Our first visit had been in late September. It was a warm, dry day and began with a challenging morning, navigating across Paris to see Le Corbusier’s studio. The tourist directions were imprecise. Several streets and half an hour later, we were climbing the seven flights of stone stairs to see the apartment on 24 Rue Nungesser et Coli, near the western edge of the Peripherique.
It was worth the climb, as we and about 40 Chinese architecture students, discovered. Not much was being said, but everyone was looking really hard, judging, evaluating, admiring and remembering it all.
We remembered features like that little grey spiral staircase that leads to the roof terrace or the huge asymmetric pivoting room dividers. A very special place.
Back in the centre of Paris, we had had a quick lunch. Then, for the first time, we went into the Luxembourg gardens by the gate on the Boulevard Saint-Michel.
The gardens sit close to the Sorbonne on one side and Montparnasse on the other.We walked, surrounded by people both coming and going, down a broad avenue under a canopy of tall trees whose leaves were beginning to go brown. You could have been in a painting by Renoir
Originally built for Marie de Medici in the 16th century, and in Italian style, what was once only for royalty is now free for everyone. People have made this space their own, for this park has been much altered, changed, and added to.
It is a place with a great sense of space, elegance and style. People go there to take a break from shopping, business or study and to relax and to enjoy the company of others. Its a great place to people watch.
It is very much a planned park with an axial layout from the pond and Senate building to the north down to the Observatory gate to the south. It has many individual, even quirky features including an “English Garden” with broad, curved gravel paths and glimpsed vistas in the South-West corner.
There are touches of formality which mingle with informality, for groups can sit on patches of grass on the long axis to south, near the children’s play area. Otherwise there is no walking or sitting on grass here.
Instead, this Paris garden has something better to offer, chairs! Chairs in profusion, of different shapes for sitting up, for reclining and even for putting your feet upon. Sturdy, hefty metal chairs which you can arrange in any number or way you want, so if there’s three of you or eight of you, you can suit yourselves as to how you fix the arrangement. None of your British style fixed park benches here. Citizens and visitors alike get to choose where they sit. The garden’s most enviable feature is the ease with which ordinary people relax and luxuriate in such splendid surroundings.
At what I like to think is the centre of the gardens, there is a large octagonal pond with a central fountain, surrounded by a broad circular walkway. Here there are fancy and beautiful flower borders of great variety which are close to the paths.
On both sides there are broad flights of steps leading up to balustraded terraces, topped with big floral urns. The walkways round the pond have good sized palms and oleanders growing in very large Versailles tubs, punctuating the space and offering small pools of shade. These broad, very grand terraces also have a number of sculptures, some of which are very beautiful. A natural arena is formed, and this is a very popular place, with plenty of people coming and going. Amongst this, the gardeners go about their work, pruning and tending the trees and borders.
To the north of this is the Palais du Medici, the home of the French Senate and a seat of Government business. From its northern entrance, on the Rue de Vaugirard, black government cars come and go.
We were sitting below the terrace under a palm, when we faintly heard the sound of a band playing in the distance. So, along with various others, we moved towards the sound, found seats, brought them over and sat to listen. Again we were positioned comfortably, this time under dappled shade, a little distance from the bandstand. The music combined with the setting to give a feeling of perfect contentment. People would walk by, hesitate, then pull up a seat and listen. Just as freely, some rose to leave.
Every time the band stopped, the bandmaster stood up and solemnly and at some length addressed the crowd, but we couldn’t hear a thing as he had no microphone. Then he would sit down and the band in their dark blue uniforms with silver buttons, would start up again. It was very funny, and the audience were quietly amused.
After a while we felt thirsty, and spotted the Pavillon de la Fontaine Café where you can eat or drink. Its very popular, quite costly, but very good and fairly close to the bandstand. It has outdoor seating, with umbrellas, and its another great place for people watching. As the long, hot afternoon wore on towards evening, like many others, we had found the perfect spot, the temperature was just right. We were sitting in a little crowd in open shade under tall trees while one of us had a glass of beer and the other a glass of wine. We were talking about the morning’s visit, comparing notes and photographs. It was so comfortable that seven o’clock came round before we knew it. The conversation turned to dinner. Where to eat, and would it be necessary to book a table?
So a slow journey then, past the children still in the sandpit at the Observatory end, past the office workers hurrying home, and back up over gently rising ground towards the sound of Paris traffic, towards Montparnasse and our hotel.