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Villages in Paris – Belleville

For me, Belleville is one of the most fascinating and charming parts of Paris. Spanning 4 arrondissements in the north east of the city, it’s home to a hugely diverse population and an eclectic mix of artist’s studios, Chinese supermarkets, excellent and reasonably priced restaurants, and hip new bars, along with the coffee roasting house that supplies many of the new wave of cafés currently reviving the coffee drinking scene in Paris. Once a village on the outskirts of the city, pockets of it also retain the charm of old Paris, with hidden alleyways and courtyards where you can still find the small worker’s houses of years gone by, winding cobblestone streets, and a village atmosphere that’s a world away from the grand boulevards of central Paris.

Belleville and neighboouring Menilmontant were once home to vineyards, then to migrant workers from rural France, and after WW1 welcomed immigrants from Poland and Armenia along with a sizeable Jewish community from Central Europe. They were followed by workers from the former French colonies in North Africa, and Chinese immigrants arrived in the 1980’s, forming a substantial Chinese quarter in the area immediately around Belleville metro. Nowadays these communities co-exist alongside each other, along with a new wave of artists and young professionals, now turning the area into not only one of the most culturally diverse parts of the city, but also one of the coolest areas of the city, home to venues such as La Bellevilloise and the Belleville Brulerie.

Successuve renovation projects over the years have demolished a lot of the old Belleville, but some parts of it still remain, a wonderful example being the Villa Castel (see also main photo) at 16 rue de Transvaal.

Nowadays, the juxtaposition of a jumble of architectural styles – not all of them beautiful – certainly adds to the eclectic charm of the area. Edith Piaf was from Belleville (although the legend that she was born on a doorstep is apparently not true), and some of my favourite French films were filmed here – Jules et Jim, Casque d’Or (her house is also here), Le Ballon Rouge and more recently l’Ecume des Jours, based on the Boris Vian novel.

Belleville is also home to a beautiful park, established in 1988 it’s the highest park in Paris and has spectacular views over the city. It’s also has a community garden and small vineyard. Stop in at the bakery Le Panorama Gourmand at the top of the park (10 rue des Envierges) and pick up a picnic to enjoy with the locals and some of the best views in the city.

metros: Belleville/Jourdain/Pyrenées

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La Ruche – legendary artists in the 15th arrondissement

La Ruche is an amazing hidden treasure, not only beautiful but steeped in incredible history.

It literally translates as ‘the beehive’, and is a group of artists’ studios in the 15th arrondissement – in fact it is one of the most important artistic centres of the 20th century – set in a beautiful semi-wild garden and locked behind huge wrought iron gates. It was called as such first because of its octagonal shape (like a large beehive) with the studios set into it like a honeycomb, and also to evoke the feverish work of the artists who lived and worked there.

In 1900 Alfred Boucher, a wealthy artist from a humble background, bought 5000m2 of land in the Vaugirard area in the south of the city, an unfashionable and cheap part of town in those days. At the end of the Universal Exhibition of 1900, he also bought the Wines of Bordeaux Pavilion from the exhibition, a temporary building with a metallic structure designed by Gustave Eiffel, and had it rebuilt on this land. The gates were from the Women’s Pavilion and the two caryatides flanking the main doors from the Indonesian Pavilion. His aim was to set up a group of artists’ studios, providing living, working and exhibition space to artists in need of help and patronage, as he had once been.

The studios were small, with no electricity and one tap shared between all of them, but rents were low, or even non-existant for the most impoverished. Artists came from all over Europe, staying anything from a few months to a lifetime (the oldest resident today is apparently over 90 and was born there to artist parents) and included Chagall, Soutine, Zadkine, Modigliani, Apollinaire, Brancusi, Blaise Cendrars and Diego Rivera, amongst many others.

La Ruche fell into decline during WWII and was almost demolished in the late 1960s, but it was saved by another group of artists in the early 70s and later renovated by the Seydoux Foundation (who apparently had initially planned to finance the renovations of the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, after it completely burned down they decided to renovate and restore La Ruche in it’s place).

Today is is home to 70 artists who either live or work there, or both, 23 of them in the central ‘beehive’ building. The studios are slightly larger than they were originally, and the surrounding buildings also form part of the community, all set in idyllic gardens. It’s not open to the public, I went as part of a guided visit which I booked in advance, but they do run occasionally and if you speak French it’s really worth doing. It’s a magical place, both for its charm and beauty, its incredible history and that of the artists who have passed through its doors, and for the continuing creative activity today.

  • La Ruche, 2 Passage de Dantzig, 75015 Paris. metro: Convention

Website (in French)

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The Arenes de Lutece – a Roman arena in the Latin Quarter

Did you know that tucked away in the Latin Quarter is a Roman arena built in the first century that was once the site of gladiator combats? Nowadays the gladiators have been replaced by petanque players and footballers, but the arena is still clearly visible.

