to 1572. Until the 18th century, it was largely the country palace of the cadet branch of the royal family (i.e. the descendents of the younger brothers to the king). Louis XIV’s younger brother, Philippe duc d’Orléans, made perhaps the biggest mark on the estate when he acquired it 1658: He hired the same landscape-designer to renovate the gardens – André Le Notre – who would undertake his brother’s Versailles masterpiece just three years later.

In 1785, four years before the outbreak of the French Revolution, the property became royal once again when King Louis XVI bought it from his cousin Louis-Philippe, duc d'Orléans. It was an extravagant expenditure at a time when French peasants were starving and the royal coffers were running dry. But the future King of France, young Louis-Joseph-Xavier-François, had been a sickly child and Queen Marie Antoinette was convinced that the air in St. Cloud would be healthier for him than that of Versailles. She, too, set about to upgrade the grounds, renovating the chateau and gardens with the help of Richard Mique who was just then adding the finishing touches to her Hameau (hamlet) at Versailles.

Alas, she and the children would never spend much time in St. Cloud. The future monarch died on 4 June 1789 and the Revolution broke out only weeks later. By October, the royal family was living under house arrest at the Tuileries Palace in Paris.

Following the Revolution, French governance fell for a short time to a corrupt arm called The Directory. In 1799, a coup d’état, aided by General Napoleon Bonaparte, overthrew the Directory. Guess where? That’s right, at the Château de St. Cloud!

Napoleon I climbed quickly from member of the tripartite Consul to Consul for Life to Emperor of France. The Château de St. Cloud became a favored home. Just as it would be preferred by Napoleon III, France’s second Emperor and Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew.

Napoleon III declared war on Prussia from the Château de St. Cloud on 28 July 1870. Ironically, it was the same spot from which the Prussians laid siege to Paris in the torturous months that followed.

As Parisians struggled to stay alive - feasting off cats and dogs and zoo animals once the meat of sheep, pigs, and cows ran out - the Prussians shelled them relentlessly from the elevated St. Cloud park grounds. On 13 October counter-fire from within the city hit the chateau. It caught fire and burned to the ground.

Today, the domaine de St. Cloud is owned and maintained by the French state. Among the daily joggers, dog-walkers, sunbathers, and picknickers, one can still detect many remnants of its illustrious past. That is, if you know what to look for:

  • Outbuildings and a small museum near the chateau ruins provide clues to the estate’s 16th century beginnings;
  • Le Nôtre’s high-baroque cascade is one of ten fountains dating to his 17th century renovations;
  • Marie Antoinette's 18th century flower garden today cultivates roses for exclusive use by the state;
  • La Lanterne, so named because a lantern was lit there whenever Napoléon I was in residence, remains a favorite viewpoint of Paris among visitors;
  • An English garden, the Jardin de Trocadero, has been blooming at St. Cloud since its planting in the 1820s, during France’s short-lived attempt to restore the Bourbon Monarchy.


And now the lazy days of August are over. The sand of Paris Plage has been swept away and the Seine expressway hums with vehicles carrying passengers back to work. The leaves are turning brown and beginning to blanket the Allée of the Ile des Cygnes. Yesterday, sun-kissed vacationers faced hours of stressful traffic delays along the nation's auto-routes as they fought their way home for La Rentrée (The Return). Time to join the queues to buy books and pens and paper again. Starting today for the next 11 months we'll have to share Paris, and all her sleepy corners, once again!


Chateau and fountain at St. Cloud, around 1845. Engraving by Chamouin after a daguerrotype, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Napoleon Bonaparte in the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire in Saint-Cloud, by François Bouchot (1800-1842), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Adolphe Braun (1811-1877), "Ruines du chateau de St. Cloud", Paris, 1871, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

August in Paris: Ile des Cygnes (aka Liberty Island)

Our next adventure was to Paris’ own Liberty Island, known here as the Ile des Cygnes (Island of the Swans), an 890-meter long by 11-meter wide (2,789 ft/36ft) park in the middle of the Seine. Though not far from our apartment, it’s a place we rarely think to visit.

