Surprising Stories: A Princely Wager at Bagatelle

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La parc de Bagatelle Photo: Patrick Giraud / CC

Many of the public parks in and around Paris were created over three hundred years ago by the royal family or wealthy aristocrats. These private gardens were designed as places of play and amusement where the owners indulged their tastes for the latest fashions, hiring talented landscape architects who created green lawns, a new innovation, surrounded by exotic flowers, trees and shrubs whose blooms perfumed the air. This week’s Surprising Story takes us to one of the most notorious of these gardens, the Parc de Bagatelle, which was born out of a costly royal bet, between prince and the queen, whose rivalry has left us two of the most remarkable historic gardens in France. Read more

Surprising Stories: Monet’s Water Lilies, from Giverny to the Musée de l’Orangerie

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With the arrival of spring blossoms and warmer weather, it is all the more challenging to be confined to our homes. It was the goal of many Impressionist artists to capture this moment of nature’s splendor and few achieved this as gloriously as Claude Monet. Dreaming of his radiant gardens can offer some respite from our newly restrictive daily lives, especially his meditative water lily panels. These masterpieces have made the Musée de l’Orangerie one of the most famous museums in Paris, however, few know that the museum would not have been possible without the tireless efforts of Georges Clemenceau; then the Prime Minister of France and friend of Monet. This edition of our Surprising Stories series reveals how Clemenceau, one hundred years ago today, succeeded at this impressive feat.

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Surprising Stories: Dining at Versailles: What happened to the Leftovers?

Antichambre du Grand Couvert de la Reine ©Chateau de Versailles

Louis XIV was the most conspicuous diner at Versailles.  His meals represented the bounty of France, and his appetite was considered a sign of his good health and the well-being of the nation. Dining was a ceremonial occasion and was regulated according to a strict etiquette established during King Louis XIV’s reign.  In the latest of our Surprising Stories series, we join the Sun King at his extravagant evening meal and then see what happened to the leftovers of his copious feasts.

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Surprising Stories: Joséphine’s Black Swans

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Title page, Voyage de découvertes aux terres australes Vol 3. Black swans, kangaroos and dwarf emus all frolic in the splendid gardens of Malmaison

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his pioneering book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (2010), referred to the bird as a metaphor for understanding unpredictability, arguing that “black swans” are events that come as a surprise, undermine common knowledge, and are often rationalized after the fact. In today’s world, COVID-19 can be considered a black swan. As Taleb writes: “A small number of black swans explains almost everything in our world, from the success of ideas and religions, to the dynamics of historical events, to elements of our own personal lives.” It is within this context that we are launching our new series, Surprising Stories, featuring intriguing aspects of French history and culture. We start by starting with the little known topic of Joséphine Bonaparte and her black swans.

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A Romantic Tour Under the Arcades of Paris: Chocolate, Pastries, Perfume & More

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Palais-Royal: Jimmy JAEH / Unsplash

The French do not unanimously celebrate Valentine’s Day, as they feel any day is the perfect occasion to celebrate love. No matter the day, when they want to commemorate love with a gift, they think of similar items as we do in North America: chocolates, pastries, perfumes and flowers. Many of Paris’ best purveyors of these can be found in and around one of our favorite romantic places in Paris, the Palais-Royal. The picturesque park, steeped in history and elegance, is the perfect starting point for a romantic, and delicious, amble around the district and its sublimely romantic shops and cafés.

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Nature into Art: Reversing the Picturesque

For every tourist, one of the many pleasures of traveling today is capturing a memorable picture: finding, framing, and composing the perfect view is so much a part of our travel experiences that we have forgotten how “making a picture” is  an art form. It is not surprising then, that today’s artists are re-investigating the picturesque by reversing the process and turning nature into art. We recently explored this on a visit to the studio of Dominique LaCloche, a Franco-British artist who not only embraces the picturesque tradition, but has turned it inside-out. 

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A Memorable Holiday Season at French Castles

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Photo: Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte

Paris is a special place to visit all year round, yet as many Parisians will tell you, France is defined by the countryside, not its capital city. The holiday season is an exceptional moment to discover the countryside around Paris as some of the most exceptional châteaux celebrate the holidays. Inside these architectural marvels and outside in the gardens, decorative lights, theatrical performances, and projections evoke Christmas through the centuries, enchanting young and old alike. Create a memorable experience for the entire family by visiting these castles around Paris this holiday season.

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Gardens to Gifts: Picturesque Voyages Holiday Gift Guide

For millennia the bounty of French gardens has been transformed into a wide array of artisanal goods, from gastronomy to housewares. These centuries’ old traditions are being maintained, or revisited, by a variety of craftsmen and entrepreneurs around the country. Through our tours we strive to advocate this living heritage by introducing visitors to some of the figures that are keeping these traditions alive. Their exceptional creations, from candles to porcelain, also make for great French gift ideas, like these examples included in our holiday gift guide.

