A Favorite Paris Park – and the Project to Save It

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A Favorite Paris Park – and the Project to Save It
Major works are afoot at one of Paris’s best-loved parks. A €6m restoration is planned for the 150-year-old Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement, a green lung in one of the most densely-populated areas of the city. When it is completed the park will have undergone the biggest renovation in its history. The name Chaumont translates as “Bald Hill” because the mineral composition of the subsoil meant that vegetation never grew. It was always a desolate spot: right back in the 13th century it was known as Montfaucon and the site of Paris’s gibbet. In those days hanged people were left to rot in the open air. After the French Revolution it became a refuse tip, then a site for butchering horse carcasses, and finally a place to dump sewage. All in all a thoroughly pleasant welcome to France’s capital! Parc des Buttes-Chaumont by Traktorminze/ Wikipedia In the 19th century, this northeastern corner of Paris was honeycombed with gypsum quarries (hence plaster of Paris). By the 1860s, the quarries were exhausted and the area a polluted and abandoned wasteland. Enter Emperor Napoleon III who was a great fan of English parks, having lived in London while in exile. He instructed his director of public works (who went by the unwieldy name of Jean-Charles Adolphe Alphand) to design a new park on the quarry site in the informal, landscaped English style. Alphand had already designed the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes and he brought the same faux-rural aesthetic to this project. The result was one of Paris’s most beautiful green spaces, a million miles away from France’s traditional geometric formality seen in gardens such as the Tuileries or Luxembourg. Alphand took full advantage of the waste heaps to sculpt undulating grassy slopes. A large lake was created in the middle, fed by a mini waterfall and stream tinkling over stones so that you can (almost) imagine you’re in the countryside. Then Alphand let his imagination run riot. He built a high cascade and grotto, stalactites, and a winding path climbing up to the Greek Temple de la Sybille on its manmade island and its wonderful “belvedère,” or view, across northern Paris. The unstable Temple de la Sybille © Pat Hallam The park was a marvel of modern engineering, labor and ingenuity. Explosives sculpted the picturesque cliffs and grotto. A hydraulic system brought water from the Canal de l’Ourcq to feed the waterfalls. A thousand laborers dug the lake, shaped the slopes and planted thousands of flowers and trees in 200,000 cubic meters of imported topsoil. When the park opened in 1867 (to coincide with the Exposition Universelle), it quickly became a great attraction for the thousands of working-class Parisians trapped in cramped, insanitary apartments in Belleville and Ménilmontant. Today you can still stroll round the lake and explore the paths on several levels that wind around thickly wooded copses. In keeping with Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s drive for biodiversity in the city, some slopes have been left to self-seed as wildflower meadows, thus attracting insects and other invertebrates. Those that are still mown are perennially popular with Parisians for picnicking and sunbathing. The disused railway the Petite Ceinture runs through the middle of the park while two footbridges link upper paths with the Île du Belvedère. Children have plenty to amuse them in the shape of playgrounds, swings, pony rides, and Le Guignol theater which still presents marionette shows.

Lead photo credit : Parc des Buttes Chaumont © Jean-Louis Vandevivère at Creative Commons

More in Bald Hill, Parc des Buttes Chaumont, sustainability, Temple de la Sybille

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Pat Hallam fell in love with Paris when she was an adolescent. After many years of visiting, in 2020 she finally moved from the UK to live here and pursue her passion for the city. A freelance writer and history lover, she can spend hours walking the streets of this wonderful city finding hidden courtyards, bizarre and unusual landmarks and uncovering the centuries of history that exist on every street corner (well, almost). You can find the results of her explorations on Instagram @littleparismoments.


  • Theresa Lapin
    2022-08-12 02:11:21
    Theresa Lapin
    Thank you for the history; I didn't know about the foundation of the park. I had a beautiful picnic with my daughter on one of the high, grassy hills last year(complete with view of Sacre Couer), and I wish I had time to visit and explore again this last April when I was in Paris. Hopefully, next April.


    • Pat Hallam
      2022-08-15 03:58:27
      Pat Hallam
      Glad you enjoyed it Theresa. The whole of northern Paris is built on a honeycomb of tunnels and excavation galleries. It's one reason why buildings are rarely more thsn three storeys high.