Lounging Around the Luxembourg

Left Bank Island of Tranquility and Play

Paris:- Monday, 22. April 1996:- It is a sunny day on the Left Bank; white cotton-wool clouds that some people describe as an 'Ile-de-France sky' are dotting the sky with plenty of blue in between. The 'Quartier Latin' is roaring away slightly less than usual, when I step into the Luxembourg Gardens.
Luxembourg gardens (25k) When I do, it is like stepping into another country, another century. Here are the trees and there are the benches with people lounging in the shade, but there are also single chairs, so visitors to the gardens, alone, in groups, are not all facing one way; they are parked here and there, as fancy suits them. Older people seem to be sitting along the sunny side of the pool in front of the Médicis Fountain, while writers are sitting on the shady side.
Many people are taking drinks at one of the kiosks - which have no defined terraces; you can just pick up an unused chair and bring it close enough to a waiter to be served - or serve yourself. You hear the birds, and the nearby street noise is well-muffled. Out from under the trees, many are on the terrace overlooking the oval pond, getting a full blast of sunlight and occasional blasts of dust, picked up by transitory breezes. Some are reading, some are dreaming and a few are fast asleep.

Dreaming is good, because with eyes open it is hopeless to ignore the Tour Montparnasse, sticking up above the regular height of the apartment buildings on the rue Guynemer. Sitting with your back to this out-of-place thing, you sit with your back to the sun.

Model boat pond (17k)

Kids section (21k)

I wander past the pond and the rental toy sailboats, to see what the Petit Luxembourg looks like, but it is completely screened by its private garden so the only thing there is the Delacroix statue group by Dalou. My 1972 edition of the Michelin Green guide says the gardens are full of 'not impressive crowds of figures' - but most of these seem to have been removed sometime in the last 24 years.

A plan on a kiosk directs me to a carrousel, to see what the kids are up to - but this is completely dwarfed by a large 'activity' park - that is full of kids; climbing, jumping, swinging, crawling, laughing and having a good time - for 13 francs entry, while their guardians sit in the shade of a shed for seven francs. The age limit is 12, and this play-park is open daily from 10 to park closing time.

If your Michelin guide is as old as mine, this play-park is right beside the old marionette theatre, which is also operating, and I think movies are shown there as well.

I almost fell into the bee ranch - started here by Carthusians - while looking for something else - the 'formal' gardens, as opposed to the less formal 'English' style gardens, which seem to be the norm now - with curving paths and lots of chairs available for unstressful sitting around doing nothing - to view vistas of lawns with some flower beds thrown in - as everything here is - for free.

If I can believe the symbols on the various plans scattered about, the north-east section of the gardens - along the boulevard St. Michel side - permits the entry of dogs. I don't know whether this area is set aside because dogs have a basic right to a park, or so other users will be able to walk in the rest of the gardens without watching where they step.

Besides a few tennis courts for the Left Bank 'sportifs,' there is an area where boules are played, near the rue Fleurus entrance on the rue Guynemer side. This is pretty typical: trees provide shade over three or four sand lots where men - usually - throw cannon balls at little wooden ping-pong balls or at other cannon balls. This is another one of those sports where equipment is minimal - you need only three cannon balls per player - and any piece of ground - and the game looks deceptively simple to play, but is not.

One of the kiosks (34k) I suppose there are other things to see in the Luxembourg Gardens, but the main thing is that it is a big park in Paris where you can go and sit outside, for free.

Writing this has relaxed me so much that I feel reluctant to go and get the history books - but if you're paying some charge or other to read this, I guess I better hold up my end.

This is quite a long story with many names, some of them separated from their bodies, that I will make short. It starts with the Luxembourg Palace, at 17, rue de Vaugirard, which started at number 15, when the Queen, Marie de Médicis bought the hotel du Petit-Luxembourg in 1613. The Chateau de la Tuleries was not then finished, so Salomon de Brosse was commissioned in 1615 to build a palace resembling the Pitti Palace in Florence. Parisians did not accept the name 'Palais Médicis' for the palace and called it Luxembourg instead.

Queen Marie installed herself in the palace around 1625 after having some decor done by Rubens; but she had to move out in 1631 to retire to Cologne where she died in abject circumstances in 1642, aged 69 years. Whole gangs of royals moved in; had to sell or died there; it was brought and sold and re-sold, until it ended in the hands of the Count of Provence, Louis XVI's brother - who emigrated suddenly on 20. June 1791.

In 1793 the palace become a prison, the Maison Nationale de Sûreté, and of the 800 held there - many, many big names - about a third of them lost their heads; until 1795 when the prison reverted to palace again, to house the Directoire. In 1800 Citizen Bonaparte turned it into the Sénat, which it has remained until today, except for the period when it was burned out by the Commune in the 1870's.

Medicis fountain (24k)
The Médicis Fountain is still
a hang-out of writers.
As for the gardens, the land for them was obtained by Marie de Médicis in 1617, but did not reach their dimensions of today until 1790. After 1650, the gardens where used much as they are today, by artists like Watteau, and other writers and painters, seeking solitude. The Swiss guards, who were looking after the garden's three gates, augmented their salaries by selling refreshments to visitors and milk was sold from a tent at the southern end of the park. The monument, the Médicis fountain, was also built by Salomon de Brosse, in 1620, and was moved slightly south to were it presently is, in 1860 - and it represents Léda sitting by the banks of the Eurotas next to Jupiter, metamorphosed into a swan.

You may not care for revolutions, but when you consider that the Palace du Luxembourg has been the seat of the French Sénat more or less continually since 1800, it makes popular ownership seem more stable than that of the royalty - even though the park itself was open to the public from the 17th century, long before the Count of Provence saw need to emigrate hastely on 20. June 1791.

This then brings us to the urgent question of when is somebody going to lop the top 40 floors off the Tour Montparnasse, to bring the skyline back to into order? Until this comes to pass, I suggest you take the sun in the Luxembourg between 10 and noon, so you can face away from it.

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