Perched in the north-east corner of the city the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is the fifth largest Parisian park. When I’ve visited on hot summer weekends most of its 61 acres is overflowing with couples, families and friends relaxing and enjoying all this park has to offer – cafés, walking paths, bridges, a lake, a stream and more. My visit today however is quite different. It’s supposed to be Spring but, in spite of the forecast, by the time my writing group arrives at the park gates the sky has turned grey, the wind is brisk and the air is chilly. We contemplate making a beeline for a nearby café but ultimately decide to forge on with our planned walk, tucking our sunglasses away in favour of hats and gloves.
Although it’s not nearly as busy as in the summer, we still pass a steady stream of walkers, joggers, dogs and strollers as we wind our way along a paved path en route to the top of one of the many hills, or “buttes” that characterize this park.
Buds peak from tree branches checking to see if it’s warm enough to unfurl. Some of the braver varieties have already burst onto the scene brightening the landscape and making their declarations of spring. I suspect that some of them, already wilting and brown, wish they’d waited a few more weeks.
Walking along I ponder the fact that if we had come to this same spot a few hundred years ago we would have experienced a much different scene. At that time this hill lay outside the city walls of Paris and was known as the “Chauve –mont” or “bare hill” because of its lack of vegetation and the poor quality of its soil. Further, the area around the entire hill was considered ‘off-limits’ by most people owing to its proximity to the main gallows of the Kings of France. There were complaints of a horrible smell emanating from the corpses routinely left on display and a real fear of the spreading of disease that followed the direction of the wind.
Given its noxious reputation the Chauve-mont was the natural choice for dumping the ripe sewage of the city of Paris following the French revolution in the late 1700’s. From here it was a quick decent to life as a knacker’s yard where up to 15,000 unfortunate horses a year could be cut up and disposed of. Fortunately on this particular afternoon some 300 years later, there are no signs of this notorious and smelly past. In fact, the only thing I smell is the perfume of the paper whites and other early blooms as I get close to them with my camera. On the other hand, although we pass many dogs scampering about we do not see a single horse.
When large deposits of fine white plaster were found in a part of the Chauve-mont area as yet untouched by garbage or the corpses of horses in the early 1800’s the site was developed into a large gypsum/lime quarry. Deep tunnels were burrowed into the ground to mine and extract the gypsum and, at its’ peak, there were three separate mines with over 800 miners employed in the quarries.
It wasn’t until Napoleon III and Baron Hausmann went on their park building spree in the mid-1800’s that the fate of this hilly area finally turned around. Annexed to the city of Paris, the Chauve-mont area was chosen as the site for a new public park to support the working class populations of the rapidly growing 19th and 20th arrondissements that surround it. The plan was audacious but, with the stroke of a pen, Napoleon assigned this area a new name and a new future.
When construction started the Chauve-mont looked like a lunar landscape. The years of mining had taken their toll: there was no soil only slag while enormous hollows peered like black holes from the rock. Worse still, these hollows were serving as shelter for the very destitute of a local population that was already very poor. The entire area was smelly, dangerous, ugly and poor.
As I look out from my perch on top of a butte I find it really difficult to envision the gargantuan effort to turn this former sewage dump wasteland into the beautiful park that it is today. It took Hausmann three years to wipe out the visible vestiges of the past. He brought in two hundred thousand cubic metres of topsoil to act as fill to repair the hollows and prepare the land for planting. Think about it – that’s enough soil to cover 12 US football fields 10 feet deep in dirt! The land was terraced by a team of thousands and then planted with thousands of trees, shrubs and flowers. The barren hills were slowly brought to life. Finally, as the pièce de résistance, the architects designed a miniature temple resembling the Temple of Vesta in Tivoli, Italy that was set like a trophy at the highest point in the park.
When the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont opened for the Paris Universal Expo in 1867 it was an instant success, all Napoleon had dreamed it would be and more.
Almost 150 years later people continue to flock here. I regularly make the 30 minute trek by subway on warm summer days if, for no other reason, than to enjoy lying on the grass in one of the few Paris parks where this is actually allowed. Even on this cold and dreary spring evening there are more people around than I would have predicted.
I pass friends sitting together on benches chatting, joggers wearing everything from shorts to long pants and toques making their way along the more than five miles of roads and paths that wind up and down the hills.
There are elderly couples strolling arm in arm, mothers with strollers alone or in small groups and there are certainly almost as many dogs as people. Large signs strategically placed at the park entrances tell me that the Buttes-Chaumont is nearing the end of the second phase of a 20million Euro, three-year renovation designed to restore it to its 19th century grandeur.
There will undoubtedly be a grand re-opening to celebrate this event. I only hope the weather warms up before then.
Warm, summer memories at the parc des Buttes-Chaumont: