The Jardin du Luxembourg Paris
Boules in the Park, Shows at the Puppet Theatre and Children's Playgrounds
It’s immense; the look of concentration, the tunnel vision of an athlete in the starting blocks for the Olympic 100 metres final. Eyes, mind, body; all focused on one thing. He rubs the ball, perhaps to ensure it has no sand on it to deviate the flight, perhaps for luck, then tosses it between his hands.
Staring out his quarry, he launches his boule into the pit, looping through the air, a flick of the wrist ensuring it doesn’t roll off too far upon landing. It clunks down right next to the little red target, and he rises slowly, a look of smug satisfaction upon his face.
The whole thing is wonderfully French. There’s no whooping and hollering over the success, just a typically Gallic quiet air of superiority and an acknowledging nod from the vanquished. Forget your Eiffel Tower and your Louvre – this is what Paris is really about.
It may have the famous landmarks, museums, galleries and theatres, the envy of the globe, but one area that no other city will ever match the French capital in is the ancient sport of people-watching. Paris is just geared to it, whether it’s sat outside in the cafés, watching the world go by with a coffee, or in fabulous spots such as the Jardin du Luxembourg.
One thing that will never be said about Paris is that it is a green city. Surprisingly small, everything is crammed in, leaving barely any space for a small expanse of grass, let alone a sprawling public park.
The Jardin du Luxembourg, a short walk from the south bank of the Seine, is an exception, even if the first thing you see as you walk in is a collection of diggers, sat idle after churning up the main pavement. In fact, the place isn’t even that green; much of it is gravelled over or covered in sporting facilities.
It’s still an oasis, though, and a beautiful one at that, unsurprisingly heaving with people even on an exceptionally average Sunday afternoon.
The centrepiece is the boating pond, which is approached through amphitheatre-esque terracing. That it is called a garden rather than a park is a deliberate statement, the emphasis being on delicious floral displays rather than vast expanses of lawn. The lake is surrounded by pots filled with vivid pink blooms which could pierce through the greyest of days, whilst it is flanked to the right by the Palace in which the French senate meets. It’s a view to make you fall in love with the city instantly, particularly when you start looking at the detail.
On the lake are little wooden boats, colourful and simplistic. They seem to be moving of their own accord until you see the children with sticks at the water’s edge. In an age of Playstations and hundreds of television channels on demand, this is heart-warming in the extreme. The joy that comes from simply pushing a toy boat around with a wooden pole is a tribute to the imagination of childhood. From the looks on faces, these kids are fearless navigators, sailing the seven seas to unknown lands.
As you begin to walk round, you realise that this is a paradise for the youthful as well as the nosy old people-watchers. As elderly couples slump wearily in deckchairs, there is the constant birdsong of juvenile energy twittering through the trees.
Every little stretch is seemingly taken up with a different activity. There are tennis courts, which star a bizarre mix of all-comers; those dressed in white, unleashing Federer-esque cross court returns on the court next to the teenagers hopelessly slapping the ball into the net and stopping for a bottle of Coke.
Next door is a small strip devoted to chariot racing. Well, that’s what the girls taking part seem to think. They’re really mounted on tricycles with wooden horses’ heads slapped on the front, pedalling round traffic cones, but to all intents and purposes, it’s their mini re-enactment of Ben Hur.
Most of the noise is coming from opposite the boules arena, though. It’s a wonder that the group of middle-aged men - and one old woman with the craggy face of a coal miner – are not being driven to distraction as they solemnly pace, analyse and lob. They are playing out their deadly serious, if somewhat sedate spectacle to the backdrop of a huge adventure playground.
It’s something do be looked at through jealous eyes if you’ve grown up in a small town where a perpetually broken set of swings was the limit. For those of a certain age, this is heaven. There are rocking horses, bikes, tractors and space rockets, and climbing frames of every shape and size, all absolutely teeming with children, like ants on a sticky cake. Rows and rows of swings are manned by exhausted dads, being exhorted to push faster and higher, and the big kids are making the roundabouts go a bit too fast for the little kids sharing the ride.
To just wander from sector to sector, swigging from a bottle of water is a delightfully affirmatory experience. It’s like a scene from 50 years ago, just with modern costumes, and for the people-watcher, there’s just so much to see. So many people, so many activities, so many expressions.
And those expressions extend to the puppet theatre which a queue of families curls round. This is puppeteering of the strictly old school variety – an artform, not cheap entertainment - with the carefully-carved mannequins treated as characters, rather than tools of the trade. Every movement is handled with the love you’d expect from a family business that has been going for 75 years, and the audience laps it up. There may not be any guns, explosions or cool special effects in Les Adventures De Minouchet, but judging by the reactions, that’s the misjudgement of Hollywood rather than puppetmaster Francis-Claude Desarthis.
Emerging from the theatre, and travelling a few yards, you realise that even sat outside those famous Parisien cafés, you’d be hard pushed to find a better arena than this. A basketball game getting overly competitive, boys showing off to impress girls... Football with chairs for goalposts, and subsequent arguments over whether it’s in off the post once hit... A couple throwing a Frisbee to each other in lieu of striking up conversation… It’s magical in the most simplistic way, and if you can’t fall under Paris’ charm here, watching happy children rubbing the manes of their donkeys as they ride, then heaven help.
on 27 June 2007.
More Articles by David Whitley
Walking in the Mountains During a Summer Break Makes For Strenuous Activity
Tour of the Sewers in the French Capital
Travel to the Miniature Eiffel Tower, Parthenon and Big Ben in the Bruparck
The Homes of Calvados, Benedictine, Cointreau, Lillet and Chartreuse
Travel and Eat Mustard, Snails, Kir and Pain d'Epices
More France Articles
by Taryn Kama
by Bina Joseph
by Kevin Wierzbicki
by Steven Skelley & Thomas Routzong
by Cherie Thiessen
by Marti Regan Szczur
by Mary Jo Plouf
by Charmaine Tanti
by Charmaine Tanti
by Mike Starling