Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Tuesday 12 August 2008

Parks and gardens

There was heavy rain overnight, and a fresh breeze in the air that suggested today might be a good day for something outdoors before the weather changes, so I went for a closer look at the Paris Plage set up on the Bassin de la Villette.

Around the Bassin are the classic French formal promenades, the generous width of which has allowed for the installation, for Paris Plages, of some sandpits to park loungers on and for children to make sandcastles in, several pitches for boules, a dance-floor (tai-chi class this morning), trampolines and a children's railway (complete with Santa bringing up the rear, on a bit of a busman's holiday). It being a Tuesday morning on a school holiday, children were more in evidence than sunbathers, but there seemed to plenty of fun to be had:

I realised it wouldn't be far to carry on to the Parc de la Villette: I'd had a brief look once before on a winter weekend break (with a vague idea to see the Cité de la Musique, which turned out to be closed) so this seemed like an ideal opportunity.

This is an area with a history not unlike where I live in London - once the home to water-based trade and associated industries that have gone elsewhere (or simply gone). In London, our then government encouraged commercial development on a grand scale with the minimum of planning controls, and we got a mini-Manhattan (or Montreal) with more banks and lawyers than you could shake a guillotine at, a skyscraping Marriott, a Four Seasons and a Hilton hotel. On the Bassin itself, on the other hand, there are a couple of cinemas in old industrial buildings, and at the far end a Holiday Inn and a St Christopher's (rather swish-looking for a backpackers' hostel), and all around these waterways are what look like much more mixed housing developments than our rabbit-hutch "luxury" apartments.

The Parc de la Villette is further along the Canal de l'Ourcq, on the site of the former city slaughterhouses and meat markets. A few of the former buildings are now exhibition and performance spaces, as the park as a whole is devoted to arts and culture. It's best known for the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, which dominates the northern end of the park with a human-dwarfing Alphaville modernity that could only be French. The building is vast, and accompanied by not only a submarine but also a reflective metal Géode that houses an IMAX/3D cinema (10€50 a pop, if you please), and is surrounded by an electronic musical clock (the sound demonstrates or reflects the time by coming out of different loudspeakers set in a circle around the Géode - I don't think you're meant to try to tell the time by it).

You can go through the entrance foyer of the Cité itself without paying, and pretty impressive it is too. I was tempted when I saw an exhibition on the 2CV advertised by two of them strung in the air above the atrium, but that was too much of a whim to justify 17€50 and a half-hour wait to buy a ticket. It was packed (school holidays), as you can see:

On through the park towards the Cité de la Musique at the southern end: the park is an interesting contrast, not only with the English style of park (either pretend wild countryside or lots of flower-gardens), but also with the strikingly modern Parc André Citroën on the other side of Paris. There the modern quirks and angles seem mostly to bound a flat open space: by comparison, and in my memory, it seems still rather formal. Here, there are spaces for different activities, and plenty of use being made of them, for sporting activity as well as in the children's playgrounds. There are also plenty of quirks for quirk's sake, of course: how about a "buried bike", or a staircase down from a raised walkway, which wittily makes a diversion to deliver its users at the foot of a tree right in the middle of their pathway?).

Guess what? The museum at the Cité de la Musique turned out to be closed until October; but, for devotees of Serge Gainsbourg, there'll be an exhibition on him right through to next April.

Time to move on, but not before lunch. The brasserie across the road is called l'Alsacienne, but offers a "menu belge" of mussels when in season, and a Salade Auvergnate, which was very good, and not surprisingly a couple of euros cheaper than yesterday's salad in the Marais.

Sometime this trip, I intend to revisit the Sainte Chapelle and the Musée Cluny: by this time of day there's a hundred or more people waiting to get into the Sainte Chapelle, and - guess what? the Musée Cluny shuts on Tuesdays. However, it now has a charming and peaceful re-creation of mediaeval gardens, which are worth a visit on their own.

Around the corner I stumbled on a statue of Montaigne (one of my heroes, but the photo didn't come out), and in the Metro I came across these buskers:

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