The Parc Monceau

People sometimes tell me that they do not like the avenues of trees you see in most of the formal parks of Paris because the trees are invariably trimmed into flat planes. People who object to these avenues do so mostly because they feel that a tree trimmed into such a symmetrical shape is not a natural tree, and that is, of course, true. Joyce Kilmer could never have written his poem “Trees” to a tree whose top and sides were perfect planes. But just remember that the tree Joyce Kilmer had in mind was not just any old, scrubby tree that you might have in your backyard, but in all probability, a majestic, freestanding tree such as you will find only in the open country, and that is something else again.

Nevertheless, whether you like French landscape architecture or not, there is something to be said for an avenue of trimmed trees, and that is, that it fits in with the architecture. One does not hide an avenue of beautiful buildings by planting a row of tall trees in front of them any more than one would want to hide a tree, such as a full grown beech, by building a wall around it. In any case, once one gets accustomed to the beauty and harmony for there is beauty and harmony in symmetry too-of an avenue of trimmed trees, it is very difficult to imagine it any other way. But for those who still must have their tree as nature has made them actually, of course, there are occasions for both styles-there is no better place to find them than in the Parc Monceau.

Although the Parc Monceau is not very large by Paris standards, it is one of the most charming parks in Paris, and only about a half hour’s walk from the Place de l’Opera. It is a park of shady walks, of leafy bowers, of ponds, of imitation natural springs, in fact, of everything that makes for complete informality. Even the famous “Naumachie,” a pond surrounded by a semi-circular colonnade of fluted Corinthian columns, partly broken, partly missing, is so overgrown with vines that it looks as though it had been standing there for ages. In contrast to the splendid formal gardens one sees in Paris, there is absolutely no order in the Parc Monceau: the trees are allowed to grow naturally-and by that l: don’t mean unattended -the walks curve around in the most unexpected manner, and all over the park the lawn areas seem to be littered with remnants of broken Roman columns, archways, parts of ancient ruins, forgotten statuary and what not. And yet, all this seeming naturalness is not the naturalness of neglect of which the indolent are so fond, but the studied arrangement of care and good taste.

But there are a number of modern statues in the Parc Monceau also. There is a monument to the composer Gounod surrounded by Marguerite, Juliet, and Sappho, all of them characters from his operas; there is another to Ambroise Thomas with Mignon offering him a floral tribute. To the lover of music it will not be necessary for me to recall the hauntingly beautiful melody from the opera Mignon where Mignon sings “Connais-tu le pays ou les oranges fleurent?” (Knowest thou the land where bloom the orange trees?) And there is still another statue to Chopin in a corner of the park near the Boulevard de Courcelles, at the very spot, we are told, where he used to come to meditate. This monument shows him at his piano with an angel in bas-relief scattering flowers in the background. In the right foreground is a seated female figure with her head bent backwards and her hand covering her eyes. The composer, who has his hands on the keyboard, is looking straight at this figure, who is, apparently, overcome by the music. The whole composition could not be more impressive. And neither could the statue to Guy de Maupassant which shows him on top of a pedestal, whereas at the base of it is shown a life-sized Parisienne, complacently reading one of his books. Now, if we could only find out what she is reading, and has been reading all these years. A love story it is, no doubt. But could it be one of the slightly risque ones? Could it possibly be Moitehe? or Boule de Suif? or, goodness gracious, La Maison Tellier? But she will not tell.

Well, I suppose that after all these preliminary jugglings, you will want me to tell you something about how this enchanted park came about, and so I will. The history of the Paris Monceau goes back to the year 1774 when Philippe of Orleans, who was also known as the Duke of Chartres, in other words, our Philippe-Egalite, whom we already met at the Palais Royal, bought a large tract of land north of the city limits in order to establish a hunting lodge there. At that time, this entire area was still occupied by small farms and the entire area was known as the Plains of Monceau. Philippe being a great entertainer, as we have already noticed, ordered the landscape gardener Carmontelle to build him a park there a few years later. This park had all the fantastic features which an informal private park was supposed to have in those days. There was a Dutch windmill, a Swiss farm, an imitation Roman ruin, an Egyptian obelisk, a pyramid,and even mock tombstones, which were supposed to remind the visitors that even the best of things will have to come to an end some day, as Philippe ultimately found out for himself. Most of these fantastic structures have, of course, long since been removed, though there can be no question that some of the isolated Roman columns you see scattered about the park still date from this period, I am also told that some of the mock gravestones are still there but have now been hidden by shrubbery. Anyway, when the park was first built it became known as the Folie de Chartres. My French dictionary tells me that the word folie, besides folly and a lot of other things, also means a bower or a leafy retreat for lovers, and that is the sense in which the Folie de Chartres was, no doubt, to be understood.

Perhaps the most attractive feature of this park is the so-called “Naumachie,” or pool, I already mentioned. This pool is located just inside the main entrance on the Boulevar de Courcelles side and is surrounded by a set of Corinthian columns which originally came from a chapel in St. Denis which Catherine de Medici had ordered for her husband Henry II, but which was never completed. The columns were then set up around this pond and a lavish nature did the rest. During the Revolution the Folie de Chartres became the property of the state. It reverted to the Orleans Family briefly under Louis-Phi= lippe, but when Napoleon III came to power he had the landscape architect Alphand redesign it, or what had not, in the meantime, been sold as real estate, and that is the park you see there today.

Although the Parc Monceau now belongs to the City of Paris, it would be much more appropriate to say that it belongs to the children of Paris. They are brought here by their nurses by the hundreds. It does not have a carrorrsel or a Punch-and-Judy show like the Luxembourg Gardens have, but the sandpiles are there, and so are the busy little workers to fashion them into all sorts of interesting things. There is one thing that cannot escape even the casual visitor to Paris and that is that the French are unusually fond of their children and that these children are unusually well-behaved. No matter how elegant the surroundings, the City of Paris never seems to forget to provide play space for its little tots.

But the Parc Monceau is a park for grown-ups also. Students come there to study their lessons; lovers to walk arm in arm and sometimes cheek to cheek. Altogether, I would say that the Parc Monceau is a most delightful place in which to spend an idle hour and I would no more think of missing it on a visit to Paris than I would think of missing the Place de la Concorde. The most convenient entrance to this park, if you wanted to go by taxi, would be on the Boulevard de Courcelles, where you will find its main entrance. A short walk to the right would bring us to the spot where Chopin used to come to meditate, but there really is no need to direct one to any particular spot because the entire park is so small that you can circle the whole of it in less than half an hour’s time. The entire park is surrounded by a massive iron fence and is closed at night. Also, as in so many other public parks of Paris, no vehicular traffic of any kind is allowed in this park.

If you wanted to walk to this park from the Opera, the easiest way to do so would be to follow the Boulevard Haussmann until you come to the Avenue de Messine, shortly after you pass the Church of Saint Augustine. If you will then follow this avenue to its end, you will see the entrance gate at its southern end. This would permit you to walk through the park and leave it at the Boulevard de Courcelles, where you will always be able to hail a taxi. The story might be a little different if you tried to hail a taxi at its other end, as that is strictly a residential section.

 

This article concludes our visits to the points of interest in what you might call the center of Paris. For our next few trips we are going to visit a few points of interest we can no longer consider as being in this center. It will, therefore, be necessary for us to take a taxi to bring us within walking distance of them.

I’ll see you again after a little rest tomorrow.