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.
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.
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.
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).
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?