Paris, France. One of our goals on this trip was to view the gardens of England and France when they were at their peak, namely in May and June.
We had also scheduled to be in Bhutan during the peak blooming season of the vast landscape coverage of that country’s famed rhododendrons. And we made a special effort to be in the Netherlands for a few days during the peak of the tulip season. But in Bhutan, the rhododendrons were late this year and had barely started to bloom. So we didn’t get to see that sight. In the Netherlands, the tulips were early this year and there were few left when we got there.
But, happily, everything seemed to be on schedule in the U.K. and we saw some magnificent gardens, the likes of which are almost impossible to recreate in the U.S. because of the differences in climates, rainfall and the mere fact that the U.K., being much more north than the U.S. has longer days and therefore more sunshine hours for plants to grow to sizes unheard of in the U.S. — like holly that can grow to 30 feet or more. It could make a gardener jealous who has to deal with much harsher conditions.
After being blown away by the May gardens of England, our attention is now focused on what Paris has to offer. There is a very different aesthetic going on in France. Instead of the exuberant abundance of all types of flowering wonders packed together to dazzle the eye in an English garden, the French idea is to present perfectly manicured lawns and sculpted greenery to offer a controlled view of nature. It seems like it is impossible to keep a Frenchman from passing by a bush or tree without pruning it into a more perfect shape that nature had never considered.
But, as we are here during the height of the rose season, there were hopes that we’d see some great flower displays. Don took off with a list of the great gardens of Paris in hand. His report:
My first stop was the Jardin des Tuileries. This garden, first created by Catherine de Medici in the 16th century to accompany her Tuileries Palace (now demolished), covers some 30 acres stretching from west at the Place de la Concorde, (the site of the public executions by guillotine of Marie Antoinette and many others) to the interior court of the Louvre at the east end.
The controlled vistas of long allées of large, shaped trees, flanked by squares of perfect lawns dotted with sculpture, both old and modern, emphasize that sense of perfect balance and order that all large French gardens display. Strategically placed large pools and fountains gives the whole an effect of calming structure within a more chaotic world outside the garden walls. All is under control and correct inside the Tuileries. Clearly, this is where Parisians like to come to sit and contemplate (and people watch), seemingly for hours, without moving.
But search for some flower beds and you are basically out of luck. There are a few rather small and uninspired patches of flowering plants, but after seeing the delights of the English gardens, they looked kind of pathetic. Yet the stroll from the Place de la Concorde to the Louvre is one of those visually impressive Paris experiences that is unequalled. And, perfectly maintained, of course.
Next on the Paris garden check-list was the Jardins de Bagatelle. Located far west of the center of Paris in the forested Bois de Boulogne, it takes nearly an hour to reach there from where we are staying, requiring lots of walking, two different metro lines and a bus. But, wow, the trip was worth it.
First created in 1777 by Marie-Antoinette’s brother-in-law as a kind of casual country get-away with a little chateau designed for entertainments rather than a residence, the property passed through a few hands during and after the French revolution.
Covering some 25 acres, this garden, filled with almost countless different garden “rooms” seemed to put to rest any thought that the French couldn’t create the kind of garden that the English are so adept at. But then you learn that the garden seen today is basically the work of an English aristocrat who owned it throughout most of the 19th century and brought in an English landscape artist to create what seems today to be the ultimate English garden. The rather small “chateau” still stands, as does a separate house that the English aristocrat built for his son, as well as a large orangery, which had a formal flower garden of its own.
There was only time to see about half of this vast garden, but the wonders hit you in the face at every turn. There’s a magnificent section devoted to irises, walled in by French-style sculpted hedges. There’s a peony border that beats any peony border I’ve ever seen. There’s a wisteria section that unfortunately was not in bloom, but must be breathtaking when it is. There’s a perennial garden that would make the gardeners at Kew Gardens in London feel humble. And to make it all the more exotic, peacocks roamed around showing off their own full plumage.
But the best of all was the rose garden. Never in my life have I ever seen a rose garden of this size and design, filled with so many different roses all blooming at their peak. It’s hard describe the delights of this extensive and magnificently laid out rose garden. The photos do not capture the experience walking around this garden, which, by the way, was completely absent of any other visitors.
Every view was so layered with tree roses surrounded by low-flowering bush roses backed by climbing roses — either on poles or on arbors. Looking out over the mass of roses from one section of the garden to another was one thrill and then examining the different varieties — each carefully labelled with its name and year of cultivation — was another thrill. Amazingly, despite the perfectly manicured condition of all the gardens, there was never a gardener in sight. Only a single wheelbarrow suggested that all of this didn’t just magically appear for a solitary visitor.