Do you know what this tree is? And they’re pink leaves, not blossom. Answer later.
We didn’t, but spied it from afar to the right of the main entrance, as we were leaving the Parc Floral, in Paris. This post is a gallop to record images and thoughts before they dissipate into the fog of memory and all clarity is lost.
To have the chance to revisit Paris in early May was a mixed blessing – a wonderful week of weather, as indeed we’d experienced when last there 10 years ago at this time of the year. But we left behind our own garden’s weeds exploding everywhere. Not such a problem in the drier Parisian climate.
On the first few days, we returned to some of our favourite outdoor places, to soak up the unbroken sunshine and rising temperatures. Things were definitely looking up. And I marvelled at the images glimpsed by doing just that. Was this all part of the master plan, when the gardens were laid out decades ago?
Views to make you gaze heavenwards and dream?
At the Jardin de Albert Kahn, almost every view is a study in consummate design and planting skill. And currently a bargain at 4 euros entrance, even allowing for current building works. Or, as happened in our case, and I realised too late after my very poor French slowly picked up on ‘soixante cinque’, an even greater bargain for OAP’s. A first for us, but clearly the cashier thought we merited the pensioner’s rate.
A stroll through the Parc de Andre Citroen, and lunch on the way back, captured equally stunning, though more contemporary, designs. But here the first sense of a city not entirely as comfortable, as in the past.The huge water features, fountains and rills were largely drained, butyl liners ripped with Buddleia growing through – as with many gardens, some great ideas and available funding to set them up, but what happens with the passage of time, when the attrition of entropy takes hold on the maturing scene, and the initial enthusiasm for creating this urban green lung, from a disused car factory, has waned?
How much longer before the giant Mairie de Paris balloon tethered at the Parc’s centre deflates, or blows away, and up, up, above the nearby Eifel Tower? Many of the restaurants said that their turnover was still 30% down on what they’d expect, following the 13/11/2015 terrorism, and the streets were indeed noticeably quieter.
We even watched from our window seat in the excellent Bistrotters restaurant, 2 different street walkers in the space of an hour, canabilise an old discarded computer server – one for the hard drive, one for a metal side panel.
Never leave home without a screwdriver in your pocket, in Paris, 2016, eh?
Even the fabulous busking harpist, Romain Jermande, in the cloister corner of the Place des Vosges didn’t have a CD to sell of his extensive, and largely self-arranged repertoire, carefully typed up, listed and taped to the honeyed limestone wall. Few stood and lingered, but Click here to listen to a clip of his intense and delightful music making which Fiona captured on her mobile phone.
More looking up at the Parc de Bagatelle.
Anyone know what this small tree is? Clearly a magnet for honeybees, but sadly no label on it. A brisk walk to reach this Parc, through the Bois de Boulogne, taking care not to glance into the parked up, clapped out white vans, with scarves wrapped around the wing mirror, indicating that the buxom female driver was available, this huge park was again quite empty of visitors, to appreciate the daisy lawns.
An inscrutable senile black cat was so immobile, for a moment we wondered if it were stuffed, but it had simply found a great sunny spot to rest and perhaps ponder its advancing years.
A few Parisians seemed to just enjoy the tranquility, soak up the sun, and enjoy a bit of preening, along with the geese and peacocks.
Delightful scenes everywhere – Paeony borders, Wisteria and trees resplendent in multi-coloured early May leaves, and everywhere unmown grass with spring bulbs and flowers.And then one of my favourite scenes of our trip.
Sunlight catching the mixed plantings of two forms of Tulip. No names again, and a pair of passing gardeners couldn’t enlighten me. Probably not the first year in the ground for these bulbs, from their variable size and patchy distribution. But it occurred to me that what made this such an arresting vista was the special light and background of tall, already flowering buttercup studded grasses above which the Tulip flowers floated and danced like oversized butterflies, leaves and anchoring stems, almost hidden from view.
The power of green, similarly highlighted by the backdrop of ground cover beneath the cloud pruned Camellias at Albert Kahn. (Mind your own business, Soleirolia soleirolii?) How much nicer than just bare soil?
And so back to the Parc Floral de Paris, where the display beds which had been filled with Dahlias last autumn now featured blocks of Tulips, as far as the eye could see. Great for assessing height and colour variations, but, at least to my eye, lacking the wow factor of the previous two floral vignettes.
