The Forest of Vincennes and The Forest of Boulogne
Just outside Paris, on the outskirts of Le Peripherique, are two magnificently beautiful parks - Le Bois de Vincennes on the eastern side and Le Bois de Boulogne on the western. After the cold, grey, drizzly days of winter (Unlike most people, I don’t think Parisians are arrogant - they’re just depressed. In winter, the weather in Paris is constantly overcast and drizzly - if I had to live through it every year, I think I’d be depressed too!), the warm and sunny days of spring are very much welcomed by the people of Paris. During these spring days, particularly on the weekends, many Parisians flee the city in favour of spending the day in one of these two beautiful parks. (Unless you happen to be well off, like the family I was living with in Paris, who spent their spring weekends horse-riding at their country estate, just a 90 minute drive from Paris.)
Both Le Bois de Vincennes and Le Bois de Boulogne were originally hunting grounds for the French kings and their courtiers, Vincennes since the 11th century and Boulogne as early as the 7th century, when Dagobert, the king of the Franks, hunted bears on the grounds. The parks were utilised solely by the aristocracy (with the exception of Vincennes which was used as a military exercise area during the French Revolution) until they were given to the city of Paris by Napoleon III, Boulogne in 1852 and Vincennes in 1860. Under the direction of the baron Haussmann (the man responsible for the 'modernisation' of Paris in mid-19th century), the parks underwent a drastic aesthetic transformation and became sites of leisure and enjoyment and an escape from the grey and depressive concrete jungle.
Today, both parks offer a vast array of activities, including canoeing, horse-riding, cycling paths, running tacks, bush-walking and fishing, as well as zoological parks and children's playgrounds. The parks also have a number of ‘specialty’ gardens, including tropical plant and bonsai gardens, as well as open parkland and floral displays. Both Vincennes and Boulogne are extremely large - both cover a nine to ten square kilometre area each. I'd suggest taking a map with you on your first visit - it's relatively easy to get lost in the myriad of pathways, lakes and areas of thick bush.
During spring weekends, both parks are teaming with people eager to take advantage of the fresh air and natural surroundings. And no wonder, it’s a little piece of paradise, only a short metro trip from the heart of Paris (to Vincennes, take metro line 1 to Chateau de Vincennes and to Boulogne, take metro line 10 to Boulogne, Pont de St-Cloud - the Paris metro is a fantastic public transport network - it runs frequently, all lines connect reasonable well to one another and it's relatively cheap - definitely the best way to get around Paris. I utilised it so much during my stay there, that I can still hear the screech of the alarm, people running through the station so not to miss the train, and then the bang and click of the doors shutting).
On the outskirts of Le Bois de Vincennes, is Le Chateau de Vincennes (above). The site has been a royal residence since the late 12th century but was fortified by King John II The Good during the hundred years war. It became the principle residence of Charles V and his son Charles VI and was renovated accordingly. Besides being a royal residence, the castle has a colourful history - it was utilised as a military school, it's workshops were used as factories for the fabrication of weaponry, it served as a prison (even housing the Marquis de Sade) and also a military stronghold in defence of the capital. Unfortunately, much of the original castle complex no longer exist (like many architectural structures in Europe which have witness many wars or deemed unsuitable by various poliltical leaders, thus leading to their decay), but what remains is an impressive piece of French architecture of the middle ages, still as imposing and forboding a structure as ever. Today it houses a military museum detailing the history of French land, sea and air warfare.
So next time you're in Paris, particularly if you happen to visit in the springtime, I recommend you take half a day out to explore one of these two pieces of paradise. Stroll along the lakeside promenades or hire a canoe; hire a bike and take advantage of the well constructed bike paths; or simply take a book, find a peaceful spot and read amongst some of the most beautiful landscapes in Europe.
Photos from my personal collection
For more information, see the following websites: