Paris’s Best Kept Garden Secret Friday, Sep 4 2015 

It all started with a bet. French queen Marie-Antoinette wagered her brother-in-law that he couldn’t build a château on his large property west of Paris in less than three months. Famously, the Comte d’Artois won. Sparing no expense, he had his petit château built in a record 64 days in 1777.

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To celebrate the completion of his folie known as the Bagatelle (or ‘little trifle’) the Comte d’Artois threw a housewarming party in honor of his brother king Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. Unfortunately, he was able to keep his pleasure abode and its beautiful gardens for only a few years as he was forced give up the property during the French Revolution. Miraculously the Bagatelle château and park survived the revolutionary mobs and several owners in the ensuing years.

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In 1905, the City of Paris purchased the Bois de Boulogne property to save and maintain this architectural and bucolic jewel. In addition to keeping harmony and beauty of the preceding garden designs, it also set out to turn the Bagatelle into a botanical paradise. Special gardens showcase peonies, irises, clematis, perennials – plantes vivaces, in French – and roses. Today, I think the Bagatelle is one of the best kept Paris garden – and château! – secrets as many visitors to the French capital don’t even know it’s there.

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Come warmer weather, one of my favorite Bagatelle garden views is the fluffy clouds of white wisteria…

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The Bagatelle’s hundreds of blooming peonies are a also must-see in Paris in the spring…

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And the irises! Beautifully trimmed hedges surround the iris garden, giving it the feel of an outdoor ‘iris room’…

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But the Bagatelle park’s pièce de résistance is the magnificent rose garden, renowned for its more than 10,000 rose bushes comprising 1200 different species. Every June the Bagatelle hosts one of the most famous international rose competitions in the world. Of course, to really understand what these roses are all about, I find it helps to organize a visit with a premier English-speaking French garden expert in Paris – who also happens to be a Bagatelle rose competition judge!

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In addition to the floral and botanical riches of the Bagatelle, there are many other wonderful garden features including grottoes, rocks, bridges, waterfalls, ponds, peacocks, and a 19th century Chinese pagoda. A beautiful orangerie also graces the grounds.

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To keep the gardens looking their best, Bagatelle patrons are gently reminded de ne pas piétiner les plantes de bordure – not to walk on the border plants…

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Or on the grassy areas where bulbs come up in spring!

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So how does one visit this fabulously romantic garden getaway practically a stone’s throw from the Champs-Elysées? Located in the Bois de Boulogne, the park is open to the public every day from 9:30am to 5, 6:30 or 8pm, according to the season. Entrance is free unless there is a special exhibition going on at that moment. The easiest transport to the Bagatelle is by taxi. Or for public transportation, you can take the 43 bus direction ‘Neuilly-Bagatelle’ to the stop ‘Place de Bagatelle.’ Alternatively, you can take the metro to the stop ‘Porte Maillot’ on line 1 and then catch the 244 bus direction ‘Rueil Malmaison RER,’ and get off at the stop ‘Bagatelle – Pré Catelan.’ From the bus stops, it’s a short walk to the park grounds.

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It is good to know that while the gardens are open every day, the exquisite château is not. Guided visits of the gardens and château take place every Sunday and major holiday at 3pm from April 1 to October 31 for 8 euros per person. Or if you want to treat yourself to an extra special Paris experience, French Affaires can help organize your own private guided visit of the gardens and château according to guide availability.

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Last but not least, as if the gardens and little castle weren’t enough, you can enjoy the Bagatelle with music. Every summer, the Chopin Festival takes place at the Orangerie of the Bagatelle. This year’s festival marked the 32nd anniversary of the piano concerts that take place over three weeks in June and July.

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There is also a lovely chamber music series in late July and August. And right now, classical music lovers can head out to the Bagatelle for the charming ‘Solistes à Bagatelle 2015.’ This festival celebrates young up-and-coming piano talent from all over Europe. The current concerts go on through September 13th, 2015. Enjoy!

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Route de Sèvres à Neuilly
75016 Paris

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

For your own lovely copy of the Parc de Bagatelle brochure, please click here to download. (Note that it’s in French!) It includes a detailed map of the gardens and also a wonderful guide to when the various flowers are in bloom each year. The brochure is available at the Bagatelle as well for a nominal fee.

