Most tourists hear Paris and think of the Eiffel Tower. Maybe also of the elegant cafés, innumerable museums and popular landmarks strewn all around the city. But in this glorious roster of spectacles comprising the Arc de Triomphe, Louvre, Place de la Concorde, Cathédrale Notre-Dame (alas, currently closed for renovation), Montmartre, Place Vendôme and others, one name usually gets overlooked — that of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Located in the 19th Arrondissement, almost on the edge of Paris, this public park, covering an area of 61 acres, is arguably a hidden gem. It is not a conventional tourist attraction — it demands to be experienced rather than seen. Once inside the premises, one feels a gradual slowing of time, a desire to luxuriate in this bubble of pure nature, forget every gadget (though the civic authorities have thoughtfully provided four Wi-Fi zones for avid Instagrammers), along with every other fever and fret of life.
Open to the public since 1 April 1867 (the day the Universal Exposition, one of the greatest international fairs in the world, opened in Paris), Buttes Chaumont is not as old as some of its better-known counterparts, the lush Luxembourg Gardens and the verdant Tuileries Garden, for instance, both of which became accessible to the public in the 17th century. And yet, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is no less historically unique or architecturally intriguing than its rivals.
I learnt about this park entirely by accident, when American novelist HanyaYanagihara posted a stunning photograph of the place on Instagram earlier this year. The frame captured a view of the Temple de la Sibylle that overlooks the park from the top of a bare hillock, after which the place is named (Chaumont is a compound word made of chauve, meaning bare, and mont, mountain).
Inspired by the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy, the striking structure — designed by the then chief architect of Paris, Gabriel Davioud—enhances the appeal of the surroundings. It conjured up for me the ambience of a fairy tale: the vision of a forbidden perch where a monster or ogre perhaps dwells, far above us lesser mortals.
Unsurprisingly, during my last visit to Paris in April, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont was at the top of my list. And I couldn’t have chosen a better day to go there. The sun was out, but not beating down, the air was crisp. Hundreds of people — families, couples, groups of young people and the odd solitary reader — were scattered on the grass under the cloudless azure sky. Dogs of every size and pedigree and children ran about excitedly. Wherever one turned, there were bottles of wine chilling in coolers, boxes of ripe berries and hampers of picnic food. A raucous birthday party nearby for a three-year-old elicited a whoop of cheer when the cake was cut and the toddler was brandished by the proud parents almost like a trophy. I felt as though I had stepped inside a painting by an impressionist master: into Le Déjeuner Sur L’Herbe by ÉdouardManet, with the exception of having fully clothed people around, or perhaps into the Bal Du Moulin De La Galette by Pierre-August Renoir, transposed to the 21st century.
A short walk from the subway stop Buttes Chaumont, the park appears as a burst of luscious green in the middle of the grey cobblestoned cityscape. To call it a marvel would not be an exaggeration. It is impossible to imagine that the place was a wasteland until well into the 19th century. Once designated as the spot to display the bodies of hanged criminals, it was later turned into a dump yard and a sewage disposal ground. Horse carcasses were carted here to be cut up. Then, in the second half of the 19th century, the civic authorities woke to its potential.
Planned and designed by Jean-Charles Alphand, Buttes Chaumont assumed its present form—a patch of Arcadian beauty and order that draws Parisians to it from far corners of the city.
Apart from its diverse horticultural resources—rows of linden, tulip and gingko trees, among other species—the park has an artificial lake in the middle, encircling the temple on the hill. Two bridges (one of which was covered with a mesh after several incidents of suicide) and a grotto (the residue of a former gypsum and limestone quarry on the site) with a trickle of a waterfall enhance the unique mystique of the place.