A city is its people. And its buildings. It is traffic and shops and museums. But it is also parks.
And since they are not exactly wild places, yet not precisely, or only, gardens, they are an urban phenomenon of rather a special kind, somewhere between rural and horticultural, between city and country.
Traditionally, they are places where visitors and inhabitants relax and mix, places of entertainment and recreation.
So here's a novel - and inexpensive - way to spend a vacation: Get to know a city by "doing" its parks.
And what city could be better to try out this notion than London? It's a veritable hive of public parks, many of them dating back centuries, some with royal associations, most with stories to tell. Their names summon up the English capital strikingly - Hyde Park, the Regent's Park, Green Park, Holland Park, St. James's, Battersea, Richmond, Greenwich.
I had a Londoner friend who walked an hour to work every day, from Hampstead to Notting Hill Gate, and he never set foot outside a park en route. I went along one morning. It was like kick-starting the day with a stimulating intake of leaf and lawn, of pond (with all sorts of water birds) and sky, of wide green spaces, and roses, roses all the way. A holiday before work.
Some of the parks - Kew and Richmond, for instance - are a distance from the heart of London, but there are plenty of others right in the center. Kensington Gardens, for one, which I decided to visit and explore. A 19th-century French tourist described this splendid park as "a good mile of the forest of St. Germain in the heart of town."
I also visited the magnificent Regent's Park - farther to the north but still within easy striking distance by underground, taxi, or bus. Either of these parks is a perfect introduction to the art of park exploration.
I had a very useful book to help me: Geoffrey Young's "Walking London's Parks and Gardens" (New Holland Publishers, $14.95).
Mr. Young presents 24 "original walks around London's parks and gardens," and he does so with charm and maps and plenty of personal research.
He can be relied on. If he says you are about to arrive at the orangery, or walk 'round the Round Pond (which isn't actually round at all) or encounter the statue of Peter Pan - all in Kensington Gardens - you will.
The author tells you how long each of his proposed walks will take, at a slowish pace, unless you stop for a chat or a picnic or photography or for a little wander away from his scrupulously prescribed paths.
For his Kensington Gardens Walk he says to allow 1-1/2 hours. Well, yes. I did my best. But, of course, I was almost instantly distracted. I spent too long, I'm sure, gazing at the magical bedding schemes of the Sunken Garden (set out originally in 1906-09), its perspectives and formal beds planted with a mixture of bright and soft flower colors and textures.
Peeping through the hedges at this garden makes you fall in love with annuals all over again. It is not flashy or vulgar. Nor is it regimented in ways that have given "parks department" planting a bad name in the past. It is just summer-bright and refreshing.
Then, on a bench among the surrounding lime hedges, how could I not stop for a while and watch the old chap, dressed in slightly shabby suit and tie, feeding the squirrels climbing all over him.
One of the park gardeners I spoke to a little later (another of my disobedient escapes from the necessary rigors of Young's keep-going itinerary) said the squirrel man was so frequently there that he was "part of the furniture."
I watched his bushy-tailed friends and him long enough to see that he knew he was a kind of tourist attraction. He said to me, and repeated to two or three subsequent passersby, that one particularly agile, leaping squirrel feeding out of his hand "thinks he's a kangaroo!"
Young's book prevents you from getting seriously lost. But it doesn't prohibit a few little escapades. That, after all, is what being on vacation is all about! His time scale didn't really permit half an hour savoring soup followed by quiche followed by cakes in the early 18th-century orangery (that may, or may not, have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren). But who could resist such a classily classical temptation? (And the food is very good.)
Afterward all you need to do is pick up Young's thread where you dropped it, and off you go again, heading for the Long Water and the Italian Gardens, Peter Pan, the Queen's Temple, and eventually, the splendiferously restored Albert Memorial.
On the way, you might well drop off for an hour at the Serpentine Gallery, which stages some of London's less-conventional art exhibitions. Though once again you will have cut loose from the Young plan.
It was just the same at the Regent's Park. No, it was worse. I was much less disciplined. I was bowled over by a bed of lilies and delphiniums, which I know I should only have glanced at. But there were blues in there to die for!
A number of astonishing gardens can be found in this park. The planting of the long Avenue Gardens surpasses even the Kensington Sunken Garden. Actually, this long procession of imaginatively set-out flower beds is a sheer delight to anyone who loves the potential of flowering plants. The experience is not far from visual music.
Then there are Queen Mary's Gardens, in which you are almost submerged in roses - masses and masses. Ramblers, climbers, and thousands of shorter but abundantly flowering varieties. Here Young's enthusiasm shows; he calls it a "marvellous" garden, and writes: "It has a collection of perhaps 30,000 roses of almost 400 different varieties, including the greatest modern cultivars, and all labeled...."
Almost by mistake, I bumped into the Open Air Theatre, and tickets were still available for " Much Ado About Nothing" that evening. I forgot all about time, and sat on the hard seats more or less oblivious to the increasing chill of the summer night, and laughed at this ancient comedy as if I'd never seen (or acted in) it before. (This year it will be "The Midsummer Night's Dream" and "Love's Labour's Lost." I'm a convert. I'll be back if I can.)
So I still don't quite know what I missed at the Regent's Park. London Zoo, for a start, though that, unlike many or most of the city's public parks, costs money to visit.
In my two days, I scarcely scratched the surface of what Young's book has to offer. He also tours people around horticultural and botanical gardens like Kew and the Chelsea Physic Garden.
I later asked him by phone which was his favorite of all the places he takes his readers. He said "Battersea." I haven't had time to discover why. Some other visitor, with a week to spare, might find it an enchanting line of enquiry.
One footnote: There are a large number of "garden squares" in London, many of them privately owned and inaccessible to visitors. However, if you happen to be around on June 10, some 60 of these will be open to visitors. This is "London Garden Squares Day," organized by English Heritage and the London Historic Parks and Gardens Trust.
The phone number for information is listed on page 170 of Young's book. (Oh, OK, it's 011-44-20-7839-3969.)
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society