The last time I was in Paris, I had about three hours to kill one morning before I caught a train to Normandy. I asked a friend of mine, an American ex-pat living in Paris, what he’d recommend I do for that time. I only had until 11am or so – not enough to embroil myself in a museum, really. His suggestion? The Buttes Chaumont Park.
I’d never heard of it. I was honestly a bit skeptical, but as a Canadian who works outdoors for a living out in nature the crowds of Paris had been getting to me a bit, so I thought I’d give this park a try. It was an excellent decision, because after about a fifteen minute ride on the metro and a ten minutes’ walk, I encountered this dramatic landscape in the middle of Paris:
I spent a delightful few hours discovering view after dramatic view. There were crags and canyons, bridges four or five stories tall, statues of nature spirits, brightly coloured holly, waterfalls, and a beautiful view of the famous Sacré Coeur in Montmartre in the distance. However, for all its “natural” grandeur, this park is an entirely man-made landscape.
There was a helpful small but unstaffed museum that told me the history of this place. (This history- and nature-loving nerd always appreciates interpretive panels!)
It was once an old gypsum quarry outside of town. In fact, the park gets its name because the gypsum underneath apparently made the earth unsuitable for farming: “chaumont” = “mont chauve”, or bald hill, devoid of plants. At the height of the gypsum mining, the quarry’s galleries were 45 metres high. For many years, the place was used as a dumping ground for garbage and dead horses.
By the 1860s, the city of Paris was changing. Hausmann was famously widening boulevards, but Emperor Napoleon III was also ordering the creation of new inner city parks. The Buttes Chaumont Park was created at this time from the remains of the old quarry. They retained 6 of the dramatic cliffs as the base of the park, then constructed a faux-Roman temple at the top of one of them and a tall bridge to take visitors there. The park was opened on April 1st, 1867, at the time of the Paris Universal Exhibition.
Trolling through archival photographs at Gallica, a lot of the photos emphasize the heights of the dramatic landscape. What does that more than photographing a famous parachutist jumping off its tallest bridge in 1925?
This park with its dramatic, history-filled landscapes is celebrating its 150th anniversary in April, 2017. Now is the perfect time to visit!
- Buttes Chaumont: A Park for the People on the Parisian Fields blog.
- Lost Paris: The Dark (and Dirty) History of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont
- Gallica Archive – hundreds of thousands of historical images and documents of France are yours to explore!