It was late afternoon and the sun’s position in the sky set the City of Light aglow. I grabbed the Uber-Mensch and we headed toward the river. We crossed the Pont de Mirabeau to the 15th arrondissement and walked along the Quai Andre Citroën, ogling the river cruisers, until we reached the Pont de Grenelle. From there, it was a short hop to the middle of the bridge and the western end of the Ile.

We strolled its length to the most-eastern point at the Pont de Bir-Hakeim along the tree-lined All
ée des Cygnes, mesmerized by the soft, dappled light peeking through a canopy of leaves and branches. Tourist boats slipped past us on both sides, on route to and from the island’s most memorable feature: a 22-meter high replica of Fédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty.
This Statue of Liberty, placed here on 15 November 1889, was a gift from French expatriates living in the US to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution. Like her counterpart in New York, Paris' Lady Liberty holds a book her left hand. It bears the inscription "IV Juillet 1776 = XIV Juillet 1789", equating both the French and American struggles for independence.

Paris’ Liberty originally faced east, toward La Tour Eiffel. She turned westward, in the direction of French overseas possessions, at the time of the 1937 World’s Fair when the Ile des Cygnes hosted the “Pavilion of Overseas France”.

Dating to 1827, the Ile des Cygnes i
s a former river dike erected to protect the once vibrant port de Grenelle, the area now marked by modern high-rise buildings clustered along the left bank. It wasn’t until 1878 that the Allée des Cygnes was added and trees planted to turn the dike into a beautiful island promenade for pedestrians.

The Ile des Cygnes is a transporting little get-away right in the middle of a bustling city, a gem hiding in plain site. And, as it turns out, the perfect place for us some-time New Yorkers to feel a bit closer to "home".

Next post: Parc de Saint Cloud, a favorite spot of Queen Marie Antoinette.


The Ile des Cygnes from the Eiffel Tower, by Arpingstone, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The western-most point of Ile des Cygnes with Lady Liberty in the foreground, by Greudin, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

View of the Ile des Cygnes from the Eiffel Tower at the turn of the 20th century, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 24, 2009

August in Paris: Paris Plage

August in Paris. The time of year when most Parisians flee the city, leaving it blissfully empty of crowds and queues and noise and traffic.

This year, August is ideal in Paris, with clear blue skies, cool breezes that brush away the summer heat, a gentle easy pace and relaxed ambiance. This comes as a welcome relief to the Lucky-one-and-only (Loo), the Uber-mensch, and I, after our 5-week whirlwind visit to North America, visiting family and friends while swatting mosquitoes the size of rats and grilling dinners under a golf umbrella in the unrelenting rain. (It also happened that my computer died while away, leaving me unable to post for a month! Mes Excuses, my apologies, dear readers.)

That experience left us all longing for a "real" vacation, Parisian-style. So we've resolved to profiter, as we say here in France, to benefit from the perfect weather and lack of humanity by visiting a different Paris Park or summer attraction everyday until La Rentrée, the very day when the crowds return and the pace of life revs back up to "normal" again.

We start with Paris Plage: the city's summer beachfront that stretches the length of the river Seine from mid-July to mid-August each year.

That is, since 2002, when Socialist Mayor Bertrand Delan closed the Seine expressway to traffic and deposited 3,000 tons of sand along the river's right bank to create a summer get-away for those unable to leave town.

Dotted amongst the sunbathers and lounge chairs are beach cafes, potted palm trees, hammocks, and picnic tables. Rollerbladers, bicyclists, and pedestrians cruise the sometime two-lane highway accompanied by live music, beach volleyball, tai chi lessons, and hip hop dancing. Water sprinklers and misting fountains help keep folks cool so they aren't tempted to jump into the river. A mobile library is even on hand to loan out books.

Paris Plage. A real treat for locals and visitors alike. Only in Paris, and only in August (as well as the end of July)!

Coming soon: Ile des Cygnes and Parc St. Cloud


Paris Plage from the Left Bank, by Remi Jouan, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Paris Plage from the plage itself by Sarah B. Towle