Category Archives: French gardens

Vintage landscape: three swans

Rodin's garden, Library of Congress“Landscape, Rodin’s garden, Meudon, France,” 1905, by Gertrude Käsebier, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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La Vallée Suisse, Paris

“The plants have taken over. The gardener has gone home.”
— Gregory Ross, from Hidden Parks of Paris

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The verdant, sunken Garden of the Swiss Valley is a true “hidden garden” of Paris. Unless you know to look for the little green wire gate just past the very large and silly memorial, “The Dream of the Poet,” on Avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt, you will walk right by it on your way to the Seine.

But if you do know to stop and then enter the gate, you’ll descend over a dozen faux bois steps to a “stone” arch (also constructed of concrete, as are all the other stones in the garden).

Stepping through the archway, you’ll cross an artificial pond fed by the Seine (and reputedly inhabited by carp) and look down the single path of the long narrow space. Mature trees, shrubs, and perennials cover and obscure the valley walls; some dip into the water, including a 100-year-old weeping beech.

Elaine Sciolino, writing in the The New York Times, called this garden “a tiny stage-set.” With its fake rock and old-fashioned common garden plants,* it is not really “naturalistic,” yet is like a little wilderness — its arrangement seemingly having moved beyond planting design and maintenance.

When I visited it one morning in early September, a slight haze of dust and seasonal decay hung in the air. The only other person there was a homeless man sound asleep on one of the benches, and I tried not to bother him as I walked back and forth taking pictures.

At one end of the path, a faux bois pedestrian footbridge crosses overhead. At the other, green doors signal the entrance to a Climespace plant, which — 30 meters further underground — cools the surrounding buildings with circulating chilled water.

The Swiss Valley is one of the many garden spaces along the Champs-Élysées credited to Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand, an engineer who directed the construction of many Haussmann-era parks. Whether he actually designed it seems lost to history (on the internet, at least). I have read that the Valley was created for the Exposition Universelle of 1900, but perhaps it was the 1889 World’s Fair, as Alphand died in 1891. How Switzerland or a Swiss exhibit comes into it is also not really clear.

The little park is now called the Garden of New France because of nearby Place du Canada. At least half its 1.7 acres are above the valley garden, level with the street — an ordinary assortment of shrubs, grass, and gravel paths.

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*Including maple trees, bamboo, wavy leaf silktassel, Mexican orange, viburnum, nandina, lilac, jasmine, white hibiscus, ferns, ivy, roses, daylilies, smooth hydrangea, smokebush, Japanese anemones, and Persicaria ‘Red Dragon’.

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Marais garden, Paris

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The “hidden garden” of  the Musée des Archives Nationale in early September.

A quiet place to retreat to while exploring the popular Marais section of Paris.

I particularly liked the row of wire grid columns just inside the entrance from Rue des Quatre-Fils.  They enclosed upright pyracantha bushes and were underplanted with fountain grass.

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Along Canal Saint-Martin, Paris

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On this visit to Paris we walked along the Canal Saint-Martin for the first time — starting at the Jaurès metro stop and then leaving it near the Place de la Républic (where the canal goes into a tunnel and then re-emerges after Place de la Bastille).

Along the way, the little derelict enclosed garden* above caught my attention. I found it touching and rather beautiful in its neglected state.

The canal was built between 1802 and 1825 to bring more fresh water into the growing city. Boats also transported grain and other materials.  Traffic declined after the mid- 20th century, and there was talk of paving it over in the 1960s.  Since 1993, it has been designated as an Historical Monument.

Today, the formerly working class, now gentrifying area is very picturesque, if still a little down-at-heel in spots. It’s definitely worth a detour from the more usual Paris sights.

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Above, Square des Récollets.

ADDENDUM: There’s an interesting video clip of the canal in 1926 here.

*It was at Rue Eugène Varlin and Quai de Valmy.

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La Madeleine, Paris

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Floral display on the south steps of the church of the Madeleine, early September.

The flowers were petunias and nicotiana, between rows of dwarf fountain grass. A sign said the arrangement was sponsored by the Paris Mayor’s Office and installed by “l’atelier de jardinage des Champs Élysées.”


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