There had been much joint discussion as to whether we should revisit Monet’s Giverny garden – the above photo and those below. 10 years ago, in identical conditions at the beginning of May, it had been inspirational. A garden packed with intermingling flowers and simply heaving with insect life. A seminal moment in how we’ve thought about gardens as havens not just for busy people, but homes for bees, butterflies, flies and all the other life forms that can be encouraged, if the right mix of nectar and pollen source flowers are planted. I wasn’t convinced a return would prove equally enjoyable, but was persuaded we should go.
Knowing that we’d had a queue to get in, all those years ago, we’d booked garden tickets on line in advance, and arrived at Gare St Lazare 30 minutes early, to catch a train out to Vernon. We weren’t alone in being foiled by the automated ticket machines, which proved impossible to get to sell us return tickets. By the time we’d joined the long queue at the only manned ticket office, the moment was lost. Our train had left. So we bought train tickets for the following day.
By which time Fiona had been afflicted with a noravirus like episode.
In spite of another very hot day, she gamely agreed to the trek to Giverny, and after being disgorged from the train, I had a sinking feeling. 4 coaches were filled with visitors, with even standing room down the coach aisle, to the door, then a short drive past 3 enormous river cruise ships moored up on the Seine’s banks at Vernon. A 20 minute traffic jam to get into the vastly expanded car park, and then joining an unbroken human trail snaking up to through the pretty village of Giverny, to Monet’s garden at Clos Normande.
Our e-ticket at least meant we did have an easier route into the garden, through a side alley, but once inside the scene was claustrophobic.
Only when home did I reflect that I normally struggle to capture the essence of a garden, or flowers, with photographic images, since they can’t capture the bigger picture.
Or movement. Or Sound.
Or scent. Or emotions.
Here the images of Monet’s garden are so much nicer than the actual experience of being there!
The people are largely hidden from view by clever corralling of visitors down just one or two of the narrow pathways. The noise and bustle of hundreds of bodies in what is a physically modest space aren’t apparent.
And one is left with the plantings.
Immaculately maintained and a kaleidoscope of colour, is this what inspired me a decade ago? I wasn’t sure. Weren’t these just a bit too brash?
And then I overheard a passing cockney accent exclaim that they’d seen no bees.
There were almost no insects.
Hordes of people on a 23 degree plus sunny day in early May, in a garden full of flowers, and in our fairly brief time there, I’d spotted just 2 hoverflies, 1 bumblebee and 1 white butterfly.
This wasn’t the stuff of inspiration we’d enjoyed before, which led us to create a garden full of insect friendly flowers.
We traipsed in single file round the water lily pool, behind rows of selfie taking visitors, and back into the main garden, heading for the exit as quickly as possible.
And then a moment of perfect synchronicity for me, and which I seemed to be the only one of the hundreds of visitors, to notice.
A loud buzzing.
A REALLY loud buzzing.
Glancing around, I looked for the source. What special plant had attracted at least a few bees?
And then I saw it.
Looking up, above the high stone wall of the garden, and growing from the neighbouring property, was an old apple tree, and above this a developing swarm of honeybees.
On the move, to pastures new. And maybe less cluttered.
Perhaps with fewer perfumed and sweaty bodies? Or less CO2?
We took the very pleasant, and largely people free 4.5km walk back to Vernon, along the old railway track, during which time we saw 5 (Brimstone/Clouded?) yellow butterflies, 4 Orange – tips, Whites, Speckled Woods and a single Fritillary. And passed a beautifully aesthetic planting, outside Giverny’s Impressionist museum, close to Monet’s garden.
Complete with colour coordinated visitor.
But some questions arose.
Shouldn’t Giverny move to issue only timed visitor entrance tickets, to improve visitor experience?
What is it that people find enjoyable about a garden visit experience like this one? Just the flowers, or the overall ambience?
A quick glance at recent Giverny Trip advisor feedback, shows that it’s still rated very highly. They evidently receive 600,000 annual visitors, and rising. Personally I would have only given it 1 or 2 stars as an overall experience.
Just why have insect numbers in the garden apparently collapsed so dramatically? For sure it had been a cold April in Paris, but a few warm sunny days should have triggered huge insect activity. Are different less appealing plant cultivars being grown than on our previous visit? Or are the numbers of people simply discouraging in some way for the local insects?
Am I just getting too old and grumpy to enjoy this sort of visit, along with massed humanity? A couple of geese and a bit of peace seem more appealing to me.
A final trip back to Paris on a crowded train with no working air conditioning, or opening windows completed the day. The illness issues curtailed much further activity, but we did make it to the recently reopened Rodin museum. One of the few private museums in Paris, it’s a wonderful mixture of impressive external Bronze sculptures, set amongst imaginative, though formal plantings, along with an elegant house containing more examples of Rodin’s prolific output, including paintings.
Towards the end of the tour, I found myself captivated by “The Age of Maturity”. I circled the sculpture and studied the 3 figured forms, and their interactions.
So engrossed in fact, that I failed to notice that the sculpture wasn’t even by Rodin himself, but by one of his students who became his muse and lover, Camille Claudel. Click here for more images of the sculpture, a copy of which is also in the Musée d’Orsay, together with a little on its background history, by Ben Pollitt.
Maybe this was to be our last trip to Paris, and we shall seek pastures and experiences new for future breaks from our Welsh scene. If so, along with the bee crowded Paeonia suffruticosa flowers in the garden of the Museum, a fitting place and sculpture to ponder in years to come.
And so back home. I went down with the lurgy, and then continued with my early spring, late winter task of rejuvenating some of our hedges, which after decades of untrimmed growth had themselves moved beyond maturity. But more of this next time.
Finally, the pink leaved tree at the beginning of the post was Toona sinensis ‘Flamingo’. This ‘Chinese’ Mahogany is also apparently valued for scented leaves, bark and wood, as well as insect friendly flowers in July?
Can we squeeze one in as a reminder of this trip?
Back to the weeding.
Thank you for taking me on your visit to France! Beautiful photographs to entice a visit to Monet’s Garden but I’d want the place to myself to enjoy it all! Hope you have both now recovered from your lurgy and are fit and well to complete all the gardening chores that are now piling up!
Thanks Marianne. I’d buy a book on Monet’s garden, at least until/if they issue timed tickets. I’d guess it’s half the size of Aberglasney, with maybe 20 times the number of annual visitors to give you a sense of their problem. Any ideas how many visitors Aberglasney gets?
We went late on Sunday, and again thought how wonderful a garden it is – so much to see, and still very peaceful. What a contrast!
Although I live in France I have never experienced the gardens of Paris at this time of year or visited Giverny. How sad your account of the latter was! Gardens really can’t take too many people, can they? They are places to be still and enjoy. It has been very, very cold and wet here this spring (judging from your photographs you were lucky with the weather!) I have only been here 8 years, but this is the first spring I’ve experienced that hasn’t rushed madly, in the space of days, into summer. And I can’t get seeds to germinate, many plants are appearing late. I loved your first pictures into the tops of flowering trees … made me dream a bit! Thanks.
Thanks Cathy – interesting background on your very cold late spring … a bit like our here, after such a mild winter.
I didn’t want to be so negative about Giverny, but as you say, I think calm and peace are all part of a garden’s experience…it’s made us think we should limit group sizes to our own little patch …not that excess visitor numbers are a big issue for us!!
I don’t know why the other Parisian gardens I described aren’t more internationally well known – I rate all of them very highly, and well worth a visit, for both layout and individual plants – in particular if you get a chance, do see the Albert Kahn garden museum, before it becomes too busy, which I suspect will happen in another 5 to 10 years. The (re)designer of the Japanese garden is/was a real star, but the exhibition and background to Kahn’s historical photo collection from around the world is also fascinating,
Hope things are growing for you now,
I was talking about your post to some French friends who came to dinner this weekend. Between you and them I think I have to get out more and see the Paris gardens. They agreed about Giverny, by the way. Things are (vaguely) germinating, growing now, but it’s rainy again this week. Enjoyed your post so much! Thanks.
Thanks Cathy. I really don’t know why I’ve never seen the 3 Parisian gardens I mention (Kahn, Bagatelle and Parc Florale) ever written up in the 3 glossy gardening mags. we get – which do feature a lot of international gardens. I think in their own way, the’re as good as anything we’ve seen in the UK – and quieter and cheaper too . (If you avoid Ascension Day – which we didn’t know was a holiday – and being lovely most of Paris decamped to the P.de Florale. But it’s so large it coped and was still enjoyable, if noisier than usual. So I do hope you can get to see them some time.