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Garden to Table: Organic and Farmer Direct Products in Paris

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Marché biologique de Batignolles. Sam Nabi / Flickr

Rediscovering the picturesque in the 21st century concerns sustainability. Every garden is designed to be both utile et agreable (useful and beautiful) encouraging our appreciation of the kitchen garden or potager. A potager was both a place–a garden where vegetables were grown to make soups (potage) and a type of stove, where wood fires would produce a consistent temperature. The most famous kitchen garden in France was built for Louis XIV at Versailles from 1678-1683 laid out by the remarkably talents Jean Baptiste de la Quintinie. The Potager du Roi still produces fruits and vegetables today, participating in response to gardeners and consumers growing concerns about their food and the origins of what ends up on their plate. More and more people are rediscovering food gardens in the form of organic markets, locally sourced greengrocers and farmer direct sales outlets, often assisted by new technologies. Here are some of the best farm to table offerings in Paris.

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The Evolution of Modern Parks in Paris

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Parc Monceau and Parc Martin Luther King (victortsu/Flickr)

Historic Parc Monceau, undulating Buttes-Chaumont and the newest green spaces of the city like Parc Martin Luther King are not merely some of the best parks in Paris, they also share a common thread: the picturesque. Discover how garden design, and the picturesque, has transformed in these beautiful parks in Paris below.

18th Century Picturesque – Winding Paths, Follies & Vistas

One of the first public parks in Paris, the Parc Monceau was begun in the 1770s and managed to survive the widespread destruction of the French Revolution. An excellent example of “picturesque” design, the garden features winding paths and wide lawns that are interspersed with small structures called follies. Popular during the era and in the form of fake ruins, gothic archways, and even miniature pyramids, these were designed to recall paintings–like pictures–and amuse visitors. 

Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and Le Square des Batignolles

19th Century Picturesque – Urban Renewal & Bucolic Distractions

New city parks, and the picturesque, also made their way into the vast urban projects undertaken in Paris in the mid 19th century. The reference to the picturesque was essential to Baron Haussmann, the Prefect of the Seine and mastermind of the urban renewal of the city. He commissioned engineer Jean Charles Alphand to create over 20 parks in the city including le Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the Square des Batignolles.

A former quarry that had been a favored place for fugitives and criminals, Alphand transformed Les Buttes-Chaumont into a modern landscape, suitable for fashionable promenades. For nineteenth century visitors, looking up to the soaring rock formations surmounted by a copy of a Roman temple, the reference to antiquity assured viewers that this site was beautiful: it signaled that the garden was picturesque, meant to recall the landscapes ancient Rome. Today the 5.5 kilometer park is one of the first examples of an urban park renewal, where extensive planting of trees and flowering shrubs, a lake and cascading grotto continue to enchant visitors.

Built in the then burgeoning northwest of the city, the Square de Batignolles, like similar small squares around the city, was meant to function like today’s green space: as the city’s lungs, offering fresh air in the city center. Located near the Saint Lazare train station, the trees, palm house and ornamental cascade at the Batignolles offered a picturesque distractions to local railway workers in the neighborhood.

Parc de la Villette (Victortsu/Flickr) and Parc Martin Luther King (JTMN)

20th Century Picturesque – Reclaimed Spaces & Contemporary Follies

The last few decades have seen the arrival of some impressive and very modern gardens in Paris, however, these haven’t completely rejected the past nor the picturesque. Like the Buttes-Chaumont, the land around the Parc de La Villette was insalubrious as the site of the slaughterhouses of Paris until the 1950s. Inspired by Alphand’s urban renewal project, the architect Bernard Tschumi’s turned to landscape architecture to reclaim the area and turn it into a cultural hub. Tshcumi integrated picturesque elements to his design when he created red follies, that can be kiosks or temporary workshops, but have no real function, imitating the playfulness of picturesque design.

Today landscape architects continue to be inspired by picturesque gardens as they design new green spaces for the city. For example, the Parc Martin Luther King, begun by Jacqueline Osty in 2004, was specifically designed as part of an eco-quartier, to contribute to water recycling and the greening of the city. While ecology guides the design, the picturesque hasn’t been forgotten. All one needs to do is climb the elevated platform, which provides a magnificent view across the park and recalls the temple at Butte Chaumont and even the red follies of the Parc de La Villette.

You can delve further into the evolution of Parisian Gardens on our tour of the Butte Chaumont and La Villette. We can also arrange tours of the Parc Monceau, Les Batignolles and Parc Martin Luther King. Contact us here to design to perfect tour to suit your interests.