The 19th arrondissement, which unfurls in the relatively hilly north-east of Paris, doesn’t make most tourists’ itineraries. There are few famous old attractions here, you see. But this is one of the most diverse and intriguing parts of the French capital.
I kind of discovered it by accident. It was a warm, late summer’s day and I had met a Parisian friend for lunch at a bistro in Belleville, a trendy, up-and-coming district in the neighbouring 20th arrondissement. Our postprandial stroll - we wanted to work off some of that fromage - took us into the 19th, where we popped into an epicerie for a bottle of rose and gravitated to what my friend claimed was one of Paris’ nicest parks.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, but having returned to the city several times since, and scouted out the competition (from the Jardin du Luxembourg to petite Parc Monceau), I reckon this could well be the most enchanting Parisian green space of all.
Its rugged topography, quirky landscaping and riveting history provide all the ingredients for a rewarding day out - and conveniently, there are Metro stations (Buttes-Chaumont and Botzaris) on its doorstep. Unveiled on April 1, 1867, in time for the Universal Exhibition - the second world fair to be staged in Paris - the 25ha park was commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III as part of the grand revamp of the French capital in the mid 19th century.
The park’s designer was Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, an engineer who also created other major Parisian havens, including Parc Monceau and the two retreats that book-end the city’s east and west: Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne. While they’re mostly flat, Buttes-Chaumont is distinctly undulating, its features - such as its pinnacles, grotto, waterfall and leafy slopes - shaped around its former use as a quarry that provided much of the original limestone and plaster of Paris.
The park’s name derives from Chauve-mont (meaning bare hill), a nod to the stark peak that would have loomed here, almost devoid of vegetation. The area had also been the site of a medieval gallows, a sewage dump and a knacker’s yard for clapped-out horses.
Exactly 150 years ago - just four years after Buttes-Chaumont opened its gates - the picturesque tranquility of this new park was shattered when it became one of the key battlegrounds for the Paris Commune, a revolutionary workers' movement that seized control of the capital following the 1871 Franco-Prussian war.
After holding power for just over two months, the so-called “Communards” were crushed by the French army, with over 20,000 rebels killed in the revolt and many others imprisoned and deported. It’s hard to imagine such grisly times today when you’re moseying around Buttes-Chaumont, which shares more in common with the fanciful English gardens designed by Lancelot “Capability” Brown than the formal symmetrical styles you typically associate with French gardens.
Shaded, picnic-friendly slopes overlook expanses of lawns, cedar and cherry trees, beech woods and wildflowers and fountains, with the sinuous paths and avenues routinely dotted with joggers, amblers and cyclists. The park’s piece de resistance is its dreamy artificial lake, which surrounds a rocky island, upon which nestles the Temple de la Sibylle, a miniature version of the ancient Roman Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy.
The island is connected by bridges suspended above the lake, one of which stretches 63 metres and was designed by a certain Gustave Eiffel.
Incidentally, although we couldn’t see his famous lattice tower - built for the 1889 Universal Exhibition - from Buttes-Chaumont, the park’s elevation means you can spy other bits of Paris over the tree-tops, notably Montmartre and the Sacre-Coeur.
If you haven’t brought your own picnic and are seeking refreshments, Le Pavillon Du Lac is a smart bar and restaurant serving contemporary French cuisine near the water, while Rosa Bonheur, close to the park’s south-eastern entrance (and Botzaris station), may also entice. Named after a 19th-century French artist, who was renowned for her depictions of animals, this is a modern take on a guinguette - a traditional suburban Paris watering hole, eatery and dance hall.
Whether seated inside the cosy interior or outside on the terrace, you can enjoy wine and tapas in a convivial atmosphere. For everything from cider and crepes to Champagne-fuelled fine dining, food and drink options also line the back-streets and boulevards near the park, especially if you head west towards the banks of Canal Saint-Martin and the Bassin de la Villette, scenic waterways that carve through Paris’ often-overlooked (by tourists at least) east.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Paris Commune, events are being held across the capital, including the “72 Days of the Commune” exhibition (until June 17, 2021). It comprises 20 display boards revealing the chain of events that led to the Paris Commune and charts the campaigners’ hopes for a better world, including equal pay for men and women, better working conditions and free schooling for everyone. One series of boards has been attached to the railings outside Buttes-Chaumont Metro station.
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