You’ve come a long way, baby

After 10 years in Paris, I’m still utterly fascinated by its paradoxical nature. What’s regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world reveals a much darker and grittier underside the more you get to know the place, with the tourist version being entirely different to the daily reality that us residents experience. And it’s not just comparing the pristine streets of the Champs-Élysées with the turd-splattered lanes in the bits the visitors don’t often see (i.e. chez moi), but realising that much of the beauty and splendour of Paris comes complete with some quite blood-curdling stories that proves that grit and grime are as part of her DNA as any other city in the world.

Take the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement, whose undulating elegance hides quite the gruesome past. If turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse warranted prizes, this gorgeous green space would take the bacon. It’s nice to imagine that this natural oasis has always been there, a part of the rural outskirts purposely ring-fenced as the urban sprawl swallowed up the space around it, but no. In fact, in its past life, this patch of Paris was nothing but a bare, bleak hill (or chauve-mont, from which it gets its name) thanks to its inhospitable plant-repelling soil, not to mention for 500 years the site where the bodies of hanged criminals were displayed to dissuade the masses against any wrongdoing. If ever there was a part of the city ripe for development, then this was undoubtedly it.

Back in the mid-19th century this sorry excuse for a postcode wasn’t even part of Paris proper. Then known as the independent commune of Belleville, it wasn’t until the rejigging of the boundaries by Napoleon III and our good friend Baron Haussmann in the late 1850s that it was integrated into the city when the number of arrondissements grew from 12 to 20. Along with its macabre past, the site had worn many a grim guise from refuse dump to horse carcass processing centre and exhausted quarry, a lot less attractive than the city its bounty built. The Baron sure displayed ambitious, rose-tinted vision when he decided this spot would be perfect to create a new city park.

Work began in earnest by chief Paris park-maker Jean-Charles Alphand (responsible also for bois Vincennes and Boulogne, and parks Monceau and Montsouris) in 1864, though transforming this ugly duckling into a beautiful swan required two years of terracing (partly achieved via dynamite – no mucking about here), 200,000 m3 of topsoil and a thousand workers. A couple of rakes and a hoe just wasn’t gonna cut it. Once the heavy lifting was complete, gardener and architect duo Jean-Pierre Barillet-Champs and Gabriel Davioud took the baton and went to work creating a beautiful landscape filling it with as many floral and architectural delights as they could muster between them.

Finally opened on 1st April 1867, enter via the main entrance in front of the mairie of the 19th, and you can marvel at a stunning selection of exotics plants and shrubs, and many a majestic tree that can provide some respite from the current canicule (heatwave). Explore further its 61 acres via nearly 8 kilometres of paths and roads, and you’ll stumble across the (often hidden) architectural gems, including the famous Temple de la Sybille haughtily overlooking the park and its artificial lake from its perch on top of the central Île de la Belvédère.

Its signature grassy slopes offer plenty of picnicking potential with their built-in reclinability, though there are a trio of bricks-and-mortar eating and drinking spots for the more discerning diner. Waterfalls and a grotto complete the charm with their tinkling water music, and the idyllic urban oasis is complete. Or so you’d think, but remember the dark side of Paris we talked about earlier? Well just to sprinkle a little bit of gloomy drama into the serene scene, one of the park’s two bridges (not the Gustave Eiffel-designed suspension one, the 12-metre masonry one, pictured) is dubbed the ‘suicide bridge’ after being favoured by a few too many jumpers. Let’s keep that one for going under, shall we?

Place Armand-Carrel 75019, metro Botzaris, Buttes-Chaumont or Laumière

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