In it’s heyday it could hold 17,000 spectators, and was home to not only gladiators, but theatre and lion combats (it’s believed the cages under the seating area may have been to house the lions). Slaves, the poor and women sat at the top, Roman men sat on the best seats around the arena. It was one of the longest amphitheaters in Europe, but when Paris was sacked by the Barbarians in 290 AD most of the stone was taken away to be used elsewhere to defend the city, and the arena was eventually filled in and forgotten, for over 17 centuries.

It was rediscovered during works to build the rue Monge in 1860, Victor Hugo wrote a letter to the local council defending it from proposed destruction, but they were not restored until 1917. What you can see nowadays is mainly renovation, but it remains a fascinating place, almost unknown, apart from a few locals, and a tranquil place to sit and reflect on 20 centuries of Parisian history.

  • Arenes de Lutece, 49 rue Monge, 75005 Paris. metro: Cardinal Lemoine or Jussieu
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Open days – the gardens at Matignon

The Hotel Matignon is the residence and place of work of the French Prime Minister, and has been since 1935. It is a beautiful early 18th century mansion, set in a large park in the 7th arrondissement, at 3 hectares (7.5 acres) it is the largest private garden in the city.

Normally you can’t visit, but this weekend parks and gardens all across France open to the public for the Rendez-vous aux Jardins, and Matignon exceptionally opens the doors of its magnificent park.

The mansion once belonged to the Grimaldi family, princes of Monaco, and was then home to the Duchess of Galleria and later the Comte de Paris. The 18th century gardens are mainly laid out in the French formal style, but in the 19th century a more romantic section was also added, as was a spectacular double allée of 111 pleached limes.  Later an entertaining area was designed in front of the house. One of the gardeners described to us how the lawn was imagined to look like an ocean, with white flowers planted across it here and there in ribbons to ressemble the froth on the waves, and how banqueting tables would be laid under the trees, with carpets spread across the lawn to dance on.

Nowadays it’s perhaps a little less glamorous, especially as the government tries to cut back on their spending, but it’s still an incredible and beautiful garden, and such an expanse of lush greenery is something quite unexpected in the heart of a city.

  • Hotel Matignon, 57 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris. Entrance to the gardens at 36 rue de Babylone. metro: rue du Bac or Varenne

Rendez-vous aux jardins continues tomorrow. Check their website (in English) for details of gardens participating.

Monet’s gardens at Giverny

If you love art, gardens, Impressionism and the French countryside, a trip to Monet’s house and gardens in Giverny is not to be missed. Located in Normandy, about one hour north of Paris, it’s easy to reach by train and is incredibly beautiful in any season.

Claude Monet lived and worked in Giverny from 1883 until died in 1926. Like many painters he came here for the light, buying a farmhouse on about 1 acre of gardens. He developed a passion for botany, designing and planting his garden according to colours and perspectives. Many of his most famous and well loved works were painted in his studio in Giverny, as he recreated on canvas the flowers and colours in his garden.

Giverny Claude Monet

Ten years after his arrival he bought an adjoining piece of land, separated at the time by a railway line. He had his fist pond dug (despite protests from the local peasants who though hs strange plants would poison the water), and began his now famous water garden, based on the Japanese prints that he collected, some of which you can see in the house. His incredible series of 250 water lily paintings – Les Nympheas – see some of them at the Orangerie or in the Musée Marmottan in Paris – were painted here.

You can also visit his house, don’t miss the beautiful blue kitchen and the yellow dining room, and make sure you admire the views from his bedroom windows.

Although best known as a painter, Monet said “My garden is my most beautiful masterpiece”.  At Giverny, in any season, I have to agree that may be true.

Book your ticket online before you go to avoid waiting in line.

  • 84 rue Claude Monet, 27620 Giverny. Open early April – end October 9.30 – 18:00

Take the train from Paris Saint Lazare to Vernon-Giverny (approx 45 minutes). As you exit the station (just follow everybody else!) there will be a shuttle bus parked outside that will take you to Giverny. The bus costs 8€ return, you need to pay in cash.

The Palais Royal in spring

The Palais Royal is one of my favourite places in Paris. I’ve already blogged about it here, in fact I love it so much it was my first ever post, but I couldn’t resist a few more photos after a rainy visit today. There is something very special about this hidden park. It’s tranquil, beautiful and a world away from the crowded streets just outside. If the sun shines you can get a coffee at Café Kitsuné and sit on a bench amongst the flowers listening to the fountains. If you are dodging April showers as we did today you can wander under the arches and enjoy window shopping in the small boutiques, more of which open each time I go there.

It’s always a pleasure to pop in there and enjoy the peace and beauty of these wonderful gardens, whatever the weather.

