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Le Jardin de Bagatelle

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A playground of Bourbon kings today delights Parisians and visitors alike.

Le Jardin de Bagatelle

The story goes that the Count of Artois, brother of Louis XVI, proposed to build a folie (a bit of craziness, a flight of fancy) of grand proportions in two months. "I dare you!" retorted Marie Antoinette. "Bagatelle!" pronounced the nonchalant Count.

"Bagatelle" means "a mere trifle." I imagine it was neither mere nor trifling to the 900 men who in 1775 were put to work, toiling day and night without ceasing, to ensure that the Count won his bet with his sister-in-law. "Bagatelle" also means "physical love", for a delicious double-entendre, as the garden has long been a favorite haunt for physically amorous couples of all descriptions.

Thomas Blaikie conceived the garden in an "anglo-chinese" style, with woods, shady lawns, water gardens with cascades and grottos, a pavilion of love, and a pyramid, to name just a few of its attractions. Today, few of the original features remain, although the garden remains true to its original spirit, offering many divertissements and a mix of historical periods as you wander the 59 acres within its walls.

During the 19th century, the garden was enlarged with the addition of the orangerie (see main photo), a sort of classic garden house designed to overwinter citrus trees and still used today for this purpose. If you happen through the garden in April, you may see the park's tractors hauling enormous orange trees in classic orange-tree planter boxes out of the orangerie and arraying them in their summer homes along the paths. In fall, all these trees are hauled into the Orangerie once more to protect them from winter's cold.

In front of the Orangerie is an array of traditional French parterres, or geometric planting beds, which were added to the landscape at the time the Orangerie was built. These beds are always planted with annuals in the classically French style called tapis de fleurs, or floral tapestry.

Unlike English bedding schemes, which mass large numbers of identical plants together (which coincides with our own idea of "bedding"), the French use a much more fanciful technique. They intermingle up to a dozen different plants in a repeating pattern of individual plants of each type. The result is a true tapestry of color, texture, and form which I've always found delightful. The parterres around the Orangerie are planted in an entirely different scheme every year. It's always fun to see the new color and plant combinations, which are often extremely creative.

Down the long slope from the Orangerie is the world-famous roseraie, or rose garden, which was added shortly after 1904, when the city of Paris acquired the gardens. The rose garden is always somewhat of a disappointment to me, as it is consecrated to mostly hybrid teas. Only a smattering of old roses relieves the monotony.

The rose garden does have some wonderful examples of climbing roses, painstakingly trained on a huge arbor, or alternatively up imposing iron obelisks, or most fancifully, in giant swags along heavy chains and ropes draped between posts. Here is an excellent opportunity to view the art of French rose pruning at its peak. Best of all, the rose canes are all fastened to their supports using the ancient technique of twisted willow twigs. (See "Prunings into Plant Supports" under "Trucs d'Antan".) In this elegant method, supple lengths of willow twigs are looped around the rose cane and its support. The two extremities of the twig are then twisted together, and the longer end locked in place behind the twist. The beauty of this method is that it is entirely biodegradable and drops away at just the time (2-3 years) when the rose would have outgrown its shackle. The willow ties are visually handsome as well.

A three-minute stroll to the west of the roseraie brings you to a string of theme gardens. These were added to the Jardin de Bagatelle at the same time as the roseraie. The southernmost one is the iris garden, and as the name implies, it contains nothing but irises. It is therefore interesting only during May. When its moment of glory arrives, the iris garden is rather splendid, with its riot of color and grapey iris aroma effectively enclosed within its high hedges.

Next in the chain of theme gardens is a long, narrow, and very beautiful perennial garden (photo above right), enclosed with a high brick wall on one side that is festooned with clematis and climbing roses. From spring through fall, this garden displays an ever-changing brocade of colors in its peripheral and central beds, including a number of unusual plants. May is one good moment, as there is a splendid wisteria in the middle of the garden in bloom at that time. The low walls within the garden, as well as the walkways, are always liberally decorated with numerous, picturesque old pots and urns which are planted differently each year. In the photo at left, fragrant, blue sweetpeas are climbing up a trellis planted in a large pot.

Just north of the perennial garden is a surprise: a bit of country nested in this royal playground in the form of a wonderful potager, or kitchen garden. This instructional yet beautiful garden is designed to represent the best spirit of the French potager, which strives to be at once beautiful, and full of wonderful things to eat. The plantings vary annually within a framework of hedges and lovely espaliers of pears and apples, often used as dividers and fences within the vegetable garden.

The potager is also a great place to view unusual varieties, such as the medlar, a very ancient fruit tree related to the apple that is hardly ever planted anymore. The medlar bears a small hard fruit which must be "bletted" or allowed to rot slightly before becoming palatable. Needless to say, it was more appreciated in medieval times than it is now. Also invariably on view, flights of fancy, which the French adore. One year, it was an amazingly lifelike scarecrow climbing into a tree. Another time, it was just this enticing bean tepee surrounded with bright zinnias and purple sage (above right).

The part of the Jardin de Bagatelle that is most in keeping with the original folie style of the garden is probably the waterlily pool (left). The pool itself is perfectly normal and lovely; it's the artificially contrived grotto, complete with fake rocks and waterfall, that is the "folly" part. Although the contrivance is quite beautiful and realistic, it can't help but make you feel you're just a short step away from one of those 'water trick' gardens where strollers would get squirted here and then by surprise jets. You can walk behind the waterfall into the grotto--a favorite of both kids and lovers.

However aristocratic the origins of the Jardin de Bagatelle, its current city managers have an excellent sense of humor. In the summer of 2000, they mounted an exhibit which was touted to have been put on by the "Garden Dwarf Liberation Front." This radical group "liberated" garden dwarves from all over France and set them free to roam happily in the Jardin de Bagatelle. They were everywhere! In the woods, in boats in the water, emerging out of the ground like gophers, and they had totally taken over the château on the grounds of the garden, where a series of identical silver-plated dwarves were arrayed in formal keeping with the spirit of the garden around the round pool. Dwarves were peeping from every château window, and this giant fellow in the photo welcomed visitors. The mysterious gentleman next to him? Rumors in Paris newspapers at the time suggested he may have been the elusive, shadowy chief of the Liberation Front, caught unawares in a relaxed moment with a happy protegée.

Le Jardin de Bagatelle is located within the Bois de Boulogne on the west edge of Paris.

Allée de Longchamp, Route de Sèvres à Neuilly, 75016 Paris
Tel: 01 45 01 20 10

The garden is open from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00p.m. from March 1 through 30 September, and from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for the rest of the year.

To get there: Metro Pont de Neuilly (Line 1), then bus 43 or 244; get off at the main gate.


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