Glad things are growing a bit more with you. I read this week that “Magic Day”, which is when dairy farmers record that the the grass is at last growing quicker than the cows are eating it, occurred 10 days later than the usual average for the UK. But at least things are growing a bit now, thank goodness…only another month and the nights start drawing in!
Thank you Julian (and Fiona, loved the harpist!) for a very enlightening posting. I have a book describing Giverny with photos and garden design layout. I will look at it now as my personal visit to this lovely garden and not even contemplate a trip there. (It was on my bucket list.) I do so love your blog…
Thanks for that, and I’m glad you enjoyed the harpist ….I feel there’s such a story to him, that we’ll never know….I can’t find anything about him on line, but his arrangements were so lovely.
Sorry to have wrecked a bucket list trip…but I would stick with the book ( unless you like crowds!!). But plan a trip to Paris and the other 3 gardens we mention, and I’m sure you’d love them,
Julian and Fiona
Excellent post, Julian! It reads like a novel, and the pictures are inspired. You convey exactly that sense of frustration one experiences in over-crowded special spaces. Reminds me of a trip to Knossos in Crete once upon a time. I had imagined a fabulous insight into the lost Minoan civilisation on the shoulders of Arthur Evans. What I found was a rather crude exhibition made even more remote by horde upon horde of faintly bored tourists. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, and it has influenced my holiday ideas ever since.
Kevin, thanks for the kind comment. You capture the frustrations I felt perfectly. It’s time indeed for us to move on with holiday plans, though we clearly can’t afford the time away from the hobbit hole home that you can manage… Or indeed the need to go to the other extreme and strike out alone of the footpaths of the UK!!
For anyone else reading this, however, I do hope that you’ll allow me a ping back/link to your fascinating blogs of these walks over the last several years. If not let me know, and I’ll remove the link … asap!!
I feel ashamed that I have not made the effort to visit Paris whereas it is much more difficult to visit from Wales! It sounds as if I have missed my chance for Giverny. I just heard on the news that a group of people including children were hit by lightening in the Park Monceau today. There has been a lot of thundery weather lately so you timed your visit well. Amelia
Thanks for the comment Amelia. It sounds like you’ve been busy enough with your own swarming bees, to manage a trip away! Sorry to hear about the lightning strikes….Parc Moceau is the closest Parc to our accommodation in Paris. I do hope there were no fatalities…it always seems popular with folk, and particularly joggers. We’ve had our own mega storms here in the last 24 hours too …, but I think the worst is over now – we lost power and internet for a while,
Hi Julian, apologies for coming so late to your post. Many famous gardens now have timed visits – When we visited Ninfa in Italy not knowing any other way, this worked for us and we were able to make two timed visits in one day. I am not at my best in crowds, so visiting Giverny is not likely. And although we have visited Paris several times not Parc de Florale, you have taken some beautiful, enticing photos – I am with you too on the Tulip plantings, really lovely. Toona sinensis is new to me, what a great name. And very much agree with your feelings on insects in gardens, how really sad that in 10 years there was such a marked difference.
The decline in insect numbers was really striking, and very disappointing, but the crowds also made us really think about what we want from a garden visit/experience – or indeed we’d like people to get from a visit to our own garden. We certainly didn’t appreciate the Giverny approach. Maybe all popular gardens suffer a bit in nice weather, at peak times of the year, but hordes of people crowding into an otherwise serene space seems the antithesis of what a great garden can communicate in so many ways, if enjoyed in relative peace and quiet …(like your visit to ?Rousham?)
I was thoroughly enjoying my visit to France – until we went to Giverny 😦 Sadly the very beauty, and tranquility at one time, of places such as these inevitably result in their being spoilt. It’s the same with any great tourist attraction – there are just too many tourists! I more often than not find myself avoiding the ‘must see’ sights for just this reason – the hidden gems may not be so outwardly spectacular but the atmosphere more than makes up for it. I doubt I’ll go to Giverny so thank you for the wonderful photographs – and how rare for the photo to outdo the moment! Paris in spring sounds wonderful – and wonderfully romantic 🙂
Thanks Noeline for the interesting comment. I think we’re not cut out for crowds either …so Paris is always a big culture shock for us , living where we do….but as a city it just seems more spacious than many British ones, and I do think mid spring is a great time to visit, if you get a chance…