Palais Royal

  • Palais Royal, 75001 Paris. metro: Palais Royal Musée du Louvre (exit at Place Colette)
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Pere Lachaise Cemetery

Pere Lachaise cemetery is a beautiful place to spend a few hours exploring. Final resting place of Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas, Oscar Wilde (see main picture), Marcel Proust, Colette, Isadora Duncan and many, many more, it’s the largest cemetery in Paris and one of the most famous in the world (many say it’s also the most beautiful).  Opened in 1804, probably its best known resident nowadays is Jim Morrison, still attracting guitar playing fans from around to world who come to pay homage at his grave.

Situated in the 20th arrondissement, on the east side of the city, it covers 48 hectares (almost 120 acres), and is beautiful and tranquil at any time of the year. I was last there in late October as the trees were turning gold, one of the prettiest times to visit in my opinion. Not only can you find every style of tombstone imaginable, but also a huge variety of trees  – over 5000 in fact from 50 different species. Wear comfortable shoes and be ready to walk up and down a few hills, download their online map or pick one up at the entrance, and enjoy a few hours away from the noise and bustle of the city.

The cemetery is open daily from 8:00 to 18:00 (it opens at 8.30 on Saturday and 9:00 on Sunday).

Cimetière du Père Lachaise, 16 rue du Repos, 75020 Paris. métro: Gambetta or Père Lachaise

Map in English

A walk on the wild side in the 16th arrondissement

The 16th arrondissement of Paris is one of the most expensive residential areas of the city. It’s full of chic apartments, boutiques and high end restaurants. Recently I discovered a small patch of wilderness in the heart of the ‘seizième’, not that uncommon in any city, but certainly quite incongruous in this part of Paris.

This 32km stretch of old railway line, known as the Petite Ceinture (or small belt, as it used to circle the city joining up all the major train stations) was originally built in 1861 when the west of Paris was still rural – full of vineyards and a few huge mansions with vast grounds. It was used to transport goods, and then until the 1930s was used as a passenger line, joining with the railway lines with the viaduct at Auteuil. The destruction of this viaduct in 1962 left only a small section of the line working, and it continued working until the 1980s, when it was finally taken out of service. Since then nature has gradually claimed back the land. In 1997 an association began to take care of it, and still does so lovingly today. These 1.2 km of the old railway line have become a tiny green lung in the city, populated by a diverse array of plant and animal species. t’s a lovely place for a walk, a corner of the countryside in the heart of the city, an unexpected surprise.

  • Le Sentier Nature, la Petite Ceinture, Boulevard de Montmorency, 75016 Paris. metro Michel Ange Molitor
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A vineyard in Montmartre

If you find yourself on the wrong side of Montmartre, it can seem like a nightmarish tourist trap. But get yourself around the back, and it’s like stepping back in time. One of the many very charming aspects of this neighbourhood, is that it is home to the oldest vineyard in the city. In the heart of Montmartre, on a small slope surrounded by houses, is a beautiful little corner of French countryside.

The presence of vines in Montmartre goes officially back to 944, and many say even to Roman times. In the 18th century three quarters of the hill of Montmartre was covered with vines. At that time Montmartre was outside of the city of Paris, and so not subject to its taxes, making the wine (and rents) cheap and so attracting the artists, dance halls and cabarets that the area became so famous for.

These vines are actually fairly recent, planted in 1933 thanks to a local association who got together to try and save the plot of land from urbanization and to replant the vines which had traditionally grown there. The wine is called Clos Montmartre, not an exceptional wine – the vines face north, the soil is not really suitable and neither is the Parisian weather! However it’s very popular, probably due the very limited quantities made – there are only around 1750 vines, making approximately 1700 bottles – and sells for around 50€ a bottle currently. All the money from the sales of the wine go to local charities. The wine is actually made in the basement of the town hall of the 18th arrondissement! It’s the only town hall that has a license to make alcohol. The wine label changes each year and is designed by a different local artist each time.

Clos Montmartre wineEach year at the end of October the ‘Fete des Vendanges’ or harvest festival is celebrated. it’s a huge street party, featuring processions, music, dance, food and of course wine. The vineyard is not open to the public. You can book a visit as a group through the Montmartre Tourist Office, but it’s pricey. However you can see it easily from the street, and can get some fantastic views of it from the garden of the Montmartre Museum where you can get right up close. The vineyard is also carefully planted with fruit trees, flowers and aromatic herbs – it’s very beautiful at any time of year. If you’re spending time in Montmartre, make sure you get away from the crowds at the Sacré Coeur and the Place du Tertre, and don’t miss the Clos Montmartre.

  • corner of rue St Vincent and rue des Saules, 75018 Paris

website for Fete des Vendanges (in French)

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The King’s vegetable garden in Versailles

The King’s vegetable garden, or ‘Potager du Roi’ was built in Versailles in 1683 at the request of Louis XIV, and the food grown here was used to feed the king and court. The King would enter by the golden gate leading into the park of the palace, and would bring friends to see the fruit trees, which he was particularly proud of.  It’s a typical example of the French gardening style: surrounded on all sides by high walls, it is constructed around a central pond that also serves as a reservoir for watering, and is divided into 16 sections that are separated by espaliered fruit trees. Approximately 450 varieties of fruit and 400 varieties of vegetables are cultivated here, including many ancient and rare varieties. In 1873 the National Horticultural School was created here and it became a classified monument in 1926.

