Despite having lived here for almost two years, it’s only recently that I discovered two of Paris’ largest and prettiest parks: the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the Parc Montsouris. Struck by the physical similarities between the two (they’re both hilly and have a natural, country feel about them), a quick bit of research revealed that they also have a lot in common from a historical point of view.
The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is a pocket of greenery; a country park in the north-eastern corner of Paris. Having heard a lot about it, I finally made it there last weekend when the sun came out, and am glad I did. It’s a beautiful park with 24.7 hectares of rolling hills, grassy banks and waterfalls – a real escape from the hustle and bustle of the city.
The park also has a very interesting history. From the French Revolution to the mid-nineteenth century it was a gypsum and limestone quarry, mined for the construction of buildings in Paris and the United States. But during the Second Empire, Napoléon III decided to transform the former quarry into a sumptuous garden.
The state bought the land in 1863 and it took three years just to terrace the land. Dynamite was used to sculpt the former quarry into cliffs complete with a grotto and arches, while hydraulic pumps were installed to create a dramatic waterfall. The park was finally inaugurated in 1867, just in time for the Universal Exposition.
Napoléon III was also behind the creation of the Parc Montsouris, on the southern edge of Paris. Now my regular running spot this, too, was a former quarry used, among other things, to discard of bones when Parisian cemeteries were dug up.
The construction of the Parc Montsouris was assigned to Baron Haussmann, who is best known for his work on the boulevards of Paris. Covering 15 hectares and inaugurated in 1867, the Parc Montsouris was inspired by the parks of London not only in terms of physical appearance, but also in terms of purpose; the park was to become a place where people from all classes and walks of life could mix.
The Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and the Parc Montsouris were among the parks to be created as part of Baron Haussmann’s ‘assainissement’: the clean-up operation that brought vast changes to the physical appearance of Paris. Created during the Second Empire (1852-1870), they were designed both to showcase imperial prestige and to regenerate the dirtiest areas of the city, associated with revolution.
Unlike palaces, museums and prisons, it’s not necessarily intuitive to look up the history of a city’s gardens. But it’s amazing what you find out when you do.