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Parc des Buttes-Chaumont

August 13, 2011

I know, it’s been a long time since my last entry.  I’m trying to remedy that and come back to blog-land!

It’s summer in Paris. Specifically, it’s August, which means everyone is on vacation. I didn’t believe it before experiencing it, but most of the city (those that don’t cater to tourists anyway) leaves for other parts of France or other countries. My lab is completely empty – where I usually have 20 co-workers, I now have 2. It’s eerily quiet sometimes.

Even though my favorite boulangerie and several restaurants we’ve tried to go to are closed for the month, there are still a lot of city-sponsored activities happening throughout Paris.: concerts, volleyball, that sort of thing. Some are a bit silly but also really happy. For example, there’s a beach set up next to the Seine. It’s called Paris Plage (Paris Beach) and has umbrellas, a giant intricately carved sandcastle and beach chairs that hold three or more children at once. However…there’s no ocean! No lake! As with most city-central rivers, the Seine isn’t the cleanest of tributaries. The lack of a pleasant-looking body of water sort of defeats the purpose of a beach for me. I’m sure it’s a pleasant place though, hanging out with friends on the sand. But if your kids dig too far into the sand, they’ll find…cobblestones. Or worse.

Lately, the weather hasn’t been too beach-friendly either. I’ve been told the weather is supposed to be good this time of year, but it’s been cloudy and drizzly and not so warm. Today it rained in the morning, but then the sun came out after lunch and it felt like t-shirt weather, so we took advantage of it and went to visit Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (the third-largest park in the city after Parc de la Villette and le jardin des Tuileries) in the 19th arrondissement.

After we’d walked around it for awhile, I realized that I must write a blog entry about it because it’s so… fake! The whole thing was constructed in the 1860s, even the rocks. It’s a great park, and I had a wonderful afternoon, but it’s also a really strange place.

Apparently, the land it sits on has a horrible history. Starting in the 1320s, it was a gallows-site for over 300 years. Then, it became a sewage dumping-ground and a yard for slaughtering horses. Then they found gypsum  and limestone and dug huge holes in the ground to make the land into a quarry. (Sidenote: if you heat gypsum up to 300˚F and mix it with water, you get plaster of Paris.) You can read more of the horror here. It looks like I might have to get the book that particular blog post mentions.

Finally, in 1860, the land was annexed to Paris, and Napoleon III (the nephew of the conqueror Napoleon I) commissioned the park.  The name of the park can be translated in two parts: buttes means “hills” or “heights” and chaumont is monts chauves or “bald mountains”.

So, nowadays it’s a beautiful place for a picnic on a weekend afternoon, a stop at the waffle stand or the beer garden at Rosa Bonheur, or even for checking your email in one of its 4 wifi spots. There’s a fake cliff in the middle of a lake upon which sits a mini-temple modeled after the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy.  There are trees from all over the world, several from Asia. There’s a 20-meter-high artificial waterfall that you can stand next to in a cave left over from the quarrying days.  When we were there today, there was a group of girls in the cave by the waterfall dressed in wigs and naughty school-girl outfits practicing a dance routine. We felt like we were in an amusement park without rides.

We didn’t have a camera with us, so here are a couple of pictures from Wikimedia Commons.

The temple on the cliff

The waterfall

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