Bastille Day at the Buttes Chaumont

Just Another Day, Not Spent Drinking and Dancing

by Randi Shenkman

Paris:- Sunday, 14. July 1996:- We started the day with ambitious plans. My friend had only two days to visit her old haunts from graduate school. Instead we wound up perfecting the verb, flâner.

We met in the Jardin du Luxembourg. She was by the pool with the sailboats. Our line of sight included the building in the rue Auguste Comte where I have been dreaming of living for over twenty years, so we spun a few fantasies about that and then it was afternoon.

By then our destination was to go to the park at the Buttes Chaumont by bus, to see it, then go to the Marais and Les Halles. however, as we crossed the boulevard Raspail 'en route' to the bus, we came upon a marché and stopped to have a look.

It took all of thirty seconds to decide to make up a picnic lunch: ripe tomatoes, pain de compagne, chèvre - the white goat cheese, pâté végétale, le vin, des abricots, des pêches, and, of course, patisserie. We spent almost an hour choosing amongst the offerings.

The marché was crowded, but it seemed that all the marchands were in exceptionally good moods. They were even giving us tastes of everything. Quite a few touted their products as being all natural and or even vegetarian (hence, the pâté végétale).

Our bounty in hand, we caught the 96 bus on the rue de Rennes and we were off. Though not the most direct route to the park, the bus seemed preferable to the métro; we could see what we passed. There are probably more direct bus routes, but this seemed the best from where we were.

We had a fairly long walk on the rue des Pyrénées in order to reach the park. I had been wondering where all the Africans had gone since there seemed to be relatively few - either North African or black African - in Paris' central arrondissements, but apparently they had moved to the 19th arrondissement. This is reflected in the faces as well as the stores on the rue des Pyrénées.

It's a nice quarter with a mix of old and new architecture, with trees lining many streets. Some of the new buildings are interesting and appear to have great views of Paris. The rue des Pyrénées leads into the avenue Simon Bolìvar and we entered the park from the south.

I had been telling my friend some of the history of the area which became the park. It started out as a display area for the rotting corpses of criminals from the 13th century until the Révolution. Then it became in turn, a garbage dump, a gypsum quarry - this was the source of 'plaster of Paris.' I had read this in my copy of 'Let's Go Paris.'

Just as I was about to misremember the Napoléon part of the story, we came to a historical placard thoughtfully placed by the city of Paris - explaining Louis Napoléon's order to Baron Haussmann's to model the park after the idea* of Hyde Park in London. It took four years to transform this eyesore. It involved not just getting rid of the garbage dump, but planting, creating hills and valleys, streams, waterfalls, a lake, a suspension bridge, other bridges, paths and all manner of vegetation.

buttes1.jpg (20k) On one side of the lake, there's a sort of stone mountain peak with paths around and through it. At it's top is the Temple de Sibylle, but we didn't try the climb. It's only sort of stone, because it and all the other stone in the park, like that creating the waterfalls, is really more like textured concrete, except that hadn't been invented yet.
As aesthetically pleasing as the park is, that is not what I consider to be its strength. On the hot, sunny Sunday, people and dogs were wading in the steams and waterfall and walking and even lying on the grass all over. There was at least one hillside covered with semi-nude sunbathers. There were also young high school boys throwing 14th of July firecrackers.
buttes2.jpg (20k) Though other parks in the city are not as formal as they once were - the little ladies don't collect money for the privilege of sitting in the chairs anymore - there are few places as relaxed as Buttes Chaumont. We found a shady spot on a hillside with a lovely view and we ate our picnic. After relaxing for a while, we meandered down hill and dale until we exited by the northern end, near the Mairie du XIX. Though we spent quite a bit of time exploring, we didn't cover the same territory as the last time I was here. It is a big park.

Finally, it was time to head back. The métro whisked us from the 19th to St. Germain des Prés and we got ready for dinner and the Bastille Day fireworks at the Champ de Mars.

For old Paris hands, just an extra note about parks: in the Jardin du Luxembourg children under the age of 10 have always been allowed on the center lawn leading to the rue August Comte, but the other day there were people of all ages walking, sitting and lying on the grass! Then on another day, at the Place Edmund Rostand, at the north-east entrance to the Jardin du Luxembourg, a man with two big dogs opened the gate to the flower framed fountain so his dogs could jump through the flowers and drink from the fountain!

*Ed's Note: Apparently, Napoléon III wanted each part of Paris to have parks - 'hygienic' places for working-class families to promenade on Sundays, and not go out drinking and dancing at cabarets and music halls. I have actually done this very thing in this park - taken a family promenade on a Sunday (and then we returned to a nearby warm apartment for a few drinks and listened to jazz).

One can say a worked-out quarry is a 'natural' place and I knew one before it was remodeled into a park, into lush tameness, and it certainly was a wonderful place in its wild state. Lack of guardrails or nearby guardians made it all the more attractive and there were no 'keep off' anything signs.

The quarry 'des Amérique,' with nearly a kilometre of underground tunnels, that is now the Buttes Chaumont park has had a lot of imaginative bits of terrain added to it; part natural stone and part cement, created by the engineers, Alphand and Barillet. The park was inaugurated on 1. May, 1867.

The 32 metre high water fall and the lake are fed from the nearby Canal St. Martin. The little island in the lake has a reproduction of small pagoda and the temple on the peak is a reproduction of a temple to Vesta, the ruins of which can be seen at Tivoli, near Rome. A climb to the temple reveals a terrific view of Montmartre.

buttes3.jpg (20k) Transport access to the Parc des Buttes Chaumont: métro 7b, starting at Louis Blanc, direction Pré-St-Gervais loop; stops at Buttes Chaumont or Botzaris; or RATP bus: 75, from Pont Neuf to Porte de Pantin; stops at Rothshild or Mairie XIX; bus 26, from St. Lazare to Cours de Vincennes; stop at mid-Simon Bolìvar; and bus 60, from Porte de Montmartre to Gambetta - stops Botzaris, Crimée or Mairie XIX.

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