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Parc de Bagatelle
Route de Sèvres à Neuilly
75016 Paris

Small and Musical in Paris Sunday, Aug 5 2012 

One of my favorite pastimes in France is to wander into a church when music is playing. A few weeks ago, I got a two-for-one organ bonus at the lovely Abbaye Saint-Michel de Frigolet in the Provence countryside.

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The secluded monastery traces its origins to the tenth century and has two main churches, the romanesque Eglise Saint Michel, church of Saint Michael, and the basilica of Notre-Dame du bon remède. It must have been music practice day since the monastery organists were hard at work in both sacred spaces. The basilica’s organist in particular was quite good – I sat down for a while to hear him thundering out Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Hardly another soul was around – it was like having a real organ concert all to myself.

I started the habit of entering French churches in hopes of an impromptu concert when living in Paris. With beautiful églises (churches) located almost every other block in the city, I found that opportunities abounded for musical moments. And too, you can only do the cathedral of Notre Dame so many times before branching out to smaller places with spires.

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Church of Sainte-Clothilde on the Rue Las Cases in the 7th arrondissement

Right in my former Left Bank neighborhood is the picturesque basilica of Sainte-Clothilde. While not that old, the nineteenth century gothic edifice had already caught my interest for its architecture and also for the charming, small garden right in front. Over time, I came to realize that the church had a spectacular musical history. Its original organ was a Cavaillé-Coll, and there has been a succession of famous composers who have been Organiste Titulaire including César Franck (1859-1890), Charles Tournemire (1898-1939), and Jean Langlais (1945-1987). I have managed to catch a few organ moments at Sainte-Clothilde over the years – it is definitely on the top of my smaller Paris churches list.

Another Paris church that merits a musical visit is Saint Eustache in the Les Halles area of the city. The late gothic église was completed in the seventeenth century. A young Louis XIV even took communion here at that time.

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Church of Saint-Eustache located in Les Halles in the 1st arrondissement

The impressive Van den Heuvel organ competes with that of Notre Dame for the title of the largest in France with close to 8000 pipes. It is often possible to catch an organ concert on Sunday afternoons or during some of Saint-Eustache’s music festivals and events. There is even a organ keyboard in the nave of the church which allows concert-goers to see the organist play, a unique feature not often found in church settings.

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The last time I popped by Sainte-Eustache, alas no music was playing. However, it was winter, and La Soupe Saint-Eustache was in full swing. It turns out that the church sponsors a soup kitchen which serves over 250 needy visitors a hot French-style meal a day in the wintertime. It is a real community effort – volunteers staff the kitchen, others prepare food, local kitchens donate soup, and even neighborhood bakeries and pastry shops donate excess stock to help complete the three-course meal.

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There are numerous other churches in Paris worth a look as well as worth a listen. Saint Sulpice and Saint Louis en L’Ile are two others on my short list. But since Paris has been called by some ’la capitale mondiale de l’orgue,’ the world capital of organs, then just about any church in the City of Light is going to have something to offer music-wise.

If this has whet your appetite for something French and musical in a sacred space – and you don’t happen to be in Paris, then make a point to attend the final stop of the Louis Vierne 2012 concert series in the U.S. On August 18th, rising star organist Christopher Houlihan will finish his six-city tour in Dallas, Texas, playing Louis Vierne’s six symphonies for organ which represent the summit of French romantic symphonic organ composition. Louis Vierne was the titular organist at Notre Dame in Paris from 1900 until his death in 1937, when he expired at cathedral’s organ console itself.

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The final Vierne concerts will take place on Saturday, August 18th, at the Church of the Incarnation on McKinney Avenue in Dallas in two performances:

3:00pm: Symphonies I, III, V
7:30pm: Symphonies II, IV, VI

For more details, please visit the concert series web site at www.vierne2012.com . And on your next trip to Paris, be sure to stop in at a few non-Notre Dame churches for the sacred spaces, the services, the music, the soup kitchen, or something else unexpected and wonderful.