Open all year round, it’s a wonderful visit for anyone interested in gardening. It covers 9 hectares (almost 2.5 acres) and is quiet and relaxing. There are guided visits available, and events often take place involving dance, theatre or art. You can buy fruit, vegetables and plants grown in the gardens in the small shop adjoining. If you want to learn various gardening skills, a variety of courses and lessons are available throughout the year.

It’s a short walk from the Chateau, passing via rue de Satory you will also find many restaurants and cafés. Check out the Monument café just opposite, a great place for lunch where the delicious food is prepared using ingredients from the Potager du Roi (they also have free wifi and sell tickets to the chateau).

  • Le Potager du Roi, 10 rue du Marechal Joffre, 78000 Versailles. RER C to Versailles Rive Gauche Château

April – October: Tuesday – Sunday 10:00 – 18:00

November – March: Tuesday and Thursday 10:00 – 18:00

The Potager du Roi (in French)

Follow a course at the Potager du Roi (in French)

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The Montmartre Museum

Today I visited one of the most charming museums in the city, in one of the most charming areas of the city – Montmartre (if you avoid the tourist traps around the Sacré Coeur and the Place du Tertre then Montmartre is gorgeous). The Montmartre Museum was created in 1960 in the oldest building on the Montmartre hill, and has recently been completely refurbished and the gardens redesigned.

Set in two buildings that have been homes and studios to the likes of Renoir, Raoul Dufy, Suzanne Valado and her son Maurice Utrillo, it’s now home to a collection of artworks that tell the story of the artistic life of Montmartre – its cabarets, studios, cafés and those who frequented them. The caretakers lodge was also home to Pere Tanguy; artists such as Picasso, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and Van Gogh would get their art supplies at his shop nearby. If they couldn’t afford to pay him they would give him one of their paintings instead.

You are also treated to an up close and very beautiful view of the Montmartre vineyard (yes they still grow grapes there, and the wine is made in the cellars of the town hall, another post to follow on that!)

Montmartre Museum: Paris

 

And finally you can visit Utrillo’s studio, which has been reconstructed as it was when he lived there until 1926 with his mother Suzanne Valadon.

There is a lovely café in the gardens (closed for a few weeks for refurbishment but due to reopen shortly). The Montmartre Museum is not only a fascinating visit, but also a haven of peace and quiet beauty away from the crowds nearby.

  • Musée de Montmartre, 12 rue Cortot, 75018 Paris. metro: Lamarck Caulaincourt or Abesses

Open daily 10:00 – 18:00.

The Montmartre Museum

Time stands still in the Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale

At the north eastern edge of the Bois de Vincennes, lies a half hidden glimpse into the past. The Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale was created for the Colonial Exhibition of 1907, and consisted of various different pavilions, each representing the colonies of the old French Empire – Indochina, Madagascar, Sudan, Guyana, the Congo and North Africa, including Tunisia and Morocco. Later used to grow and study plants brought back from these colonies, it is now almost completely derelict – the gardeners clear what is necessary to keep the pathways and buildings clear but otherwise nature has taken over once again.

The Indochina pavilion has been carefully restored, and gives a wonderful idea of how this fascinating site must have looked all those years ago, and could possibly look again. It’s now used for temporary art exhibitions.

It’s a strange and quite enchanting place, turn a corner in the wood and you suddenly come across a stupa, or a Chinese pavilion. Time really seems to have stood still here, and the contrast of these silent old buildings with the families picnicking nearby in the park is quite ethereal and beautiful.

  • Jardin d’Agronomie Tropicale, 45 bis avenue de la Belle Gabrielle, 75012 Paris. metro: RER A Nogent sur Marne then 10 minutes walk. Open daily from 9:30, free entry.
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The prettiest squares in Paris: Place Dauphine

As the sun comes out and the trees burst into blossom, it’s time for the Parisians to head outside and enjoy relaxing in the beautiful parks and squares all across the city.

One of my favourites is the tiny, triangular Place Dauphine on the tip of the Ile de la Cité. After the Place des Vosges, the Place Dauphine was the second royal square of the city – the male heir to the French throne was known as ‘le Dauphin’ and Henri IV had this square built in 1610 in honour of his son, the future Louis XIII. Like the Place des Vosges, it is surrounded by symmetrical and identical houses, although since then many have been modified and restored. Today the lower floors house cafés and art galleries, and the square is a tranquil and beautiful place to sit and have a drink or just enjoy the views.


Simone Signoret and Yves Montand lived at number 15, Jacques Dutronc famously sang ‘Je suis le dauphin de la Place Dauphine’. Mythical as well as beautiful, the Place Dauphine is a wonderful place to stop and sit whatever the weather.

  • Place Dauphine, 75001 Paris. metro: Pont Neuf or Cité
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Springtime in Paris

It may be a cliché, but it’s hard to resist Paris in the springtime, when the cherry blossoms fill the Champ de Mars, and the flower markets spill over with peonies and hyacinths.

Marie Antoinette’s farm at Versailles

If you are visiting Marie Antoinette’s domain in Versailles – the Petit Trianon and her hamlet – make sure you continue on up to her farm. Escaping from the stifling court life in the Palace, she would come to Trianon and play at life in the country. The hamlet and farm were both built for her and were completely artificial, the purposely dilapidated looking buildings housed splendid rooms inside where she would entertain, play cards and take tea (now closed inside as in need of major renovations, about to take place funded by Dior). A farmer was brought in to tend to the crops and animals, and she would from time to time collect eggs, or milk the cows (apparently the cows were specially cleaned, brushed and put in a clean barn for her when she wanted to see them!) The farm supplied her and her children with fresh eggs, milk, vegetables and fruit, and has vineyards which you can still see today.

It’s a world away from life at the Palace of Versailles. Today it’s still a working farm and is used to teach children about farm life – you can still see pigs, ducks, chickens and various other animals roaming around the lovely old buildings.

It’s included with the entry ticket to the Petit Trianon. As I’ve said in other posts about Versailles (see here) if you have time, do try and spend a whole day here and see both the palace and gardens and the Petit Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. It’s a beautiful day out and the best way to understand the lives and eventual downfall of the French monarchy, from the glorious reign of Louis XIV ‘The Sun King’ to Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette and their tragic end.

  • Le Domaine de Marie Antoinette, Château de Versailles

Open daily except Mondays.

Take the RER C to Versailles Rive Gauche Chateau or the train from Gare St Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite. It’s about a 25 minute walk from the main chateau.

 

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Montparnasse cemetery

Although visiting a cemetery may seem a slightly morbid thing to do, in Paris – like so many things – they become an art form. There are several dotted around the city, and they are also places to pay homage to the country’s famous writers, artists, actors and singers amongst many others, and sometimes even a home to contemporary art.

My favourite is Pere Lachaise, but the Cimitière Montparnasse is also well worth a detour. It is the final resting place of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Baudelaire and Serge Gainsbourg – whose tomb is strewn with metro tickets in reference to the song that made him famous. You will also find sculptures by Niki de Sainte Phalle (main picture is her sculpture ‘Oiseau pour Jean Jacques’) on the graves of two of her friends, and a beautiful sculpture by Brancusi hidden away in a far corner.

You can pick up a map at the entrance to the cemetery, and enjoy a quiet wander around amongst the flowers and the sculptures.

  • Cimitière de Montparnasse, 3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 75014 Paris.  metro Edgar Quinet or Raspail

Open daily 9:00 – 17:30

The Prettiest Squares in Paris: Place des Vosges

The oldest and one of the most beautiful squares in Paris, the Places des Vosges is spectacular at any time of year. I like it in the winter, the bare trees mean that you get a wonderful view of the magnificent 17th century red brick buildings that line the square. Built under Henry IV between 1605 and 1612, it was one of the first squares to be planned and built in a symmetrical and harmonious style  – only the pavilions of the King and Queen facing each other across the park are taller than the other buildings. The buildings all look identical, their width equals their height and the roofs are half the height of the facade – although if you look closer you will see that the windows and wrought iron balconies are often different.

The arcades are full of cafés, restaurants and art galleries, and the apartments above are some of the most expensive real estate in Paris. Victor Hugo lived at number 6, his house is now a small museum. Located in the Marais, the square has been a fashionable place to stroll, relax and have parties since the 17th century, and today it is a wonderful place to explore or have a picnic – there are plenty of benches and in the summer months the grass is full of people picnicking and enjoying the sunshine. If you are in the Marais, don’t miss it, bring a picnic or a beautiful eclair from the nearby Eclair de Genie and enjoy relaxing in the spectacular surroundings.

  • Place des Vosges, 75004 Paris  metro: St Paul

The Parc des Buttes Chaumont and Rosa Bonheur

The Buttes Chaumont is one of the largest parks in Paris and also the steepest – it’s built on the old quarries of Belleville. Inaugurated in 1867 – Napolean III decided to give some fresh air and green space to the people of Paris – it’s a very popular park amongst Parisians, great for running, picnicking, or just relaxing and reading a book. The park is planted with many different types of trees, and is big enough to feel like you are really escaping the city. You can also enjoy a lake with a restaurant located in a restored 19th century pavilion (the 5 pavilions in the park were all opened in 1868) Le Pavillon du Lac – check out their website if you can read French, on Sundays in the summer they organize dances, parties and concerts – a waterfall (with an amazing fake grotto underneath!) and a belvedere with great views across the city.

