Book Review – Hidden Gardens of Paris

Book Review – Hidden Gardens of Paris: A Guide to the Parks, Squares, and Woodlands of the City of Light by Susan Cahill and Photography by Marion Ranoux

The author, Susan Cahill, has published four travel books on Italy and Ireland, and spends a few months in Paris every year. She is editor of the Women and Fiction series and author of the novel, Earth Angels. Marion Ranoux, a native Parisienne, is an experienced freelance photographer and translator of Czech literature into French. Ranoux’ splendid photography brings each garden to life by adding visual significance to the cultural and historical perspective of the author’s narrative. The author has given us an inside look at hidden gardens, a view of the “Green Paris” that some visitors have yet to discover. She has included a helpful map with a numbered list of places to see from Ile de La Cite? through neighborhoods (quartiers) on the Left Bank including Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Montparnasse, and Latin Quarter to Montmartre, the Champs-Élysées, and Bastille on the Right Bank. She provides useful information on the Metro station, entrance location, and hours, as well as nearby attractions.

She has done an excellent job in describing over 40 hidden gardens in parks, in the squares with statues of famous people, and beside woodland paths, . The book explores the areas outside churches, palaces, and museums, avoiding the usual crowds and long lines at popular tourist attractions. Within these hidden gardens, we find tranquillity, a place to read, relax, and experience the “spiritual and sensual” in the beauty of flowers and trees. Each garden is an enchanting place to reflect upon the past and present, the heroes, lovers, artists, sculptors, and writers of Paris. We see children at play and riding carousels in the same gardens where violence and political rebellion once took place.

I have included brief excerpts from a few chapters in my review. Square du Vert Galant is located behind the statue of the gallant Henry IV on the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, as you arrive at the Ile de la Cité. Although Henry IV was known as an “obsessive lover,” he was above all a peacemaker who declared “kindness and mercy the primary virtues of a prince.” Pont Neuf is where the Bouquinistes, the typical booksellers in Paris, first placed their large, green boxes of books and artists’ prints along the banks of the Seine.

On the Left Bank, you’ll enter the Jardin des Plantes and through a tunnel to the Alpine Garden, where hundreds of flowers and plants from around the world are flourishing in this secluded garden. Within the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district is the Square Boucicaut in honor of the founder of the well-known Bon Marché department store and his wife, a most generous philanthropist. This exotic garden of plants and trees is much like other squares in Paris where children are free to run and play, to explore, and to do almost anything.

The gardens around the Rodin Museum are formal and well designed with a variety of trees, flowers, and a pool. Amid the greenery are many of Rodin’s sculptures – The Thinker, The Burghers of Calais, and the Gates of Hell.

In western Paris you’ll find the Bois De Boulogne and the Parc de Bagatelle’s Rose Garden. Roses were much loved by the mistresses of Louis XV and Napoleon’s wife Josephine. Their wonderful colors and scent still symbolize Paris the romantic city. Surrounding the Bagatelle are the Bois or woodlands, written about in books and seen in movies as a meeting place for secret trysts and carriage rides. By day, it is a popular park filled with flowers, waterfalls, playgrounds, and a Shakespeare garden.

Montparnasse in the southern part features Jardin Atlantique, a most unusual rooftop garden, which opened in 1994 on one of the largest train stations in Paris. The landscape changes from a forest of trees to an area of sand dunes resembling the Atlantic coast of France. The different themes in the garden vary from maritime to a Room of Silence and Meditation and a Room of Moisture (waterfalls and fountains). Nearby is the Musée Jean Moulin, the great artist who lived and painted in Montparnasse.

Pére-Lachaise, the largest cemetery in Paris, is a garden paradise of 105 acres of 12,000 trees. Flowers surround the graves and monuments of 300,000 men and women who inspired a “cultural reverence” for gardens in science, philosophy, politics, and the arts. This is the final resting place for famous people such as Colette, Proust, Wilde, and Moliere, as well as memorials to the Résistants to the government and the most visited grave of Edith Piaf.

Susan Cahill has succeeded in bringing us to delightful, peaceful havens in a different, somewhat unconventional style as compared to the usual travel guides of lists and itineraries. She has written an entertaining and informative guidebook for anyone who loves travel, gardening, or history. Her list of sources is impressive, many of which she obtained from her favorite bookseller, Odile Hellier at the Village Voice on rue Princesse. I recommend this book as a great resource if you’re visiting Paris for the first time or returning to explore the hidden gardens you may have missed in this great City of Light.

Publisher: St Martin’s Press,10 April 2012. Retail: $19.99. Amazon: Paperback – $13.45, Kindle – $9.99

Sharon L Slayton

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