Considering my quasi-Parisienne status, I am embarrassed to say that I found out about this park through my Paris guide book. Yes, even as a researcher I took my handy-dandy guide book with me this trip. Looking through the pages of what the guide book had deamed “the lesser-known treasures located off the beaten path”, I came across pictures of this beautiful park with a 100ft waterfall hidden inside a secluded grotto, a clifftop folly with breathtaking views, and a 200ft long suspension bridge allowing for passage over the park’s massive lake. It looked too good to pass up!
The park is located in the 19th arrondisement, in the North East corner of Paris. It is an area that I am not at all familiar with, but I had no apprehensions exploring the park. Parks tend to be fairly safe during the daytime due to their popularity with tourists and locals alike. Parc des Buttes-Chaumont was not different. It was probably one of the most populated parks I have seen in Paris; however, it is also one of the larger parks in the city. I must admit, after exploring this park for several hours and discovering so many delights, it has replaced the Luxembourg Gardens as my favorite public space in the city. No competition. I am so glad that during this trip to Paris I had the luxury of experiencing some of the city’s “best kept secrets”.
My adventure began when I stepped off the metro at the stop Buttes Chaumont. From there, the park entrance is just a few steps away. I entered the park and decided to randomly pick from one of the many forked paths, hoping to eventually find the waterfall, suspension bridge, or folly. One of the most distiguishing characteristics of this particular park are its steep hills (hence the name butte, which means hill in French), the tops of which provide great views and on the sides of which people lay out to tan, read, or just relax.
After climbing up and down several of the hills, I found a secluded plateau with a shady pavilion in the center. Under this pavilion, a boxing instructor was teaching two young women about my age to box. I sat on a nearby bench and watched them practicing for about 15 minutes. That is one of the great things about sports, they carry a universal understanding. Although I didn’t understand all of his instructions in French, combined with demonstrations and body language, I was able to follow most of the instructor’s commands.
Next, I decided to continue my search for the folly. After making several unguided twists and turns, I somehow arrived at the top of a HUGE hill and could see the cliff where the folly sets off in the distance. I headed in that direction, crossing a bridge over the lake and came upon the base of the cliff. From there, it was a short climb to the folly, which is a replica of the Temple of Sibylle near Rome (so my guidebook says; see photo). In the center of the folly, you can see spectacular views of the city, which include the Sacre-Coeur and most of Montmartre.
Leaving the cliff and heading into the valley, I discovered the grotto and waterfall tucked away in a corner of the quiet cliffside (see photo). Entering the dark and damp grotto from the intense daylight only made the place more magical. The sound of the waterfall seemed unreal in the middle of this international city, but when in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, you don’t feel like you’re in a city. I hopped across the stepping stones to the other side of the cavern and headed back into the brightness of the day.
I felt like I had experienced more adventure in this Parisian park than I had in a long time. Who knew that Paris could offer the kind of outdoor adventure that includes hidden grottos, Roman ruins, 100ft waterfalls, and the seclusion of a hilltop?
Later that evening Lety and I met up at the apartment and headed to the 1st to take in the beautiful views of the Louvre, Jardin Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, and the Champs-Elysee at night. But first, dinner in the 6th. I had heard of a nearby cafe called Le Nemrod, which was reported to have the best Croques in Paris. Being the conoisseur of Croque Madames that I am, I wanted to see for myself. So, off we went. The Croque Madame was excellent, but I wouldn’t say the best in Paris. However, the real find of the night was the dessert Fondant au Chocolat (a thick chocolate cake with a warm molten center) with a scoop of Berthillon vanilla ice cream. Heavenly! So much so that we would return the next night just for the dessert!
Parc Monsouris and the Cite Universitaire
By now you may be thinking that I am a little bit of a park addict. Well, Wednesday was my first official day off, and I headed to the 14th to visit the Parc Monsouris. It was relatively early, and I decided to walk around Buttes aux Cailles for a bit first in the hopes of finding a creperie that might serve me. No such luck, the French are fairly adamant about not serving until midi (noon). Crepeless, I headed to the park.
One of the reasons that I wanted to visit this particular park was because I had lived near it all last summer during my time in Paris, yet I had never had the chance to go. Having seen it now, I regret that I wasn’t able to take advantage of it last summer. It is situated in the university district, and you definitely get the feel of being in a college town. Although many of the people are families, students will cut through the park on their way to the university.
I hadn’t realized previously how close the univeristy was to the park, but it is right across the street. I saw what looked like American condos. I thought to myself, “This cannot be, there isn’t enough room in Paris for those kind of accomadations.” So, I decided to explore, and sure enough I found myself on the campus of the Cite Internationale Universitaire de Paris (International University of Paris; see photo).
What is so interesting about this university as a foreigner is that it is an international school. Therefore, students come here from all over the world. There were signs directing visitors to the individual buildings dedicated to all of the countries represented at the university (Sweden, Mexico, Italy, Switzerland, the United States, etc.). One thing that I love about university campuses is their universal feel. I felt like I could have been on any university campus in the United States. I felt like I truly belonged. There is a bond between young intellectuals that crosses all cultural boundaries, and it was truly a gift to experience this after all of my trials in Paris.
La Madeleine and the Musee d’Orangerie
After my morning in the park, I met Lety at La Madeleine that afternoon. If I am a park junkie, Lety is definitely the same way with cathedrals. However, we both really wanted to see this particular cathedral – one of the most famous in Paris. My favorite thing about La Madeleine was the beautiful mosaic in the apse. It was very difficult to get any quality pictures without a flash, but just being able to experience it in person was memory enough.
