A civilized, elegant Parisian park that wasn't always so
There is a park in Paris encompassed by buildings of exactly the same height so that it seems a tremendous, ceilingless room with red-brick, windowed walls. The streets leading to the park are narrow and run through a poor neighborhood like hallways in a tired, sad house. There are six entrances to the park, one at each corner and two through thick, arched stone gates.Skip to next paragraph
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Stepping through one of these entrances is stepping from darkness into light. There are trees where there were none. Where there was closeness there is space.
What is now park was once marshland, owned in the Middle Ages by the church and occupied by its monks. Although it was drained hundreds of years ago by the Knights Templar and inhabited in their turn by the nobility and the workers of Paris, the district is still known as Le Marais (or the Marsh).
The Place des Vosges, as it's now called, is large and grassy, with carefully positioned, well-pruned trees and a playground to the side with children riding seesaws under the canopy of a tall tree. Along the edges are many benches, comfortable and attractive, places to sit quietly insulated from the working quarter that lies outside. Behind are arched brick roofs of the arcade that traces the perimeter of the square, and above, the pink facades and tall slate roofs of ancient mansions. It is very civilized.
It was not always so. In the late 1400s, before the park existed, civilization meant something very different. It was the age of chivalry, and jousting was a favorite recreation. The object of the sport was to shatter one's lance on an adversary's chest. The knight with the most lances broken was proclaimed champion of the tourney.
Early in the summer of 1559, not far from today's children's park, King Henri II, a formidable athlete and avid sportsman, was host at a day of feasting and games. He had jousted twice with the captain of his Scottish Guards and twice won. He insisted on yet another contest, but this time the captain prevailed. The king sustained a fatal injury.
His wife, Catherine de Medicis, had his palace destroyed. These ruins were to become the site of the Place des Vosges.
The weather of the park, protected as it is, is mild, and elderly people of the neighborhood like to sit on the benches, singly or in pairs, talking and feeding the pigeons. In the afternoon, children spill out of the schools that occupy some of the old mansions and race noisily about.
At Nos. 2 and 25, the park's elegant restaurants, Coconnas and La Guirlande de Julie, serve fine, expensive meals. A visitor might also choose to eat outdoors, picnicking on a bench and enjoying the almost tangible sense of timelessness.
Until the end of the 16th century the ruins of the king's palace were used for trading horses, a kind of medieval used-car lot, a place that attracted some rather unsavory characters. Then, in 1605, Henri IV chose the location as a likely spot for one of his urban-renewal projects.
Paris, in those days, had the unfortunate reputation of being, in the words of a contemporary, a ''stinking sewer,'' but Henri had a vision that was to transform the city. It was his idea that buildings should be the same height and have similar facades, that avenues should run straight and lead the eye to vistas at each end, and that formal parks should relieve the congestion of residential quarters. Near the place where his grandfather had been killed he planned the construction of 38 connected mansions around an open square, unornamented except for intersecting paths cut into the lawns.