Monday, July 4, 2016

Paris 2016 - Coulee Verte, Buttes Chaumont, Parc de Villette

Part of our "Off the Beaten Path" itinerary involved visiting some large parks either bordering on or actually in the suburbs of Paris, including the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, Parc de la Villette, and the Bois de Vincennes, which is the largest park in Paris and sits at the eastern end of the Coulée Verte walking trail. We wanted to have good weather for these outdoor excursions.  When we first arrived in Paris, we experienced quite a bit of rain, including the occasional down pour.  Luckily we were never far from home on those days and got back just before the intense storms started. But we definitely did not want to be caught in the middle of a vast park far away from home during a heavy rainfall, so we did a lot of weather watching and juggling of our schedule to make sure we that embarked on perfectly clear days.

Similar to the Highline trail in Manhattan and parts of the Kay Gardiner trail in Toronto, the Coulée Verte ("Green Belt") is a partially elevated walking path that follows an old railway line, in this case the former Vincennes line in the 12th arrondissement.  Also known as the Promenade Plantée, the extensive tree-lined walkway starts near the Opéra Bastille and extends in a south-east direction for almost 5 kilometres before exiting at the western point of the Bois de Vincennes.  The western end of the Coulée Verte runs along the top of the Viaduc des Arts (formerly the railway line Viaduc de Bastille), a 10-metre high bridge with 64 red brick arches or vaults with shops and art galleries located underneath, running along avenue Daumesnil.  Stairs and elevators are available at various points to allow access up to the elevated path.

The Coulée Verte is more than just a walkway.  It is a linear park that is beautifully landscaped with plants, shrubs, flowers, arched trellises and even water features.  There were very few people on the path and many of those that we did see were clearly locals out enjoying the sunshine, reading newspapers on the benches, or taking leisurely strolls.  The path offers a wide variety of plants including cherry blossom, holly and lime trees, evergreen shrubs, climbing rose, clematis and honeysuckle bushes, that mix with natural vegetation such as moss and wild poppies.

The elevated Viaduc des Arts offers up some great views of the architecture in the 12th arrondissement.  We saw ornate rooftops of Art Nouveau buildings and wide tree-lined boulevards like the ones that we had in the 16th arrondissement where we stayed.  I'm not sure what style it is considered, but I really liked the building with the grey egg-shaped domed roof that reminded me a bit of Eastern Orthodox churches.

The most interesting sight on this stretch of the Coulée Verte has to be the awesome sculptures lining the top of the Art Deco building at 80 Avenue Daumesnil, designed by Spanish architect Manuel Nunez Yanowsky.  The building is currently used as the police station for the 12th arrondissement. The "cheeky" sculptures are modeled after Michelangelo's masterpiece "Dying Slave" which is in the Louvre.

As we came towards the end of the Viaduc des Arts, we saw more examples of the Art Deco Streamline Moderne style of buildings.  I was particularly interested in two buildings that stood on either side of the walkway, which from afar appeared to be a single building that was cut in half.

The elevated portion of the Coulée Verte ends near the Jardin de Reuilly-Paul-Pernin, which consists of a large lawn area used for sports and suntanning, surrounded by smaller themed gardens.  Designed by landscape architects Pierre Colboc and Thierry Louf, this is the largest green space in the 12th arrondissement.  It is spanned by the Reuilly Bridge which leads to Allée Vivaldi, a two-laned road that is divided by a wide, tree-lined promenade named after Italian violinist Antonio Vivaldi.  When we first exited the parklands and arrived at this street with traffic and apartment buildings on both sides, we thought that the Coulée Verte pathway had ended.  We proceeded on through the promenade just in case and quickly found that it did continue.

At the end of the Allée Vivaldi, we reached the Tunnel de Reuilly, an underground passageway leading towards the Bois de Vincennes that acts as a path for cyclists, scooters, skateboards, joggers and pedestrians.  The walls are decorated with rock art and trickling waterfalls.

After traversing through the tunnel, we arrived at a new woodland path that eventually led to the Square Charles Péguy, the largest city square in 12th arrondissement, named after a 19th Century French writer, poet and essayist.  Having reached the end of the Coulée Verte, we were tired after walking almost 5km.  Accordingly, we did not do a good job exploring this square and missed out on seeing a pretty cascading fountain and some other park features.  We did end up at a community garden area that apparently led to another 19km trail called the Petite Ceinture, but we never found that either and probably would not have had the energy to walk it even if we had.  These will be areas we can plan to explore on our next visit to Paris.  There seems to be an endless list of things to do and see in this beautiful city.

On another sunny day, we set out to visit two large parks in the 19th arrondissement, situated in the north-east end of Paris–the Parc des Buttes Chaumont and the Parc de la Villette.  

The beauty of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is even more impressive after hearing about the sordid history of its location.  From the 13th through the 18th centuries, it was the location of the Gibbet of Montfaucon, the main gallows where bodies were hung on display after execution.  After the French Revolution of 1789, it became the dumping ground for horse carcasses, garbage and sewage.  Finally in 1864, it was decided to turn this toxic, disease-infested area into a public park, designed by Jean-Charles Alphand who also created the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes. To revitalize the area and create the park, 200,000 cubic metres of top soil were used to landscape and create sloping lawns, hillsides and a 3.7 acre lake.  The chief gardener of Paris planted flowers, shrubs and thousands of trees of both indigenous and exotic species. 

Steep cliffs (buttes) were created using explosives, resulting in the small island "Île du Belvédère" with a 50-metres high mountain.  Atop the mountain, a miniature Roman temple was erected, modeled after the Temple of Vesta near Tivoli, Italy.  Named the "Temple de la Sibylle",  you can see wonderful views of the Montparnasse district from its perch.  

