your keys, your phone or, God forbid, your passport.
More often than not, the quest to find the missing item is
a pretty easy mission even though the knot in the
pit of your stomach may remain for a while.
What if getting lost -- in this case, it's YOU who has gone astray -- turns out
to be just the thing you need at a particular point in time.
Letting go of the "vision" -- you know, the painstakingly drawn itinerary
that must (haha) be followed to the letter during every precious
Paris day -- can be heaven-sent if you're in the right place at the right time.
The day arrived for our trek to the Bois de Vincennes -- the
largest park in Paris -- located on the eastern edge of the city.
I had it perfectly planned -- or so I thought.
We'd take the metro to Porte Dorée, make a quick stop at the
Immigration Museum* and then forge a pre-planned path to see
the best of the park, hopefully preserving enough time and energy for
a walk-through the Chateau of Vincennes.
*Musée National de l'Histoire de l'Immigration, sometimes call the Palais de la Porte Dorée
After enjoying an appropriately leisurely lunch, we were already
behind schedule but feeling pretty unbothered at this point.
After all, we had a gloriously colorful fall
afternoon to take in a park and its surrounds.
What I wasn't anticipating, however, was getting lost in the mammoth space.
The seemingly boundless green space is well-signed and as I always
carry my handy-dandy phone that whispers directions in my ear,
I assumed it would be a cakewalk to spot the specific sights I was looking for.
"Sometimes people need to take the wrong path
in order to lead them to the right one."
Nashoda Rose, author
zones, is the largest* green space in Paris.
Miles and miles of wooded paths, pretty green parkland and
manmade lakes make for diverse entertainment.
*nearly three times the size of NYC's Central Park!
Around 1150, the 2500 acres of woodland were
originally confined to a royal hunting ground.
But Emperor Napoleon III had big dreams, yearning
to dedicate the upgraded forest back to the people of Paris.
His modern vision soon transformed the princely hunting ground
into a park for the people, beginning in 1855.
With over fifty miles of walking paths and several artificial lakes,
the emperor's vision metamorphosed into a resounding success.
Nature lovers share the space with ducks, geese and swans
as well as dozens of bird species -- including the famed grey heron -- that
treasure the trees and flowers as much as those of us without wings.
One section within the Bois is called Parc Floral de Paris.
It's a huge botanical garden, filled with cascades of French families walking,
biking and riding in fun rented "buggies" called rosalies.
A real standout, Parc Floral is deeply devoted to ecology and plant preservation.
The park is very much like Paris with its dual nature, a lesson in contrasts.
Seemingly incompatible, family entertainment and environmental science
manage to co-exist in what turns out to be a beautiful romance.
"The more civilized man becomes, the more he needs and craves
a great background of forest wildness, to which he may return
like a contrite prodigal from the husks of an artificial life."
Ellen Burns Sherman, American author
As we walked and walked, I realized we were off-course -- literally lost in space.
The signs -- even Google maps -- weren't any help.
And then it hit me.
The "plan" didn't matter.
The Bois was beautiful and restful. And that was enough.
Looking in the rear view mirror of my "good old days" in corporate America,
I was obsessed with having a plan and sticking to it.
It worked well in the office, certainly, but some of that
narrow self-restraint remains with me to this day.
So it was an eye-opening moment to wake up to the opportunity
to just amble along and sniff out whatever came our way.
Experiencing nature is a deeply emotional experience; you cut loose,
let your hair down, and experience the exhilaration of total freedom.
The Bois de Vincennes was the perfect place
to blow off the world and all its cares.
The "list" lost its importance and I learned a lesson in liberation.
"Those who do not move do not notice their chains."
Rosa Luxemburg, Polish philosophy & revolutionary
Be aware that during part of the season, there is a small section
devoted to nudists -- but don't worry, you can* easily bypass the zone.
*actually you MUST bypass it unless you, too, are baring your all; it's specifically
designated for naturalists only -- no voyeurs allowed.
