I’ve just returned from a month of exploring the gardens of the Loire Valley and Provence (hence the somewhat erratic timing of the last few posts) and my head is full of French gardens, so “Excusez-moi de vous déranger, mais… ” (I love that phrase! “Sorry to ‘derange’ you, but…”) for the next while, rather than continuing with the gardens of Tuscany, “Loving Italy’s Gardens” is expanding its horticultural horizons. But not as much as you might think. To the great chagrin of the French, many of their gardens owe a great deal to Italy – starting with one of the greatest gardens in Paris – le Jardin du Luxembourg.
For those whose High School French is a bit rusty, the sign at the Porte Medici informs visitors that the garden’s origins are not French, but Italian. We are also advised that while the Sénat which administers and maintains the gardens is happy to welcome us, it apparently finds it necessary to include an ‘extract’ from the regulations as to the conduct expected of us while in the garden: We must hold our bicycles ‘by the hand’ and not bring our dogs into this part of the garden.
In case you’re wondering, I didn’t make up that phrase. I found it years ago in a book with the irresistible title “French or Foe?”. Written by Polly Pratt, an American and former journalist who lived in France for 25 years, it is a practical and surprisingly humorous guide to having successful and enjoyable (another surprise?) encounters with les Français. Required reading if you are contemplating spending any time at all in the ‘Hexagon’. (Geometry isn’t just for the gardens. This ‘aka’ comes from France’s geographical shape. Have a look at a map. You’ll see. If we shared this fondness for geometry, I wonder what shape would Canada be known as …)
In any event, the derangement phrase or the ‘Five Magic Words’ as she calls them, is the third of six codes Pratt recommends. I’ve used them on countless occasions – gas stations, stores, markets, deserted country roads – throughout France and they truly are magic. I found the phrase so helpful I even made up a version for Italy – Mi dispiace disturbarLa, ma… (mentioned in my first post – “Flourishing Flowering Florence”).
Marie dei Medici was the daughter of Franceso I dei Medici, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and Joanna, the daughter of Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor. Born in Florence, after a rather blissful childhood, she was married off in customary fashion for political reasons to a foreign monarch. Unlike her equally infamous predecessor, Caterina dei Medici, (more of her when we visit the gardens of the Château de Chenonceau), Maria got lucky. Her marriage was fairly short-lived.
The day after she was crowned Queen of France, Marie’s husband, King Henry IV, was assassinated. (It might have been the day before – there seems to be some confusion on the exact timing – as well as Marie’s relationship with the assassin…) Their only offspring, the future Louis XIII, was nine years old at the time, so Maria became regent, totally free to rule – or mis-rule as the French bitterly describe her reign – until he reached the age of maturity – 18 – by which time kings-in-waiting were considered fit to rule kingdoms.
In the early 1700’s, no doubt nostalgic for her childhood home, she purchased a piece of land and commissioned a garden based on the Boboli Gardens at Palazzo Pitti.
I had read before that the garden/park was 22 1/2 hectares (about 55 acres) but I still wasn’t prepared for what an enormous expanse of land that really is. Right in the centre of the city! I’m sure Paris has its share of problems, but beautiful public spaces for people to escape the hustle and bustle of modern city living is not one of them.
At the north-east corner of the park is the Fontaine dei Medicis. Apart from the chairs and the elegantly dressed monsieur engrossed in his book, this looks exactly like something out of a garden in Italy.
I only had two days in Paris before setting out for the gardens of the Loire Valley – just enough time I hoped, to visit three gardens – and a few of the usual sites. No matter how avid a garden enthusiastic you are, I would wonder about anyone who didn’t spend a bit of time visiting the non-horticultural delights of the City of Light. The Eiffel Tower is a no-brainer, but if I were really stretched for time, I would go for the view from the south tower of Notre Dame.
