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This is the 21st in a series of walking tours highlighting the sites and stories of diverse districts of Paris.
I’d long been intrigued by the idea of La Villette. This former abattoir and cattle market, where 12,000 butchers once plied their trade, was transformed in the 1980s into a leisure park, a 55-hectare space to escape the city and do ….. well, what exactly? The Porte de la Villette metro station on Line 7 is right opposite the main gate and entrance is free, so it would be easy to go and investigate and a flânerie very different from any other would surely result. I’d leave the cobbled streets, squares and boulevards behind and head into lesser-known territory.
I’d read about the Parcours Jardins et Nature, a route through La Villette taking in a series of little gardens with enticing names: the Mirror Garden, the Dragon Garden, the Shadows Garden. They would, said my source, encourage reflection. Also, there are 26 folies dotted through the park, large red constructions intended – and it was this word which sold it to me! – to egayer, or brighten things up. Unfortunately, I’d picked a rather chilly, dull day and my first impression of the huge, red metal objects was that they were trying a little too hard to enliven the grey of their surroundings.
The large area inside the entrance was thinly peopled, understandable given the not very cheerful weather. I knew that Bernard Tschumi, the original architect of this urban redevelopment project, had been influenced by the philosopher Jacques Derrida’s theory of deconstructionism. I searched for more details on the architecture website dezeen.com and found ideas about disrupting expectations, about fragmenting and reassembling things to enhance, as they put it, “the sense of imperfection and disorder that gives the park its distinctive personality.” So perhaps it was ok to feel discombobulated.
Outside the Petite Hall near the entrance, was a large expanse of polished wooden flooring, where a young woman was moving expressionlessly through various yoga positions and a group of teenagers were strutting dance moves to their enormous portable music player. All seemed quite oblivious to onlookers. Passers-by took little notice of them. A nearby folie was a tangle of metal – red, as promised, but also a mass of steel-grey rails and wires – and a signpost indicated a host of venues to explore. I was yet to discover what Vill’Up or Zénith might be, but it was reassuring to note that even in a deconstructed park, someone wanted me to know what was where.
The first gardens were just a little way up on my left. The Jardins des Miroirs was a wooded area with large freestanding mirrors reflecting the surrounding pine and maple trees and providing amusement for a gaggle of toddlers. Some distorted the reflections, others were lined up to reflect each other in an eery way which I found a bit disorientating. Perhaps that was the idea? More practically, outside the Jardins Passagers, a picture board hinted at the dos and don’ts for this garden. No picnicking at the tables, no football or blaring music, but please do stop to smell the flowers, to dream a little or maybe to take part in a gardening workshop. That, I thought, might be nice on a sunnier day.
The Jardins des Vents et des Dunes looked fun, a sandy expanse with a nautical theme where children could pedal mini wind turbines into action or play with sails. I read later that the idea was to offer “inventive games for children and chaises longues for their parents.” Perfect for a warm day! Next, to my surprise, came a shop crammed with beach toys – brightly colored buckets, hoops and balls – with a duck-fishing game set up outside and ready to play. If I’d had children with me, I think we’d have stopped there despite the chill in the air.
Just by the bridge crossing the Canal de l’Ourcq which runs through the middle of the park, I came to a board listing all 26 folies. Some had been repurposed as a ticket office or a café, but most seemed have been built on a “just because” basis, often with romantic names like “the folly of the angels” or “the folly at the ends of the earth.” These magical names didn’t suit the hard, angular structures I had seen so far. On this gloomy day, the walk along the canal-side was a little bleak, steely skies reflected in gun grey water and high-rise blocks in the distance. But things cheered up when I got to the Jardin du Dragon where the enormous pink, blue and yellow discs of the dragon’s body concealed an 80m slide full of excited children. Its spiky head and painted features dominated the woodland and yells of pleasure filled the air.
At the Jardin des Voltiges, a number of silently intent young men tried out the fitness equipment: bars and ropes, a punchbag, weights. Information boards offered prompts in strangely anglicized language – crossfit, chase-tag – along with a reminder that the equipment can’t be used between 1 and 6 am. Such was their focus, I wondered whether some of these fitness fans would otherwise be there all night. There was much else to ponder. Was the walkway leading through the trees in the strangely named “Garden of Childhood Fears,” a reference to the dark woods of fairy tales? Was it odd to imagine that the black and white marble slabs spread randomly through the Garden of the Shadows looked like a chessboard designed by a drunk?
I was also a bit baffled in the Jardin des Bambous, where a board listed 23 different types of bamboo, a much greater number than I could identify. It may have been the wrong season, but the convoluted Latin names – even the simplest read sasa cernua nebulosa – added to my feeling that I was marooned in an Alice in Wonderland world, where nothing quite made sense. At first, the Bamboo Garden had a certain secret charm, being tucked away in a sunken hollow, but then at the exit, I saw that some furious graffiti artists had left their mark. They had chosen this isolated spot to vent their anger against the state, the police and right-wingers: à bas l’état, les flics et les fachos.
There is so much more to La Villette than I could see in one afternoon. My husband had opted out of the walk in favor of a visit to the nearby Musée de la Musique, where he marveled at the collection of instruments from across the centuries and went to a workshop where an accordion player did a mini concert and answered questions about the instrument. We stayed for an evening concert at the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall, where the resident orchestra played a sublime program of Leonard Bernstein and Beethoven under a spectacular undulating roof. Things, which had seemed so strange during the afternoon, fell gradually back into place.
I would happily repeat every flânerie I have done so far. This one? In similar circumstances – a spookily empty futurist park on a cold, flat day – maybe not. But there are lots of reasons to give La Villette a second chance. I know a five-year-old who’d love to hurl herself down the dragon slide, I’d be drawn to the outdoor cinema and free concerts of the summer season and there are all sorts of intriguing options for trying something new in a workshop. Plus, you can tour a decommissioned submarine, watch films on a 1000 square meter screen in the Géode, visit the Cité des Sciences or see blockbuster exhibitions in the Grande Hall, such as the one on Ramses II which has just closed. La Villette attracts 10 million visitors a year, for a host of different reasons.
The unexpected kept popping up and I felt I’d entered a strange, topsy-turvy world. I wouldn’t swap this futuristic landscape for the delights of central Paris on a regular basis. But I may well take Line 7 again and head out to La Villette to explore a little more of what it has to offer.
Lead photo credit : Parc de la Villette. Photo credit: Jean-Marie Hullot / Wikimedia Commons