The park also boasts a Hippodrome where 1,000 races a year take place.
A day at the races is likely best saved for those who pre-plan the event.
Instead, row around one of the lakes or enjoy a round of miniature golf.
If you're lucky, you may run into a concert or perhaps a festival.
Jazz is very popular here and the park hosts a fine festival in July.
Consider packing a picnic.
"A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life."
Thomas Jefferson, 3rd President of the United States & Paris connoisseur
is considered one of the most important medieval royal residences.
From castle to weapons dump to porcelain factory, its fortified walls
have sustained both triumph and humiliation.
Construction began in 1336 on the site of a hunting ground,
next to a little chapel that allegedly held an important
religious relic from the True Cross of Christ.
Expansion on the chateau continued as did the chapel,
rebuilt in the manner of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.
By 1654, royal architect Louis Le Vau began to build a new palace
that would surround the spare military donjon.
Though the chateau was a royal residence for 500 years, it's heyday was
over once the Chateau de Versailles became center of the universe.
Transformed into a prison, it gained historical significance once again.
I toured the interior almost twenty years ago but still vividly remember the
Marquis de Sade's cell where he was imprisoned for seven years beginning in 1777. During WWI, infamous spy Mata Hari was imprisoned and executed, allegedly refusing a blindfold and boldly staring into the eyes of the firing squad.
"I am a woman who enjoys herself very much; sometimes I lose, sometimes I win."
Mata Hari, infamous spy
the Musée National de l'Histoire de l'Immigration.
In order to take advantage of the beautiful day, we decided to save the museum
for a rainy day but at least we paused long enough to admire its distinct facade.
We came to a standstill at the Fontaine de la Porte Dorée where a
jaw-dropping golden image of the warrior Athena proudly rules the square.
As you approach the Bois, you'll notice the "mountain" leading to the zoo.
Parc Zoologique de Paris lays claim to over 2,000 animals including sea lions, rhinoceros, giraffes, flamingos, penguins and wolves to name a few.
The wildlife park is packed with life exhibits and adventures including
a tropical tree house and environmentally themed biozones.
It was hardly the Olympic phenomenon we know today.
Back then, the "big" events were golden oldies competitions
such as croquet, tug-of-war and hot-air ballooning.
There was an upside though; it was the first Olympics
where women were allowed to compete*.
*women were permitted to battle in "ladylike" sports such as croquet, tennis and golf -- but hey, it was a start...
Currently, the Bois is preparing for the Paris Olympics of 2024.
Let the games begin!
some of the better-known parks in Paris?
In a word, no.
This particular park exists for an entirely different reason.
Many Paris gardens are so beautiful you might think Coco Chanel
or Yves Saint-Laurent "dressed" them.
Rather than the designer-influenced impeccability we've grown so accustomed
to in our favorites like the romantic Luxembourg Gardens or the elegant
Parc Monceau or Place des Vosges, the Bois is a wooded hideaway
that feels much more wild.
It feels far from Paris -- yet it's not; this is the 12th arrondissement,
literally just fifteen minutes from the very center of the city.
So ok, I'll admit I missed the "attraction" I most wanted to see -- the
Jardin d'Agronomie Tropicale, an Asian-themed garden that harks back
to the Colonial Exhibition of 1931.
But that's quite alright; it's a reason to return.
Getting lost in the Bois was a happy accident.
Re-discovering how to "roll with the punches"
was exactly what the doctor ordered.
A glass of cognac at the end of the day topped an afternoon
filled with pure indulgence and emotional fulfillment.
So the next time you've "lost" your agenda or flubbed your timetable,
consider nature as the ultimate guide on the road less traveled.
Happy trails to you!
"Nature gives to every time and season some beauties of its own; and from
morning to night, as from the cradle to the grave, it is but a succession
of changes so gentle and easy that we can scarcely mark their progress."