A 12-metre long stone bridge and a 63-metre long suspension bridge lead to the island from the south and the north sides of the park.  The stone bridge was nicknamed the "Suicide Bridge" due to a number of highly publicized suicides that occurred from this location.  Mesh wiring has since been installed to prevent further incidents.  We accessed the island from the stone bridge, admired the views, then returned to the main park via the suspension bridge.

There are some very picturesque views of the temple, mountain and lake from the bottom of the park, with people are seen sunbathing and even fishing by the edge of the lake.  As we strolled around the Buttes Chaumont, we admired the designs of three very different artificial waterfalls.  In each case, hydraulic pumps are used to lift water from a nearby canal up to the highest point of the cascade.  The first was a flow of water rushing down the side of a tree-lined cliff that looked so natural that you would not think that it was man-made.  The second waterfall was given a romantic setting with slow streams of water trickling over sculpted rocks, guarded by the sculpture of a woodland tree monster reminiscent of something out of Lord of the Rings.

The third and most impressive chute was a massive cascade flowing down 20 metres from within an enormous grotto that was created out of an old gypsum and limestone quarry.  This 14-metre wide cavern was decorated with artificial stalactites and giant stepping stones which guide the stream of water out of the grotto and back towards the lake.

Located a mere 20 minutes walk north-east of the Buttes Chaumont, the Parc de la Villette is an "urban park for the 21st century" that defies past preconceptions of what a park entails.  Built in the early 1980s on top of  former 19th century cattle slaughterhouses, the design by architect Bernard Tschumi incorporates traditional green space with buildings and architecture dedicated to arts, science, culture and entertainment.  Located within the massive 55 acres of the Villette are multiple concert halls and venues for live music, sports facility, exhibition space, a science museum, a museum of historic musical instruments, several movie spaces including an IMAX dome, and a children's play area.

When we first reached the southern end of the park, we wondered whether there would be any green space at all.  The sign said that we were in Parc de la Villette, but there was no sign of any trees or grass. We first passed by the Philharmonie de Paris concert hall designed by Jean Nouvel, whose innovative, sparkling metal façade could easily be mistaken for the work of Frank Gehry.  Then we entered the Place de la Fontaine aux Lions, a large square featuring the 19th Century fountain with lion sculptures created by Pierre-Simon Girard.  Temporary carnival rides are installed in the middle of the square during the summer months (July/August).

At the rear of the square is a large building called "La Grande Halle", which was originally called "La Grande Halle Aux Boeufs" due to its history as a beef tallow processing plant.  Today, the 220,000 square foot space made of glass and cast iron is used as an event space for traveling exhibitions, fairs, festivals and cultural events.  It was interesting to note that the current exhibition "James Bond: Fifty Years of Bond Style" was the same show that played in Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox a few years back.  Also located in the Place de la Fontaine aux Lions square is the "Cité de la Musique", a museum of musical instruments as well as the restaurant "Café des Concerts" where we decided to stop for lunch.

After walking well into the early afternoon in the Buttes Chaumont, it felt good to sit down and get some rest and nourishment before continuing to explore the park.  We were able to score a prime seat on the patio.  I ordered an excellent "Croque Monsieur" with salad, while Rich ordered the "Croque Madame" which additionally included a fried egg on top.  The Croque Monsieur is a "French toasted" ham and Gruyere cheese sandwich which is dipped in an egg batter and fried or grilled.  The one at this restaurant was particularly generous on the Gruyere cheese and was one of the best versions that I've ever had.

After lunch we walked further north in the park towards the Canal de l'Ourcq and finally came across green space.  In a large lawn area, an outdoor movie theatre screens films in the summer evenings.  An annual open-air film festival is held in July and August which features a different theme each year, such as the 2010 theme "To Be 20" dealing with movies about youth and self-discovery at age 20.  Scattered throughout the park are 35 bright red metal structures, known as "follies" that the architect intended as "architectural representations of deconstruction".  It is like the physical representation of the Cubism art movement.  These structures are mainly decorative as well as acting as directional points of reference in the park, although some have been re-purposed to be house information booths or snack bars.

As we approached the canal, we caught sight of a large reflective dome that reminded me of the Cloud Gate (aka "Bean") sculpture in Chicago's Millenium Park. In fact, it is the "Geode", a geodesic IMAX movie theatre which shows films on nature and science.  The theatre sits on top of the "Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie", the largest Science Centre in Europe.

An elevated boardwalk provides excellent views of the canal and the parkland on either side of it.  We watched people walking across a bridge to cross the canal, while small boats and paddle boats slowly approached and waited expectantly.  We wondered how the boats were going to pass, and soon we got our answer.

The bridge is actually a motorized temporary platform that slowly swings around until it sits parallel to one side of the canal, opening up a space for boats to pass.  We stood for a while and watched the mobile bridge as it swung open and closed. The bridge is supplied by the company Contraste, which specializes in rentals of floating platforms, barges, kayaks, paddle boats, and other leisure flotation devices.  The "Pont Mobile" is probably only installed during the busy summer months in order to alleviate the traffic on the permanent foot bridge that sits further down the canal.

From our perch on the elevated boardwalk, we noticed what looked like a colourful sculpture of a giant bug or some other type of creature.  Once we crossed the bridge and got a closer look, we realized that this was an enormous 80 foot slide that is part of a larger children's play area.  Although it did not seem like it to me, the slide is actually meant to be shaped like a Dragon

Since we reached the Parc de la Villette so late in the day, we did not have time to give it a thorough exploration.  We missed many of its featured attractions, including going into the museums and concert venues, or visiting the 10 different themed gardens such as the Garden of Mirrors or Garden of Bamboo.  We even found out later that there is a submarine called "The Argonaut" that you can board for 3 Euros.  We will have to spend more time in this beautiful park on our next visit.

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