I couldn’t get over how dense and sprawling Paris was as I stared down from the Eiffel Tower at the maze of buildings packed onto Medieval-sized streets below. It was Baron Haussmann under Napoleon III who widened some of the streets to create today’s grand boulevards, improved public works and laid the framework for myriad parks. And it was the large expanses of green, the parks, that drew my eye and beckoned. That was where I would find wildlife in the city; or so I thought.
The next day I headed to Jardins du Luxembourg, the very garden that provided respite and fodder for Ernest Hemingway during his tenure in the Latin Quarter. Designed for Marie de Medici to assuage her homesickness for Florence, the garden was never as Italian as she’d dreamed and has become quintessentially Parisian today. Impeccably aligned trees bordered lush green lawn that was forbidden to walk upon, neatly trimmed bushes outlined explosions of multi-colored flowers that appeared so perfectly mixed it became clear that they were planted in a pattern and, given their flower-shop ready appearance, were likely recently installed. A grove of citrus trees, some said to be a hundred and more years old, was maintained in the same giant but moveable wood and metal planters used at Versailles to keep winter-sensitive plants alive from one year to the next. The garden bustled with men playing Bocce, their business jackets neatly hung on a rack in the center of the courts. Mothers clicked high heels down the sidewalks looking like they’d dressed for the runway rather than a stroll with baby in carriage. Father and son sailed model boats across the central water feature. And college students grouped the provided green metal chairs into clusters at grass edge, huddled together to study, gossip, or simply enjoy a cigarette. What the garden didn’t bustle with was wildlife. I heard rustling in the bushes, but it inevitably was a Wood-Pigeon, a Rock Dove, or a House Sparrow; all natives here and relatively common urban birds, just as easily seen on the flawlessly manicured and untouchable lawn as in the shrubbery.
It was at the Louvre, listening to nestlings peep as I stood under the Carrousel du Louvre gazing across at the main museum and its contrasting pyramid entry, that I realized the folly in my approach. Just like so many people in Paris, nature too was at the museums. A cluster of Common House Martin nests spackled the archway’s ornate carvings above me, parents flying in and out to placate the voracious appetites of their young. Mute Swans waited patiently at the water taxi stop by Cathédrale Notre-Dame where bees buzzed the luscious flowerbeds framing the buttresses and a Peregrine Falcon swooped around the pinnacles. Entryway carvings at Sainte-Chapelle depicted wildlife boarding Noah’s Ark and if one managed to peel his or her eyes from the breathtaking stained glass, the wallpaper below was wading bird-themed. Grand Palais had an entire exhibit on “Jardins” that included a range of garden styles and their wilderness precursors. Even the Grand Palais Rodin exhibit included a statue of spring hares, particularly exciting given my recent sighting in England (see my England’s Spring Hares blog).
Perhaps with more time I’d find the Rose-ringed Parrots allegedly lurking in Parisian parks, or the wolves reclaiming habitat across France and now reported on the capital’s outskirts. But as a tourist just hitting some of Paris’ iconic sites over a few days, it was fortuitous that the line between garden and museum is blurred in Paris. The gardens, at least the ones I saw, were so strictly curated by symmetry-loving landscape architects that there was little room for nature to be nature, but the museums… well, nature had found its way in.