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From afar, the urban forests to the east (Bois de Vincennes) and the west (Bois de Boulogne) of the capital may seem like an endless collection of tall trees on the outskirts of town and devoid of convenient metro stations, but I beg to differ. What were once the hunting grounds of kings are now rich depositories of cultural and botanical gems, with restaurants, streams, rowboat-dotted lakes and, of course, lots of tall trees.
One of my favorite hidden corners in the Bois de Boulogne is the lesser known Shakespeare Garden and its open-air theater. Much like a Matryoshka doll, this garden is tucked into the western edge of another garden called the Pré Catelan, which is nestled between the Lac Inferior and the Allée de la Reine Marguerite. While the Pré Catelan garden is a relatively small space, it has a long and eventful history: its namesake was Louis XIV’s hunting capitain, Théophile Catelan, while the French word pré means meadow.
During the restoration of the Bois de Boulogne in the mid-19th century, this prairie became a quarry, supplying sand and gravel for the newly designed paths and winding roads through the forest. When the work was completed, it became an amusement park in 1858 with rides, an aquarium, magic shows, a photography studio, a brewery, and even a dairy that served warm milk directly from the cows. Parisians also flocked to this picturesque setting for its open-air theater, appropriately named the Theatre des Fleurs, or Floral Theater, with seats for 1800 spectators. It was wildly successful when it opened to the public thanks to the beautiful floral decorations, the quality of its productions as well as its proximity to the highly fashionable restaurant, also named the Prè Catelan.
Regrettably, the occupation and civil unrest which followed the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 brought an end to all this fun, damaging the garden and decimating the newly restored and burgeoning forest. While the Pré Catelan garden and some of its features were eventually restored, foliage replaced the flowers in the open-air theater, which operated only briefly before the demolition of what remained of the stage and bleachers after the First World War.
In 1952 the London branch of the Friends of France Association wished to honor William Shakespeare and considered replacing his statue which had been melted by the Nazis during the Second World War. Instead a garden was created! Given the connection with the performing arts, it was only fitting that the Director of the Parks Department, Mr. Robert Joffre, suggest the location of a previous theater in the Pré Catelan garden for this original project. Within 18 months, the new space was created: trees, shrubs and flowers were planted, and the Shakespeare garden was inaugurated the following June. While very beautiful with very carefully selected plants, it wasn’t until the 1980s that performances in the theater began in earnest thanks to the dedication of Marie Louise Hemphill. Today they are still taking place from June through September. This summer they all will be in French, with works by Marivaux, Molière, and of course William Shakespeare with additional performances of The Wizard of Oz and the Three Little Pigs for the younger crowd.
Once you step inside the Shakespeare garden, you will be transported afar. The stage is set against a low, rocky hill and surrounded by five botanical backdrops planted with over 150 species to evoke five of the Bard’s most emblematic plays. These imaginary decors drew their inspiration from the play’s settings as well as from species cited in the works by the author. Hedges or simply a row of stones delineate the different sections in addition to the different plant collections. A circular path leads you around the perimeter of the garden along with several narrow staircases meandering through the plants. These different levels create the impression of a much larger garden as well as giving you the opportunity to discover it from various angles.
The enchanting forest of Arden from As You Like It greets you to the left and right of the entrance with ferns, oaks, hazelnuts, hawthorns, mosses and brambles. Winding clockwise around the central lawn, you will cross into the Scottish Highlands where the dramatic scenes of Macbeth are evoked with holly, hellebores, yews, rhubarb, and heather. The garden also once received a Mandragore officinarum, commonly called the “Insane Root,” from the Professor Leroy at the Jardin des Plantes, but it has unfortunately since died.
Another change of scenery takes place around the stage, where fairies abound, and Puck makes mischief in A Midsummer’s Night Dream. Tall oak trees frame this space along with honeysuckle, alliums, broom, thistle and bulrushes.
A second tragedy, Hamlet, is represented just to the right of the stage where a weeping willow stands over a small pond and a few waterlilies await the sunshine before opening their graceful blossoms. Violets, primroses, colombines, rosemary and rue also embellish the banks of the nearby stream. Delicious scents thyme, rosemary, sage and lavender in addition to tall palms and cypress trees evoke the Mediterranean setting for The Tempest on the south-facing side of the garden. Bulrushes and wild grasses abound with a few clumps of irises, roses and wisps of lavender catmint. A few steps further through the enchanted forest and you will have made your way back to the entrance gate.
Do take some time to enjoy the Pré Catelan garden which has kept many of its 19th-century charms, including three original pavilions, vibrant floral beds, a beautiful collection of tree peonies which flower before the herbaceous varieties in the spring and a modern playground for children. There are also several remarkable trees, notably a towering sequoia just opposite the Shakespeare garden, a majestic Arizona cypress and a rare Cleveland maple tree which was given to the garden by the Cleveland Electric company in 1957. Keep an eye out for several multi-trunked, narrow oak trees. This unusual growth pattern is called a “cepée” in French and occurs when the main trunk of a tree has been cut and several new branches shoot up from the stump, maturing gracefully.
The Shakespeare Garden is open every day. However the hours of this oasis are very limited, from 2-4pm. Please note that the garden is also closed to the public during performances. A schedule of the remaining summer plays can be viewed at www.jardinshakespeare.com. Additional information and reservations can be requested at 33(0)6 1239 3069 or [email protected]
Lead photo credit : Une soirée au Pré Catelan. 1909. By Henri Alexandre Gervex. © Public Domain, Wikimedia commons