Whenever I visit Paris I find it almost impossible to stop walking. In a city which breathes every quality of French culture and character, even using the metro produces a sense of guilt that somewhere on the surface lie yet more visual discoveries.
In almost any European city it is all too easy to become caught up in the pace of things, surrounded by a perpetual theme of noise and activity. Paris is no exception but it does perhaps provide more areas of peaceful escapism than most.
It was an autumn Saturday afternoon when I found myself caught up in the pace of Paris. Even Haussemann’s elegant boulevards seemed cramped, heaving in a cacophony of sound and movement. I was in need of a quieter and gentle stroll with my camera and the Tuileries gardens provided just the right atmosphere.
It wasn’t overcrowded but visitors and Parisiennes alike were relaxing in the autumn sunshine, leaves rustling beneath their feet. In the distance the gentle hum of Paris traffic occasionally punctuated with an impatient car horn made the relaxed atmosphere of the gardens seem very far away.
The main central avenue is bordered by lawns, fountains and statues, gently interlaced with colourful gardens, trees and shrubs. This is much a people watching paradise as any café in St Germain-des-Prés or even the Champs Elysees. The long path becomes an international stage where Parisienne families seem proudly content amid a variety of cultures.
It is a garden for everyone but definitely children. The fountains in particular providing an epic voyage for young sailors with their boats and with the myriad of paths and trees for ‘hide and seek’ it becomes a natural playground.
During the fifteenth century this now elegant strolling area was once the ‘rubbish dump’ of Paris. It was customary for the place to be filled with all manner of foul waste from butcher’s shops and tanneries to rotten fruit and veg from the markets. The soil from the area, mostly rich in clay was used widely in kilns producing tiles (or Tuiles) from which the site gets its name.
Although Frances 1st introduced royal patronage to the gardens when he built stables on the site in 1525, it was Catherine de Medici who brought nature to Paris when her palace was built next to the Louvre in 1563. The new palace was complimented by gardens in Italian style containing fountains, a menagerie, a grotto decorated by Palissy and a hot house for breeding silk worms. An adjacent avenue of Mulberry trees provided food for the silk worms and with the opening of the gardens to the public, the area soon became a fashionable meeting place.
It was around one hundred years later that the gardens began to take on an altogether different appearance. Under the direction of Colbert, Louis X1V’s Minister of Finance, Le Nötre followed in the footsteps of his father and grandfather redesigning the gardens to largely what we know today, featuring the fountains and the impressive view down the ‘Grande Allée’.
Following Le Nötre’s redesign, the gardens were almost lost to the general public. Colbert thought so highly of Le Nötre’s work that he considered the Tuileries should be retained exclusively for Royal use. However Charles Perrault, a well-known author of fairy tales fought hard on behalf of public opinion. He won and a grateful public erected a statue in his memory which stands today on the terrace of the Jeu de Paume.
The gardens have witnessed historical events many times including one of the first hot air balloon ascents in 1783 but it was on the 10th August 1792 when the gardens witnessed an ugly scene during the French Revolution. The Royal family were driven out of the Tuileries by revolutionaries and sought refuge in the Legislative Assembly. The king had ordered the Royal Guards to cease fire as they fled through the gardens but two thirds of them were massacred.
As the shadows lengthened and the withering leaves began to tumble through the park, I sat for a while at one of the garden cafes before taking a final stroll towards the Seine and the Quai des Tuileries. This is another famous Paris strolling area with one of the most beautiful views of the capital. Here was a backdrop of the Seine, its bridges and the islands towards Notre-Dame. On the tree lined embankments it seemed autumn was a little later than in the Tuileries; it was considerably greener with an absence of rustling autumnal leaves underfoot. Children played and young boys fished, other just sat on the Quai admiring the view. The Bateaux-Mouches returned to their landing stage and left again as they do almost every day of the year. Families took leisurely walks between meals as only the French can and lovers strolled together in the city which is truly theirs.
It seemed to me this was something of the heart of Paris where historical and aesthetic values contribute most strongly to the ambience of what has become renowned as one of Europe’s most romantic cities.
I purchased some hot chestnuts from the vendor at Pont Neuf and enjoyed them to the accompaniment of Paris traffic. It had been a wonderful stroll in the autumn sunshine and had left me with that irresistible longing to return.