If you’re visiting the Buttes Chaumont in the afternoon, stop at  Rosa Bonheur and enjoy a drink and some delicious tapas. Named after a 19th century artist, this bar/café – also located in one of the original park pavilions – transforms itself in the evenings into a guingette – a traditional French dance hall, and is a current favourite of the Parisians. On a summer evening the line can stretch out of the park! This time of year though it’s quiet and relaxed in the afternoons and the food and drink is very reasonably priced.

  • Parc des Buttes Chaumont, 1 rue de Botzaris, 75019 Paris. Open Oct – April 07:00 – 20:00, 1 May – 31 Aug 07:00 – 22:00, Sept 07:00 – 21:00
  • Rosa Bonheur. Parc des Buttes Chaumont, 2 allée de la Cascade, 75019 Paris. Open Wed – Fri midday to midnight, Sat & Sun 10:00 to midnight
  • Metro: Botzaris

The Jardin des Plantes

If you’re over in the 5th arrondissement, and feel like you need some fresh air and green open spaces, head to the Jardin des Plantes. Much loved by Parisians, it has been open to the public for 400 years and houses a zoo (created in 1793, the second oldest in the world), the Natural History Museum, and the gardens of the botany school, as well as 4 tropical greenhouses that have recently been renovated.

The park is beautiful, and although it’s not the kind of place you can sit and picnic on the grass (the man with the whistle will appear and shoo you off!) you can sit on the benches and eat and it’s a lovely place for a walk, especially if you like flowers.

Afterwards head to the Institut du Monde Arabe, just a short walk away, for a mint tea and some of the best views of Notre Dame from their rooftop terrace. Take the lift up to the 9th floor and admire the beautiful sunsets over the cathedral. The terrace is free, there is a restaurant there but the views are open to everyone.

  • Jardin des Plantes
  • 57 rue Cuvier, 2 rue Buffon, 36 rue Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire, place Valhubert 75005 Paris. metro Gare d’Austerlitz, Censier Daubenton or Jussieu

Open daily, 07:30 – 20:00 in summer and until 17:30 in winter.

  • Institut du Monde Arabe
  • I rue des Fossés St Bernard, 75005 Paris. Open until 6pm. Closed Tuesdays

The Tuileries Gardens

If you’re looking for a really Parisian place to relax and enjoy the sunshine, try the Jardins des Tuileries. On a warm weekday it will be full of locals from the offices in the area, enjoying their lunch on one of the many shady benches, or stretching out on one of the chairs to catch some sun. Weekends it’s also popular, for bringing the children or enjoying a stroll.

There’s lots to do for children – trampolines, a carousel, and that typically Parisian children’s activity which I love – sailing old fashioned wooden boats on the ponds.

I like going there at all times of the year, but especially in the summer. There are plenty of chairs and it’s a wonderful place for a picnic, grab an extra chair to use as a table and you have one of the best eating spots in Paris. Sandwiched between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde, there are plenty of sights within easy walking distance. So do like the Parisians do, buy a sandwich (and a couple of macaroons, why not?! Pierre Hermé is right nearby on the rue Cambon…) and head for a stroll in the Tuileries.

  • Jardins des Tuileries. 75001 Paris. Metro: Tuileries or Concorde on line 1

Marie Antoinette at Versailles – The Petit Trianon

There is so much to see at Versailles, you should spend at least a full day there, if not more.

If you have time, don’t just do the standard palace visit with all the crowds, get out into the gardens if the weather is nice and go and see where Marie Antoinette used to escape from the crowds back then. Yes, Versailles has always been crowded! The Petit Trianon is about a 20 minute walk from the Palace, and is a haven of beauty and calm.

petit-trianon-marie-antoinette

The Petit Trianon was given to Marie Anoinette  by her husband King Louis XVI (who gave her a key encrusted with diamonds), and as soon as you step in you can see why she wanted to spend as much time here as possible. Set in beautiful gardens which she loved, the Petit Trianon is intimate, elegant and full of light. She would come here with her close friends and ladies in waiting, and relax, away from the protocol and prying eyes of the court.

I seriously want to live here, and one of the many things that convinced me was Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. Not only is it gorgeous, but she could press a button and wooden panels with huge mirrors on would slide up from below and cover the windows. Or vice versa, depending on the weather or her mood… you can see it here with one right up and the other not quite up to the top.

I was here for work and was lucky to be accompanied by the lady with the key who can open the doors that are usually locked to the public.

secret-doors-petit-trianon-versaillesUpstairs are the rooms of her closest ladies in waiting, and the king’s bedroom when he was visiting, with spectacular views over the gardens.

