April in Paris is about spring buds, blossoms, lovers and delicate sunshine – everyone knows that. Just because the temperatures are often in the 30s or 40s Fahrenheit, branches still barren, makes no difference at all. So it was with a light heart and step that I trekked to the western edge of town the other day to revisit one of my favorite gardens anywhere: the lavishly landscaped Parc de Bagatelle.
Edging the Bois de Boulogne and posh Neuilly, Bagatelle comes complete with ponds, grottoes, fountains, lichen-frosted statues and sexy sphinxes, a miniature chateau, orangeries, a café and restaurant, and remarkable rose and iris gardens. Peacocks feathered and of a human kind saunter along looping lanes, some draped with wisteria or clematis. The exquisite whole is tied together by more tortuous history than could fit into several of my monthly columns.
Sound familiar? Look up “bagatelle” and you’ll find: “something of little value or significance.” Wrong: ride line 1 of the Paris metro to Pont de Neuilly then walk or take the 43 bus the last moneyed mile or so, and you’ll be startled by the large value and evergreen significance of this magical park.
Everything about Bagatelle is contemporary, right down to the oligarchs and corrupt politicians in their mansions bordering the walled enclave, plus the kaleidoscope of workers on the bus, or the new skyscrapers rising over nearby La Défense-Paris’ mini-Manhattan. By day the surrounding parklands are filled with birdsong and joggers, millionaires on horseback and dog-walkers tangled in designer leashes. By night the essence of Neuilly comes out: the woods and lanes around Bagatelle fill with prostitutes that look amazingly like the garden’s sphinxes, and sleazy customers in SUVs. The delightful and the seamy frolic cheek by jowl.
“A mere bagatelle,” is one of those shopworn saws my father’s generation used when dressing up false modesty. The grand gesture – diamonds, baubles, or, as happened here, a chateau and garden – is tossed off with “oh, it’s nothing, a mere bagatelle.” Not that my father would’ve indulged in pretense.
As I entered the romantic 19th-century garden gateway and stood before two towering plane trees hundreds of years old, I recalled that the phrase was coined by the loveable Comte d’Artois, later King Charles X, a despotic reactionary later known for his ghoulish S&M parties in the Paris catacombs.
The count was the youngest brother of Louis XVI, he who lost his bewigged head. Charles and his ditzy sister-in-law Marie Antoinette had a little bet: she wagered he could not build a perfect rococo mansion and garden in less than 70 days. The count won: it took his nearly 1,000 artisans and serfs 64 days and nights (some say 68, but who’s counting?). Marie Antoinette did not bring in her sheep or feed them cake. She stayed in Versailles. The count lived high – for a while. This was 1775. Revolution hadn’t yet knocked off the big wigs.
The other saying associated with Bagatelle is “parva sed apta” – small is beautiful. It’s carved onto the façade. This one was coined probably 2,500 years ago in Athens or Rome but is apt to this day: the chateau is pocketsize, symmetrical, pink-stucco perfection, and the garden itself, though not exactly small, seems intimate and compact compared to the sprawling Bois de Boulogne.
Even when spring is a month behind as it is this year, the daffodils and crocuses at Bagatelle carpet the endless, rolling lawns. Peacocks wing past, plucked from some surrealist movie. Buds burst and leaves unfurl in a gentle yellow rain. Gone are the counts, kings and queens. Allergens and democracy have prevailed at Bagatelle: even the millionaires mix with the hoi polloi, though the park’s main café-restaurant is so expensive its clientele seems plucked from the ranks of the Comte d’Artois.
Near the cheapo café with powdered coffee and plastic seats, on the south side of the park, I rested on a mossy bench after several mile-long laps. The air was pollen-rich. I watched an elderly couple flap newspapers and coddle their very fat cat. The peacocks and hens also watched, unafraid. The cat, peacocks and fellow strollers seemed not to notice the stylized sculptures – a temporary art exhibition – dotted around the garden. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen the compound invaded by contemporary high culture. Bagatelle is trying to be cutting edge – without much success. What people including me come here for isn’t today’s outdoor art. It’s a chance to sit or walk in an unnaturally beautiful natural setting, amid antique marbles and thorny roses, quietly celebrate the seasons, and the continuing struggle to uphold equality of enjoyment in France.
Author and private tour guide David Downie’s latest critically acclaimed books are “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James“ and “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His Paris Time Line app will be published in April: www.davidddownie.com and www.parisparistours.com.
[Photo Credits: Alison Harris]