Next, we headed to the nearby Musee d’Orangerie at the base of the Tuileries Gardens. The main floor of this museum is dedicated to Monet’s colossial waterlily paintings. The rooms are circular, and skylights provide enough natural light to illuminate the paintings without threatening their condition. Since these are some of the most famous paintings in the world, like so many other things in Paris, it was surreal seeing them in person. There are benches in the center of the rooms, and we set there for awhile just taking in the majesty of these iconic symbols of the impressionist movement.
Afterwards, I really wanted to go to a Chinese art emporium that I had heard about in the 8th arrondisement. The architecture of the emporium is modeled after a Chinese pagoda, and definitely stands out among all of the distinctly 18th-century French apartments that surround it. The inside was spectacular. They were currently having an exposition of modern Chinese screen paintings on display. The delicate art work complemented by the spectacular architecture of the space provided a truly memorable scene.
Thursday morning we woke up early and decided to take a day trip to Montmartre. Lety had never been before, and there were several things that I wanted to see and hadn’t had a chance to last time I was there.
We started out at the Montmartre Cemetery. This place is enormous! We walked around for awhile just enjoying all of the beautiful details contained within many of the tombs and standing in awe in front of some of the more extravagant additions to the cemetery’s landscape. Two resting places that I really wanted to see were those of Alexandre Dumas (author of the Count of Monte Cristo) and Edgar Degas (an impressionist painter famous for his depictions of ballerinas).
After finding our quests, we headed towards the Sacre-Coeur (sacred heart). I had climbed up to it before, but had never been inside. As we entered this sacred cathedral, I saw the most beautiful guilded mosaic of my life. It pictured Jesus enthroned in the center of the image; flanking him were people of all races and ethnicities. The craftsmanship was exquisitely executed, and the message was just as beautiful. The space is gigantic, as one would imagine from pictures and the fact that you are able to see the cathedral from almost any elevated point in the city. Completely worth the hike up about a thousand steps!
Next we went to the Place du Tertre, which has a daily artists’ market, and grabbed gelato at one of my favorite places. We strolled among the many vendors, appreciating the uniqueness of each. Then we began the long trek down the hill with our gelato, breifly coming upon Au Lapin Agile (one of the first cabarets in Paris). Afterwards it was back to the apartment to nurse our aching feet after the day of intense hiking up and down the hills of Montmartre.
Jardin des Plantes and the Mosquee de Paris
My last official day in Paris I decided to visit one of the few gardens in the city I had not yet had the time to experience: The Jardin des Plantes. This gardens is full of things to do including a menagerie (I got to see a group of wallabys), botanical gardens, a natural history museum, a green house, etc. I strolled the botanical gardens and then decided to head somewhere that intrigued me more than all of the other nearby sites: the Mosquee de Paris.
After taking an Islamic art class with Dr. Carr last year, I became more intrigued with Near Eastern culture and religion. I knew that the mosque was open to the public, and I really wanted to tour it if possible. I had never been inside a mosque before and thought “what better place to start than Paris?” I had forgotten a key fact, it was Friday. Friday prayer. I walked around the large complex surrounding the mosque looking for a main entrance into the inner courtyard. Finally, I came upon the said entrance and what I saw was magical.
The doors had been propped open, and I could fully see the interior of the courtyard. It was magnificent with pure aqua blue fountains, lush greenery, colorful blossoms, and clean architechture. Something right out of one of my books. I read the sign that said no tours on Fridays but decided to try anyway. It never hurts to ask right? This was probably extremely rude and taboo of me being a Western woman to enter the complex during Friday prayer. However, in my defense, I still had forgotten about Friday prayer, and my adventurous spirit had taken over.
At first the men standing around (all in western dress) did not acknowledge my presence. Awkward. They were not speaking French; I can only assume they were speaking Arabic. However, I finally approached the one who looked like a guard on duty and asked politely in French if the mosque was indeed closed to tourists on Fridays. He chuckled and shook his head in a manner that I took to mean I was right in my assumption. Having lost all my courage, I nodded and fled the scene as two men entered in full garb. I felt mortified and confused? Oh well, maybe next time on a day that isn’t Friday.
France and China
One more thing that I had to do before I left Paris was see the temporary exhibition of the terracotta army (Les Soldats de l’Eternite) at the Pinacotheque. These just over life-size figures are famous throughout the world after their discovery in the 1970s. It is estimated that there are over 7,000 figures that make up the army’s totality. The Pinacotheque had maybe ten of the actual figures and many other pieces important in the Chinese funerary tradition. It was spectacular to see these objects up close, and something that would only have been possible in Paris.
The connection between France and China lives on today, although it is evolving on almost a daily basis. Exoticism and orientalism are still strong forces in France today, however, so are the fields of sinology and ethnography.
After four weeks in Paris and a vast array of experiences, trials, and adventures, my trip came to a close. Saturday morning I headed to the airport for the 10-hour flight back to the States. However, the adventure doesn’t end here. I still have many long hours of research and writing ahead of me to prepare a paper for the Richter board and possible publication.
Paris was the first step on the path of a long journey as an art historian. It was a whirlwind full of ups and downs, and hopefully after the jetlag wears off, I will be able to reflect back on all of my time and examine the personal and professional lessons of the entire experience. Until then, thank you so much for coming on this journey with me …