This may be pointing out the obvious, but no matter where you are staying in Paris, you have to cross a bridge to get to Notre Dame. It is on an island – Ile de la Cité. For some reason, the idea of this enormous cathedral sitting on an island strikes me as incongruous. In any event, the closest bridge from our hotel (my daughter is travelling with me at this point – a wonderful experience, which I highly recommend! xoxo) is Pont de L’Archevéché.
I read with horror once I got back home that shortly after I left Paris, a section of the railing of the other ‘Love Locks Bridge’, Pont des Arts, had collapsed. The locks on the bridge, at 54-90 grams each, weigh an estimated 10 tons and the railing that collapsed about 200 kg. Fortunately it fell inwards, on the bridge rather than outward, where it could easily have landed on one of the many boats that ply the river.
I’m with the protesters who are calling for a ban on the practice, which I’d already seen in Italy and which is spreading to other countries. It is not ‘romantic’, as one young devotée gushed. It’s defacing public property – including listed heritage sites – and is endangering public safety. (For more info, google ‘Love Locks Bridge, Paris’. Among the various articles, I thought ‘Oh l’amour: Paris bridge rail collapses under weight of too much love’ by Kim Willsher of The Guardian was the best.)
The entrance to the tower is outside the cathedral, close to the northwest corner, so we walked around the ‘back’. There is usually a bit of a line-up, because the number of people climbing the 387 stairs to the top at any one time is carefully monitored. As I huffed and puffed my way up, slowing down and speeding up, as if part of an interminable line of ants, I was very glad they didn’t just let us all pile in willy nilly.
Before we headed for the second garden I wanted to visit – le Jardin des Tuileries – we stopped at a marker in the pavement in front of the cathedral.
Then we had to check out what was going on in the huge white tents in the square. I hadn’t been very happy to see them when I was taking photos from the top of Notre Dame. I thought they spoiled the effect. But it turned out to be a quintessentially French event. An annual celebration of bread and pastries. The smell was divine.
We were making slow progress and then we came upon a marché des fleurs – a full-scale flower market. I had seen the marché des fleurs in the Cours Saléya in Nice. But that market is in the south, in a laid-back, almost Italian part of France. A flower market in the heart of Paris is another thing entirely.
With all these distractions, by the time we reached the Louvre, I was exhausted. Fortunately it was almost time for the evening apéritif. We walked across the street to the entrance of les Tuileries and decided it would be much prettier the next day. When we were fresh. We could even pick up provisions for a picnic lunch like the Parisians do.
The next morning, after croissants and un café crème at the bar in the little square at the end of our street we bought provisions for our picnic – a baguette from the boulangerie and a round of chèvre (goat cheese) from the fromagerie next to the bar and fruit from the market that had conveniently sprung up in the square. Then we headed back to the garden. I had been puzzled when I first glimpsed it the night before. What were all those gorgeous, colourful flowers doing in a French garden? Especially one designed by Le Nôtre, master of the French formal style.
It was beautiful, but as I wandered around I got more and more confused. I figured I had a pretty good sense of what an ‘Italian Garden’ was, but this was nothing like my idea of a ‘French Garden’. (What I didn’t know yet was that, as I travelled around visiting the gardens of the Loire Valley and Provence, I would get even more confused.)
Maybe part of the ‘problem’ here was that it had started out as an Italian Renaissance garden. Catherine dei Medici had wanted a large garden for the Palace de Tuileries which she commissioned after the death of her husband Henri II in the mid 1500’s. Since it was in no sense a love match – all Henri’s affections had been directed to his life-long mistress, Diane de Poitiers – the garden had nothing to do with trying to cope with grief over his death. More likely she wanted something to remind her of her native Tuscany. In any event, le Nôtre notwithstanding, it had the strong central axis and abundance of statues of the classic Italian Renaissance garden.
In the 18th century it became one of the first private parks to be opened to the public and quickly became the place to see and be seen. Since then, chairs for the taking, cafés and (decent) public toilets make the Tuileries one of the most visited parks in Paris. I would have loved to take a few photos of all the Parisians on their lunch break – many in elegant business suits – but as I walked by all sorts of great ‘subjects’ I felt uncomfortable, as if it would be intrusive to take their photo, so in the end I took just one ‘people’ shot. (Model release duly requested and granted.)
