The Small Outdoors in Paris

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Walking in Paris – Part 3

 The Small Outdoors in Paris

 Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes

Today, for the final part of our short series on Parisian parks*, where you can discover the small outdoors in Paris, I am going to take you a little bit further out. So far out in fact that what we shall be visiting is no longer a parc but a bois.

Although strictly speaking, this distinction has nothing to do with distance from the city centre. This may actually be a good time to talk about the way in which the French discriminate between their various types of recreational landscapes.

On one end of the spectrum, you have the jardins where nature is domesticated and enslaved, sometimes in the spirit of cold reason (trees in the shape of cones and cubes), sometimes in a spirit of whimsy and cruel mockery (trees in the shape of poodles – or Madame Pompadour’s latest wig).

Parcs, the products of a more light-handed philosophy of landscaping, were only introduced in France under the cultural influence of the British, with varying degrees of success. Even the best French-style parcs never quite manage to look as effortless and casual as their English counterparts: they always have an element of drama and high tension.

A bois is definitely another step further down the scale of civilization – just don’t make the mistake of thinking that it is anything like a proper forêt.

A lake in the Bois de Boulogne for discovering the small outdoors in Paris - Photo from Wikimedia.org

A lake in the Bois de Boulogne – Photo from Wikimedia.org

But what is the difference?

That is quite difficult to explain in abstract terms, but the two Parisian bois can probably be best understood as parks that have been built not in the middle of an urban neighbourhood but in a natural landscape beyond the city gates. A bois is big enough for you to lose your way, but never for long. After a few minutes, no matter in what direction you go, you will come to an asphalted road with a map or a signpost, to a kiosque or a restaurant, perhaps even a bus stop.

La Defense seen from the Bois de Boulogne in Paris

La Defense seen from the Bois de Boulogne

Paris has two such bois, but one is infinitely more famous than the other. Hands up everyone who has heard of the Bois de Vincennes. No? I thought so.

The Bois de Boulogne, conversely, is the one always in the limelight –  the one that you have seen in the movies (where, for example, Maurice Chevalier “thanks heaven for little girls” in Gigi), the one with the Michelin-starred luxury restaurant (La Grande Cascade), the one with the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (and the Parisian Polo Club), and, of course, the transsexual prostitutes.

"Boats on a lake in the Bois de Vincennes where you can discover the small outdoors in Paris"

If, however, you have set your mind on less exalted pleasures and all you are looking for is a place where you can spend a few relaxing hours in the “small outdoors”, the Bois de Vincennes in the east of Paris is in many ways the better choice. For one, it has most of the landscaped features of its more famous pendant in the west: a lake (several, in fact), winding paths through tree-lined alleys, places where you can picnic.

It even has a racecourse of its own – and a pretty famous one, too. (Vincennes is the most famous French track for harness racing.) Plus it can boast a few things that the Bois de Boulogne significantly lacks: a zoo, a  proper amusement park (at least in the summer months), and a real medieval castle with a long and colourful history (Mata Hari was shot at the Chateau de Vincennes in 1917).

"The Vincennes Hippodrome - Photo Wikipedia"

The Vincennes Hippodrome – Photo from Wikipedia

More to the point, particularly if you only have a couple of hours or so to spare, the Bois de Vincennes is easier to reach. There are some Metro stations on the margins of the Bois de Boulogne, too (Porte Dauphine is the nearest), but you will still need to walk between 15 and 30 minutes before you are in the bois proper.

To make your way to the Bois de Vincennes, just leave the train at the station Porte Dorée, cross the road and you are practically standing in front of Daumesnil Lake.

What clinches it for me, however, is the relative tranquility of the place. The Bois de Boulogne has been laid out in such a way that you are never far away from the constant murmur of the périphérique, the Parisian ring road and Europe’s busiest highway. For me, this mix between motorway and urban nature reserve simply doesn’t work. The Bois de Vincennes, conversely, is mercifully free from such intrusions – which is why it would get my vote anytime.

Which of the two do you think is the best to experience the small outdoors in Paris?

* Read Walking in Paris – Part 1 and Part 2

17 comments to The Small Outdoors in Paris

  • Joe

    Bois de Vincennes is such a lovely park to visit and relax.

    Love the idea of rowing boats on the lake.

  • It’d be hard to choose — they’re both beautiful. Bois de Boulogne? On second thoughts, since I’ve not heard of Bois de Vincennes, maybe?

  • What a beautiful park! I haven’t even heard of it before, but will definitely check it out next time I get to Paris. I hope you guys have a very happy (and travel-filled) New Year! :)

  • I totally agree, Don. It’s also one of my most favourite parks for getting a tan, but most of the time in summer. But yes, one can have it too in March, if you’re lucky with the weather.

  • Absolutely love this series of posts!

    As for my favourite, have to choose Parc des Buttes Chaumont because I was once able to suntan there in mid-March, while enjoying its wonderful views without a tourist in sight. The area around it is great too.

  • I have learned something today, as I often do from reading your blog. I now have another place to put on the list for next trip to Paris — Bois de Vincennes. Oh, and I remember that post about the tree shaped like a poodle in the jardin!

  • Bois de Boulogne: “Hangout for shady”? Probably depends on the time of day you visit it.

  • Thanks for a good overview of the different kids of parks in France. I never realised the different designations before.

  • This was very interesting and like everyone, have learned something new and know where to explore when we go back to Paris. I loved the movie Gigi so I would need to visit Bois de Boulogne but since accesibility is always good, I’d go with Bois de Vincennes too. Love how tranquil they both look.

  • Amy Hume

    I agree wholeheartedly with you about Bois de Vincennes. Easy to reach and yet so tranquil. Not as famous as the other one, but walker and family-friendly.

    In the Bois de Boulogne we had to take a bus to get to the
    Jardins de Bagatelle,which is inside the B de Boulogne. It had some bad reputation some years ago, being the hangout for shady. Est c’est vrais?

  • Of course the Bois de Vincennes is news to me too. I love your description of the differences between gardens, parks and woods. And now I know where to go in Paris to enjoy some peace and quiet.

  • Jeremy Branham

    Another park I haven’t heard of in Paris. However, love the views of the city. Not big on the transsexual prostitutes though :)

  • As usual I always learn something new from your blog. . .a most interesting piece, this one, and of course, I loved your photos. Happy New Year!

  • The Bois De Boulogne is frequently mentioned in French literature as well. It is mentioned many times in Camus’ the Plague. I have always wanted to take a stroll through it.

  • I lived about 2 mins from Bois de Boulogne and used to visit almost every week. That was one of the (few) great things about living in the 16th.

  • Lovely article – thanks. We love rowing boats – there seem to be less of these in parks here in the UK now.

  • Wow, you learn something new everyday! Never heard of these let alone understood that such distinctions exist between them. In U.S., all are parks whether one square block or millions of acres…all share the same designation. I like these varying grades and their labels…much easier to set expectations when trying to describe to friends.

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