And there’s more. She had a theatre built where she could act on the stage. The courtiers were not allowed to watch her, so her servants and their families would make up the audience. Again we were lucky enough to have it unlocked and go right in, usually you can see it through a glass door. I even got to go on the stage and imagine I was her… And I learned from the wonderful guide who was with me, that everything in there is made of cardboard and papier maché. The people believed the Trianon had walls covered with gold and diamonds, but in fact the truth, and the real Marie Antoinette, was quite different.

Further out in the gardens you come to Marie Antoinette’s Hamlet, a Normandy style farming village (completely fake, a couple of farmers were hired to tend to it for her) where she would come and imagine she was living the simple country life, eating produce from the farm and enjoying the freedom of the gardens that she loved so much. It consists of 11 houses, 5 of which she and her ladies in waiting would use. Their rustic country facades hid elegant rooms inside where they would be served dinner or play cards. There were for example 2 dairies, one where normal milking activites took place, and one clean one where the milk would be placed on a marble counter for her to come and drink! She was provided with the fairy tale version of a country life; the wheel on the water mill was not attached to any kind of mill inside… it’s all a beautiful illusion. Vegetable gardesns, orchards and alleys covered with flowers were planted, fishing was provided in the lake, or boating.

UPDATE! Dior are currently financing the renovation the Queen’s house and it should be open to the public in 2017.

I spent a wonderful sunny morning here and can’t wait to come back again and again. I really recommend a visit, you can come without visiting the palace, or take the little electric train (or hire a Versailles golf cart!) from the palace if it’s too far to walk.

Meanwhile, I’m off to buy a book about the life of Marie Antoinette.

UPDATE! If you want to learn more, I recommend Marie Antoinette by Stefan Zweig.

  • Petit Trianon, Château de Versailles

Take the RER C from central Paris to Versailles Rive Gauche Chateau.

Or take the train from Paris St Lazare to Versailles Rive Droite

The oldest tree in Paris

Recently I discovered a tree that has been living in Paris for over four centuries. Planted in 1601, this Robinier (from the acacia family) was brought over from America by Jean Robin, the king’s gardener, and has lived just across the road from Notre Dame ever since.

Although it looks slightly wonky, and is now supported by concrete posts, this venerable old tree is lovingly cared for by the municipal gardeners. If you’re visiting Notre Dame, pop over the road and go and see it, it’s located in a tiny square just in front of the church of St Julien le Pauvre and there are plenty of benches where you can sit and relax and muse on all the history that this amazing tree must have witnessed.

  • Square René Viviani – Montebello, 75005 Paris

 

The Cour des Senteurs at Versailles

A short walk away from the Palace of Versailles there is a courtyard tucked away that is well worth a detour. Due to the presence of the royal court here Versailles has always been home to a tradition of luxury, and in particular perfume making for the Kings and courtiers. The Cour des Senteurs opened recently and is now home to a traditional, family owned luxury glove maker, the gorgeous French perfumer and candle maker Diptyque, Guerlain and a café by Le Notre: it’s a little haven of peace and tranquility away from the crowds at the chateau.

Go through to the end of the courtyard and along the passageway and you find yourself in a beautiful garden. Designed around over 200 plants and essences used in perfumes, you also have a wonderful view over the old town of Versailles, and can continue your walk as far as the King’s vegetable garden, still in use today and still producing an amazing array of fruit and vegetables.

Diptyque have produced a special set of candles for their shop here, jasmine, green mint and roses – burned together they apparently smell just like the gardens of Versailles!

If you have an hour or so free after visiting the palace, especially in the crowds of high summer, I highly recommend you come down here and enjoy a few moments of quiet and relaxation.

  • Cour des Senteurs, rue de la Chancellerie, 78000 Versailles

The Luxembourg Gardens

The Luxembourg Gardens in the 6th arrondissement is one of the largest parks in Paris, and one of the favourites of the Parisians. It’s also home to the French Senate, housed in the Luxembourg Palace. The original gardens were begun in 1612 at the request of Marie de Medici, wife of Henry IV, who wanted to create a garden in the style of those she had known in Florence as a child.

It’s a wonderful place to go any time of year. In high summer people gather to listen to music played on the bandstand, children push old fashioned wooden sailing boats around the pond with long sticks or watch puppet shows, and everyone pulls up a chair and makes the most of the sunny days.

You can take the RER and get off at Luxembourg, or take the metro to Cluny and walk up the Boulevard St Michel. Being so close to the Latin Quarter, it’s a perfect place to relax after exploring the streets around the Pantheon.

  • Jardins du Luxembourg, 75006 Paris. RER: Luxembourg or métro Cluny La Sorbonne

Picasso in St Germain des Pres

Did you know that sitting in a tiny park, nestled next to the church of St Germain des Prés, is a statue by Pablo Picasso? Made of bronze and offered by Picasso to the city of Paris in 1959, it is the head of Dora Maar, and is dedicated to his friend the poet Guillaume Apollinaire.

Dora Maar and Pablo Picasso are said to have met on the terrace of the Deux Magots café just nearby.