The third garden I wanted to visit during my stay in Paris had one of the most intriguing histories of any garden I had ever come across. It destroyed the life of its creator and was the inspiration for Versailles. It is called Château Vaux le Vicomte.
We took the RER (part of the extensive Parisian Métro system; how did they manage it? how have we not managed it in Toronto?) to the village of Melun, a half hour south of Paris and then a taxi to the castle.
In 1641 Nicholas Fouquet, an ambitious, wealthy government official purchased what was then a small, nondescript chateau mid-way between the royal residences of Fontainebleau and Vincennes. As Alain Baraton explains in ‘Le Jardinier de Versailles‘ (released in English under the same title – The Gardener of Versailles – a few days before I left for France; even if you’re not into gardens, or love gardens but detest all that Versailles represents, it’s a great read, full of fascinating, often hilarious anecdotes and Baraton’s surprisingly candid views on the gardens), “Fouquet est richissime, complètement megalomane, aime et apprécie les arts.” (Fouquet is extremely rich, a complete megalomaniac and loves and appreciates the arts.)
He then hires the ‘Triumvirate’ – the leading architect, interior decorator and garden designer of the time – le Vau, le Brun and le Nôtre – and gives them free reign to create the grandest castle and gardens in France. And by ‘free reign’ we’re talking literally. He imposes no constraints on them whatsoever. They can spend as much as they like, take as long as they want and do whatever they want design-wise.
Twenty years and unheard-of expenditures later, the project is finished. To celebrate, Fouquet holds one of the most lavish parties of all time. In honour of the king – Louis XIV.
But, perhaps blinded by his all-consuming ambition and arrogance, Fouquet had overlooked one thing – human psychology. As he had hoped, his fête made a big impression on the King. Very big. As Voltaire later wrote, “Le 17 août, à six heures du soir, Fouquet était le roi de la France; à deux heures du matin il n’était plus rien.” (August 17, at 6 pm Fouquet was the king of France; at 2 the next morning he was nothing.)
The Sun King was furious. What Fouquet, a mere subject, had created was far greater than anything the king had. And it didn’t help Fouquet’s cause that for some time the king’s closest advisor, Colbert, who had watched Fouquet’s meteoric rise with increasing jealousy, had been poisoning the king against Fouquet with accusations that Fouquet’s immense wealth had been accumulated at the expense of the king’s coffers (an accusation that was later proved groundless; it was Fouquet’s predecessor, Mazarin, who did all the pilfering).
At the end of the celebrations, which included an elaborate feast, a play by Molière, fireworks and various other extravaganzas, the king ordered the arrest of Fouquet. Fouquet fled, but was apprehended three weeks later by Artignan, captain of the Three Musketeers (for years I thought they were fictional characters, along the lines of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table).
The ensuing ‘trial of the century’ dragged on. Eventually the judges decided on exile as suitable punishment for Fouquet’s supposed crimes. Fouquet was free as long as he did not step foot into the royal kingdom.
But then, for the first and only time in French history, the king intervened. Louis XIV was only 24 years old. A lot of research lately suggests that the human brain is not fully mature until the age of 25. Maybe with their shorter life spans people matured more quickly in those days. In any event, drunk with his new powers and enraged at the one-uppance, he overturned the judges’ decision and ordered life imprisonment. Fouquet languished in jail until his death twenty years later.
The King then seized all Fouquet’s possessions, down to the last chandelier and along with the brilliant team Fouquet had assembled had the whole lot transferred to Versailles, where he started to create something that no subject would ever rival.
I felt somewhat less sorry for Fouquet when I learned that in order to accumulate the 40 hectares he wanted for his showpiece, he had purchased and then demolished three villages, including the homes, vineyards and farms of the hapless villagers, who then had no option but to work for Fouquet on the very land he had taken from them.
Next: possibly the most lauded and the most vilified garden in the world – Versailles