  • Square Laurent Prache, 75006 Paris. Metro: St Germain des Pres

Gardens made for sharing

The other day I stumbled across a wonderful garden in the middle of the Marais.

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Peering through a gate I could see an amazing profusion of fruit trees, vegetables, flowers and herbs all growing in a fairly tiny space. I was lucky that one of the gardeners happened to be in there, and he invited me in. And so I discovered that there are ‘Jardins partagés’ or shared gardens dotted all across Paris. Lovingly cared for by people living locally who share the space, the work and the produce as a community, this one also provides a place where they meet, organize picnics and parties and sometimes art exhibitions – they have even produced a book.

 

In a city where people mainly live in apartments, it is wonderful to find these tiny pieces of countryside hiding amongst the buildings. If one of the gardeners is in there you are free to go in, wander around and learn about the community that tends the garden, as well of course as enjoying a few moments of country life in the middle of the city.

  • Le Potager des Oiseaux, 2-4 rue des Oiseaux, 75003 Paris  Metro: Filles du Calvaire

The Rodin Museum

One of my favourite museums in Paris is the Rodin Museum. It is housed in the magnificent Hotel Biron and set in large and peaceful gardens in the 7th arrondissement. It’s also right by the Invalides, as you wander around the beautiful museum gardens you can see the gold dome peeping up behind the sculptures and clipped trees.

The garden has a small café and lots of benches and wooden deckchairs under the trees. It is also home to many of Rodin’s bronze sculptures. If you don’t have time to go into the museum, or just want to sit and enjoy the quiet, for 2€ you can spend as long as you like there.

The Hotel Biron was built in 1727. By 1905 it was falling into ruin, the once beautiful gardens overgrown, and it became a temporary residence for various artists, including Jean Cocteau, Isadora Duncan, Henri Matisse and Auguste Rodin. From 1911 onwards Rodin took over the whole building, and in 1916 offered to donate the entire collection of his work to the state, on the condition that the Hotel Biron became the Musée Rodin.

The museum is small but houses an impressive collection of Rodin’s sculptures, as well as several works by some of his friends and contemporaries – Camille Claudel, Van Gogh, Bourdelle and John Singer Sargent. The inside of the building is as beautiful as the outside, and temporary exhibitions are also frequently held.

Open daily except Mondays.

A tip for visiting all museums in Paris, buy your ticket online before you visit. Lines can be long, particularly in summer, and an e-ticket is one of the best ways to skip them!

Rodin Museum

  • Musée Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne, 75007 Paris  Metro: Varenne or Invalides

Chateau de Courson – Les journées des plantes

Twice a year, on the third Sundays in May and October, the Chateau de Courson hosts a wonderful flower and plant show. Situated about 35km south west of Paris, it’s easily accessible and is well worth a visit.

P1050895We went on a gorgeous sunny day and took a picnic. The Chateau is set in spectacular walled grounds with a large lake and plenty of shady areas for lunch. For those with large country gardens, urban gardeners like me, or just those of us who love looking at plants, there was inspiration everywhere. Not to mention every type of vegetable, herb and flower I could dream of.

Since moving back to Paris, I’ve been missing the chickens we used to keep in the countryside. I loved going out and collecting the warm eggs in the mornings. But I think I’ve found the solution! Designed and made in France, this is the chicest chicken coop I’ve ever seen. It comes with a wire run, and as soon as we have our own garden, I’m going to get one….

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If you have a car, it’s about a 35 minute drive from central Paris. Otherwise, for the 3 day show, you can take the RER C to Massy Palaiseau and there is a shuttle bus. Check out the next edition on the website of the Domaine de Courson.

  •  Domaine de Courson, 91680 Courson-Monteloup
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A hidden oasis – the gardens of the Palais Royal

Just a stone’s throw away from the crowds at the Louvre, there’s a hidden paradise – tranquil gardens surrounded by chic boutiques and cafés. It feels like a well-kept secret, frequented by fashionable locals, petanque players and those like me just looking for a quiet spot to sip a coffee in the sunshine.

Exit the metro at Palais Royal onto Place Colette.

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Slip through the archway, past Daniel Buren’s columns, then head through the covered arcades…

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and you find yourself in the gardens of the Palais Royal. Former palace of the young Louis XIV and once home to Colette, these beautiful gardens are surrounded by elegant galleries: café terraces spill out into the sunshine, whilst the quiet arcades are now home to Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney and a host of other artisan boutiques.

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I love to grab a coffee and a slice of carrot cake or a cold pressed juice from one of the tiny cafés in the arcades, and find a shady bench under the clipped trees.

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Then I check out the vintage couture dresses at Didier Ludot.

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Why don’t you pop in for a stroll in the sunshine? You’ll find yourself coming back again and again.

Just don’t tell everybody…

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  • Enter through Place Colette or 8 rue de Montpensier, 75001 Paris. Metro: Palais Royal Musée du Louvre